Israel and young American Jews II

Engagement in Jewish life – or lack thereof – has a huge impact on attitudes toward Israel.

Young Jews rally in support of Israel in New York, July 20. (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
Young Jews rally in support of Israel in New York, July 20.
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
AMONG MANY on the American Jewish left, there’s a firm belief that a steadily growing number of young liberal Jews have become alienated from an Israel they perceive as tilting to the right. An outspoken proponent of this view is political commentator Peter Beinart, who, in his 2012 book “The Crisis of Zionism” predicted a next generation of American Jews at odds with Zionism.
It’s a view that J Street, the left-wing Jewish lobby, also readily embraces. Speaking recently in Portland, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami declared that young non-Orthodox Jews are “losing a sense of connection to Israel because the occupation of Palestinian land and expanding settlements don’t reflect what they believe are Jewish values.”
But is this an accurate depiction of the attitudes of college-age and twenty-something American Jews or a fallacy? Have right-wing Israeli policies prompted large numbers of younger Jews to distance themselves from the Zionist project, or is some other factor behind this alleged disaffection with the Jewish state? Opinion surveys in recent years – for example, by Brandeis University in August 2010 and jointly by The Israel Project and American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise in November 2011 – have generally shown a high level of connection to Israel among a sizable majority of young American Jews. Still, a minority are apathetic or unsupportive. The question is why? True, young idealistic Jews are more troubled by and less likely to overlook Israel’s flaws than are older Jews, who typically object to airing Israel’s dirty laundry. This explanation, however, is too simplistic because it ignores the huge impact that engagement in Jewish life – or lack thereof – has on attitudes toward Israel.
The most comprehensive study shedding light on this issue is the Pew Research Center’s October 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
Contrary to claims of an alarming generational erosion of support for Israel, it found that 60 percent of Jews age 18-29 feel either very or somewhat attached to Israel versus only 11 percent who said they weren’t at all attached. Among this same group, over 80 percent believe that caring about Israel is either “essential” (32 percent) or “important” (49 percent) to their Jewish identity.
Perhaps the most telling finding is that 71 percent of this generation say US support for Israel is either about right (42 perce nt) or not supportive enough (29 percent). Shouldn’t this percentage be much lower if Israeli policies were truly driving away hordes of young Jews? No doubt the pro-Israel establishment would prefer to see an even stronger connection to the Jewish state. Yet, to focus on age alone misses the bigger picture. By far, the demographic least supportive of Israel are those identifying themselves as Jewish solely on the basis of culture or ancestry (one-third of the younger age group). Only 45 percent of these “Jews of no religion” feel emotionally attached to Israel compared to 76 percent of Jews who identify themselves with the Jewish religion. A mere 23 percent believe caring about Israel is vital to their Jewish identity versus half of “Jews by religion.” Notably, whereas 49 percent of the latter have visited Israel, less than a quarter of Jews of no religion have done so.
The Pew study reveals that irrespective of age, Jews by religion are far more engaged Jewishly – synagogue affiliation, ritual observance, connection to Israel – than are Jews of no religion. Other studies confirm that young Jews overwhelmingly feel close to Israel if they have attended Jewish day school or summer camp, had a bar/ bat mitzvah, or have been involved with Jewish youth groups. When these elements are absent, the result is often absolute apathy toward Israel.
And therein lies the real problem. Due to assimilation and rising intermarriage rates among non-Orthodox Jews where the non- Jewish spouse doesn’t convert, the levels of detachment from Jewish life in the US have never been higher.
To be sure, the more Israel is seen as a vibrant democracy striving for peace, the better the chances that young, progressive Jews will relate positively toward it. But for college students and young adults on the low end of the Jewish literacy spectrum, the emergence of a left-leaning Israeli government won’t magically transform them into ardent Zionists.
What’s needed is a concerted effort to revitalize the Jewish community by investing heavily in proven initiatives that strengthen Jewish identity at an early age and that provide opportunities for involvement in Jewish life through the teen years and beyond. We can’t afford to be complacent if we wish to avoid the day when too few non-Orthodox Jews are left to care about Israel.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon