'I look at Israel as just another country'

New study shows American Jews under 35 are feeling increasingly alienated from the country.

israel flag 88 (photo credit: )
israel flag 88
(photo credit: )
"I am supposed to feel something towards Israel, but it's such a mess over there I generally try not to think about it," says Molly Umberger, a second-year student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Umberger, it seems, is not alone in her feelings about Israel. A new study reports that American Jews under 35 are feeling increasingly detached and even alienated from the country. "Because I'm Jewish I should have a loyalty to Israel, but I happen to believe both Israel and Palestine made a lot of mistakes, so I'm not 100 percent in favor of what Israel is doing," says Umberger, the daughter of the communications director of the New Israel Fund (NIF). But dismay with the situation or even criticism of Israel has not led Umberger to get more involved. "It seems to me that the situation is pretty tough to deal with, and changing every day, so I doubt there is too much I can do," Umberger says. "My generation is intimidated by how complicated it is." Umberger says older generations seem clearly more involved with Israel, and are willing to unequivocally support the country. "My connection is not as strong as that of older generations. I feel I'm not as biased. My grandmother believes that no matter what Israel does, it is always right, but I look at it as just another country," she explains. Umberger's disinterest in Israel, however, is not reflective of her identification as a Jew. Despite being the daughter of a mixed marriage (her mother is Jewish, father not), Umberger is committed to her religious identification. "I was in Hebrew school till my senior year (of high school) and I really enjoyed it," she says. "There are many in my generation who say they are atheists, or that religion is for crazy people, but I am pretty firm in my stance as a Jew." The new study showed sharp differences in levels of attachment to Israel between people who have visited the country and those who have not. Among those who have never been to Israel, the number of those with a high level of attachment is less than half that of those who have visited at least once (19% vs 42%). Additionally, the level of attachment grows with the amount of time spent in Israel. Thirty-four percent of those who have traveled to Israel once are highly attached to Israel, while only 17% of them report low levels of attachment. The numbers go up as the time spent in the country increases. Fifty-four percent of those who have traveled to Israel two or more times are highly attached, while less than 10% report low levels of attachment. Meanwhile, 68% of those who have lived in Israel for a semester or year-long program show high levels of attachment. With the encouragement of her mother, Umberger may visit Israel for the first time this winter, with a new trip that joins the New Israel Fund and Taglit birthright, which she says may "strengthen my connection between my Jewish identity and Israel." "Don't think I haven't tried to get her interested in Israel," says her mother Naomi Paiss, director of communications for the NIF. The birthright trip will blend the usual one with a NIF focus on social justice and awareness of human rights issues. "We are Zionist but very progressive," says Paiss."We think it's important that the NIF perspective be a part of what young students learn when they go to Israel for the first time." "Israel is a downer," says New Israel Fund Director Bruce Temkin. "What people see is the occupation, corruption, a stalled peace process, and they are frustrated and turned off." Where Israel used to be the central connecting point for identified Jews, today "Israel is a turnoff," says Temkin. Daniel Alpern, a 33-year-old Brooklyn resident, says his interest in Israel decreased when he began to learn the "bad stuff" about the country. "Jews learn all these things about Israel, and then at a certain point you hear all the bad stuff," says Alpern. "Then you become disillusioned the more you hear, and you spend the rest of your life trying to balance that out." Today, Alpern says he doesn't feel strongly about Israel. "You get tired of people not dealing with the issues," he explains. NIF is dedicated in part to targeting those very "frustrated" Jews by offering them a place to discuss their concerns and questions about Israel, and also do something about it, says Hillit Zwick, director of NIF's New Generations New York. The organization recently screened First Lesson in Peace, a documentary that grapples with the challenges of coexistence in the community of Neveh Shalom, where Israelis and Palestinians live together. "I think there is an emotional attachment to Israel because, in Jewish consciousness, Israel has always been the Jewish homeland," Zwick says. "However, many young Jews want to distance themselves from the political and social turmoil in Israel today, either because they do not agree with it morally or do not understand it, or are, perhaps, fatigued by it. "For generations, Jews have been actively involved, sometimes at the forefront of social justice issues in the US, and the NIF is trying to involve them in similar social justice issues in Israel. I think that young Jews care about Israel because they care about what's happening in the world, such as minority/majority relations; migrant workers, poverty, women's empowerment, and they want to do something about it, they want to make it better."