Identity matters

This new form of Jewish identity is called “attachment to Israel” and it is strengthening among young US Jews.

Salute to Israel Parade 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Salute to Israel Parade 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new type of Jewish identity is on the rise. As with more classic forms of Jewish identity, such as adherence to the strictures of tradition, involvement in Jewish communal functions and Jewish scholarship, this new form of Jewish identity might also help ensure Jewish continuity by preventing intermarriage and providing positive reasons for wanting to remain a part of the Jewish people.
This new form of Jewish identity is called “attachment to Israel” and it is strengthening among young US Jews – a segment of the American Jewish population previously thought to be the most alienated from and indifferent to the Jewish state.
Those are the findings of a recent survey commissioned by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, an American organization first established by Bundists in 1900 that today focuses on promoting Jewish social justice.
US Jews aged 35 and under have become substantially more attached to Israel than those aged 34 to 44, according to the survey, conducted on the Internet in late April and early May among 1,000 Jews who are neither Orthodox nor day school alumni.
This marks a turnaround in the downward slide in young people’s attachment to Israel most famously lamented by American pundit Peter Beinart. The research measured attachment to Israel through a composite index based on two questions: “How emotionally attached are you to Israel?” And: “To what extent do you see yourself as pro-Israel.”
The survey seems to show that young American Jews without a strong background in Jewish education or an Orthodox upbringing are finding an alternative way to identify as Jews: through their attachment to Israel. This does not mean that these young Jews now blindly accept Israeli government policies. Like many Israelis, young American Jews are skeptical of political leadership in Israel. Indeed, while younger American Jews felt more attached to Israel than the 35 to 44 age group, they scored significantly lower on the “Trust in Israeli Leaders” index, which was based on three questions regarding whether or not Israel was truly interested in peace, whether or not the Palestinian Authority was, and the extent to which respondents backed a US preference for Israel over the Palestinians. Indeed, it can be argued that as young American Jews begin to feel more attached to Israel, they feel more comfortable voicing criticism out of a sincere desire to improve the situation.
What explains this rise in attachment to Israel among younger American Jews?
“In all likelihood, the cumulative impact of Birthright Israel in bringing so many young Jews to Israel may be coming to the fore,” said Prof. Steven M. Cohen, one of the researchers who conducted the survey.
Historically, the ability of Jewish organizations or Israeli institutions to strengthen American Jews’ ties to Israel has been limited. American Jews – particularly the unaffiliated variety – have in general felt somewhat distant from Israel if for no other reason than the yawning geographic divide separating the two countries. Various attempts were made to attempt to teach Israeli culture, current events, the Hebrew language and Zionist ideology in America.
But unlike Jewish texts and traditions that became the Jewish people’s portable homeland, the sights, sounds and experiences of Israel could not be readily exported. There was no substitute for going to the Jewish state and seeing the miraculous return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland first hand.
But few American Jews – particularly of the unaffiliated variety – ever ended up visiting.
Over a decade ago, a combined Israeli-American endeavor was launched that has become probably the most successful Jewish identity project of recent decades: Birthright Israel.
Cohen refers to it as the “Birthright Bump.”
Since the year 2000, over 300,000 Jews worldwide, most of whom from North America, have visited Israel. This has “bumped” upward attachment to Israel, transforming a whole generation of young American Jews who, according to studies conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, are less likely to intermarry.
Bringing young Jews to Israel for a carefully organized, activity-packed trip of just 10 days has resulted in the creation of a new form of Jewish identity called “attachment to Israel,” and its impact could be critical for Jewish continuity in the 21st century.