On My Mind: Israel’s Jewish visitors

Shouldn’t Jews in the US find ways to connect, most dramatically by spending time in Israel?

American Jew cartoon 370 (photo credit: Cartoon by Nechama Rosenstein)
American Jew cartoon 370
(photo credit: Cartoon by Nechama Rosenstein)
That a majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, and that those who have are, for the most part, infrequent visitors, is an old and sad story. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world.
Shouldn’t Jews in the US find ways to connect, most dramatically by spending time in Israel? A new AJC survey of American Jewish opinion offers some perspective on this matter. While much attention has focused on the survey’s questions regarding the US presidential race, several probed Jewish identity, including travel to Israel.
The findings are instructive and should inform Israeli ministries as well as American Jewish organizations most interested in encouraging US Jewish engagement with and personal exposure to Israel.
The AJC survey, conducted by the polling firm Knowledge Networks, found that 59 percent of the 1,074 Jews surveyed have never been to Israel. Among the 41% who have made the trip, 19% went only once, 9% twice and 12% three or more times.
When looking at respondents by denomination, it is not surprising to see the Orthodox way ahead, with 80.5% having visited Israel. In comparison, 54% of Conservative, 36% of Reform and 22% of those who identify themselves as “Just Jewish” have visited.
THE ORTHODOX are also the most frequent travelers.
Fifty-two percent of Orthodox Jews who have visited Israel have made the journey three or more times, while, in comparison, only 16% of Conservative, 7% of Reform Jews, and 5% percent of Just Jewish have come with similar frequency.
Those who visited only once included 11% of the Orthodox, 29% of Conservative, 19% of Reform and 14% of the Just Jewish.
Why, 64 years after the Israel’s independence, are American Jews reluctant to come? The AJC survey probed further to try to understand the inhibiting factors.
The good news is that concern for safety does not top the list. Only 13% of those who have never visited said they are afraid to go.
T h a t ’ s important, given what one often hears from friends, family and colleagues about a country that too often is in the news because of war or terror.
Fear is a concern for only 3% of Orthodox, 5% of Conservative, 15% of Reform and 16% of Just Jewish who have never visited.
Significantly, 32% said visiting Israel is too expensive, and 48% said they never had the opportunity. Granted, the latter is a vague response that could cover a range of possibilities, including costs or distance, or maybe never fully considering Israel as a travel destination.
Yet, American Jews who take vacations do travel long distances, to the Caribbean, to Europe, to the 50th state of Hawaii, a flight just as long as New York to Tel Aviv. Something else is probably at work here, and it needs further examination.
T h e r e are also 31% of US Jews w h o have no interest in visiting Israel.
T h e s e American Jews comprise 6% of O r t h o d o x , 24% of Conservative, 27% of Reform and 38% of Just Jewish. Is there anything that might convince them to reconsider? Of those who have never visited, expense is an issue for 79% of Orthodox, 33% of Conservative and 29% of Reform Jews, and 33% of Just Jewish. For the Orthodox, who tend to have larger families and do travel to Israel more for religious or familial reasons, the costs are high.
It is instructive to compare these data with the much higher response to another item in the survey. Asked if they agree or disagree with the statement “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” 71% agreed and 28% disagreed. One would have thought that American Jews who care about Israel would be inclined to make the effort to visit.
Again, caring about Israel is most prevalent among the Orthodox, 90% of whom agree with the statement, while 84% of Conservative and 75% of Reform Jews agree, and 58% of Just Jewish do.
For Israel, for American Jewish-Israel relations, and for the future of the Jewish people, visiting Israel should be an imperative. Sadly, that is not universally recognized across the American Jewish community.
More Jews should be connecting to Israel. In 2012 the opportunities are so varied that anyone can find a way to experience this amazing country.
The challenge is how to spark more interest, and for that Israel will need to step up its marketing to the diverse American Jewish community. This is about much more than tourism. It is about peoplehood.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.