So What's Their Problem With Israel?

A new study shows that younger American Jews are far more detached from Israel than their parents.

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If America's support of Israel is unswerving—perhaps uncritically so, some critics say—a new report on attitudes of young American Jews toward the Jewish state suggest that they may not be the solid block of Israel boosters that their elders have traditionally been. Indeed, the study finds that American Jews under 35 show greater levels of detachment and even alienation from Israel than do any older age groups of American Jews.

Intended as part of series of reports on young Jewish American identity, "Beyond Distancing" focuses on what its authors, Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College, and Ari Kelman, a professor of American studies at the University of California-Davis, believe is a key indicator of the change from a more collective, ethnic, or even tribal view of being Jewish toward what they call "privatized Judaism." The latter, in their view, promotes a "more open notion of community, a more fluid conception of Jewish identity, and a more critical approach to peoplehood and belonging"—and therefore one that would presumably go hand in hand with diminishing attachment to the Jewish homeland.

The data, culled from the 2007 National Survey of American Jews, certainly appear to confirm such a correlation. While only 54 percent of the under-35 group are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state," 81 percent of those 65 and over are. More strikingly, less than half (48 percent) of the under-35 cohort would take the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy, contrasted to 78 percent of the oldest cohort and 66 percent of those 60-64.

The possible factors influencing this trend among—and even within—successively younger age groups may be less easy for one study to pin down. Focusing strongly on the role of intermarriage, the authors found that Jews of all ages in mixed marriages score lower in attachment to Israel than do in-married or nonmarried Jews. But younger intermarried Jews are significantly more alienated from Israel than older intermarried Jews or even than younger in-married and nonmarried Jews.

Surprisingly, the authors found that political leanings have almost no effect on overall American Jewish attachment to Israel. Among the under-35 cohort, however, right-leaning American Jews are more alienated from Israel than left-leaning ones. That may seem counterintuitive, Cohen says, "because the public tends to think that Jews on the left are more disaffected from Israel than those on the right." But the data confirm what Cohen anticipated is the more complicated reality: that being left-liberal is part of the older, fading tribal identity of American Jewishness, which included strong attachment to Israel.

Another factor receiving strong attention—this one countering the trend toward greater disaffection—is the effect of visits to Israel. Among all age groups, the researchers found, the more American Jews travel to Israel and the more time they spend there, the more attached to it they feel. Furthermore, they add, "for fortifying commitment to Israel and preventing alienation, [Israel travel] is even more important, and most important, for younger Jews."

Investigative bias in choosing questions for a poll is always a potentially distorting factor, cautions one reader of the report, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University. "I am puzzled by the amount of emphasis put on intermarriage, for one," he says. Berlinerblau wonders why certain other factors, including the failures of religious education, do not receive equal consideration as possible causes of a weakening collective Jewish identity. That the report was commissioned by Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which is a major backer of visits to Israel through the birthright israel program, also brings into question the rather exclusive emphasis on one panacea for the declining attachment problem. "This is an interesting study," says Berlinerblau, "but the almost foregone quality of some of the conclusions invites close scrutiny and discussion."