America's support of Israel has long been unswerving, but a new report on attitudes of young American Jews toward the Jewish state suggests that they may not be the solid block of Israel boosters that their elders are. Indeed, the study finds that American Jews under age 35 show greater levels of detachment and alienation from Israel than do any older Jewish cohorts.
The report, "Beyond Distancing," focuses on what 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 a 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"—all of which would presumably accompany diminishing attachment to the Jewish homeland.
The data 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 striking, less than half (48 percent) of the under-35 cohort would take the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy, contrasted with 78 percent of the oldest cohort and 66 percent of those 60 through 64.
Intermarriage. Among the factors influencing this trend—the authors mention, but do not test for, the dimming memory of Israel's early heroic struggles for independence—intermarriage receives close attention. On this, the authors found that Jews of all ages in mixed marriages score lower in attachment to Israel than do nonmarried Jews or Jews married within the faith. But younger intermarried Jews are significantly more alienated from Israel than older intermarried Jews or younger intramarried and unmarried Jews. Surprisingly, the authors discovered that political leanings have almost no effect on overall attachment to Israel, although among the under-35 cohort, right-leaning American Jews are more alienated from Israel than left-leaning ones.
Another factor receiving strong attention—this one countering the trend toward disaffection—is the effect of visits to Israel. Among all age groups, the researchers learned, the more time American Jews spend in Israel, the more attached to it they feel. And for no group is this travel more important, they found, than younger Jews.
Investigative bias in choosing questions for a poll is always a potentially distorting factor, cautions Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University. "I am puzzled by the amount of emphasis put on intermarriage," he says. He wonders why other factors, including the failures of religious education, do not receive consideration as possible causes of a weakening collective Jewish identity. In addition, the report was commissioned by Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, major backers of visits to Israel through the birthright israel program, a fact that raises questions about the emphasis on travel as the panacea for the problem. "This is an interesting study," says Berlinerblau, "but the almost foregone quality of some of the conclusions invites close scrutiny and discussion."