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Secular youngsters identify themselves as more Israeli than Jewish, according to research conducted by Dr. Hagit Hartaf of the University of Haifa.
For students attending the secular state education system, Jewish values play a secondary role in the building of their identity.
"In contrast to the concept of 'Jewish-Israeli identity,' which alludes to equality between identities, the new identity alludes to the centrality of Israeli components over Jewish ones," Hartaf said.
On the other hand, youth from the state religious school system are much more attached to their tradition and define themselves religiously. This has led to a polarization within society. "These two identities, which include the majority of Israeli youth, are removed from one another and are established separately, without any basis or bridge from which dialogue can begin" said Hartaf.
The study was based on extensive interviews with 55 adolescents and 21 teachers over a two-year span, monitoring more than 300 hours of educational activities.
A central aspect of Israeli youths' identity is the need for military defense, particularly in light of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, according to the study. A lesser emphasis is placed on Jewish rituals and the relationship with Diaspora communities, especially in the United States. While the secular students do study Jewish issues in the classroom, these discussions are often at a very basic level.
Rabbi Edward Rettig, associate director for Legislative and Educational Affairs in the American Jewish Committee's Israel/Middle East Office, who studies the cultural divide between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, said the study came as no surprise. Israelis and American Jews are growing apart and this has become "one of the central Jewish crises of the 21st century," he said.
The "politicization of religion" in Israel has led not only to a gap between religious and secular identity-forming education within the country, but to a lack of education on Diaspora Jewry, Rettig said. "While Israeli Jews are becoming more Israeli, they are losing touch with American Jews, who are becoming more American."
Yosef Abramowitz, founder of the JVibe magazine for Jewish teens, said the problem also existed elsewhere. American Jewish youth, he said, also share feelings of disconnection with Israel and the worldwide Jewish community. Because of the polarizing nature of religion in Israel and the complexity of the Middle East conflict, there is a steady decline of attachment toward Israel among American Jewish teens, he said.
Einat Wilf, author of My Israel - Our Generation, a book discussing Zionism in Israeli education, dismissed the study's worrying interpretation, saying there was no crisis. "It is only natural for Israeli youth to connect chiefly to their culture and learn major Jewish historical events through a Zionist lens," Wilf said. "It has always been the case that when the Israeli youth grow up, they will eventually learn to understand the importance their Jewish heritage plays."