Why Is­rael Must Stop Alien­at­ing Amer­i­can Jews

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon

Ever since the late 1960s, Is­rael has been a defin­ing fea­ture of Amer­i­can Jewish iden­tity. But for the first time in fifty years, this is chang­ing.

A new study sug­gests that young Amer­i­can Jews are aban­don­ing Is­rael at record rates. The data joins mount­ing ev­i­dence that in their new­found am­biva­lence to­ward Is­rael, Amer­i­can Jews are los­ing a key part of who they are, or at least, who they have been for the past half cen­tury.

The study, con­ducted by Steven Co­hen and Jack Uke­les, was com­mis­sioned by the Jewish Com­mu­nity Fed­er­a­tion of San Fran­cisco, the Penin­sula, Marin, and Sonoma Coun­ties.

Over 3,000 re­spon­dents from the Bay Area took an on­line sur­vey in which they were asked a va­ri­ety of ques­tions per­tain­ing to Jewish life. The re­sults con­cern­ing Is­rael were con­sis­tent not only with the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s re­cent sur­vey about Demo­cratic ver­sus Repub­li­can sen­ti­ments re­gard­ing Is­rael but with Pew’s broader sur­vey of Amer­i­can Jewish life from 2013.

Only 11% of Jews age 18-34 said they were “very at­tached to Is­rael.” Only 37% of that group said the Jewish state was “very im­por­tant.” And just 40% of them said they were “com­fort­able with the idea of a Jewish state.”

Of course, Cal­i­for­nia is the most lib­eral state in the union, and the Bay Area its most lib­eral area, and Jews are the most lib­eral of Amer­ica’s eth­nic groups. But the find­ings are com­pat­i­ble with a re­cent Stan­ford study, which found that Jewish col­lege stu­dents don’t want to en­gage in de­bates or con­flict around Is­rael, and re­sist be­ing la­beled as pro-Is­rael.

The find­ings are also con­sis­tent with a re­cent Pew study, which found a deep po­lar­iza­tion and gen­er­a­tional di­vide among Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally on the sub­ject of Is­rael. The par­ti­san di­vide be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans when it comes to Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans is now wider than it has been in decades. 79% of Repub­li­cans say they sym­pa­thize more with Is­rael than the Pales­tini­ans, com­pared to just 27% of Democrats. And while 56% of Amer­i­cans 50 and over sym­pa­thized more with Is­rael than with the Pales­tini­ans, only 32% of 18-29 year olds did.

“What we’re see­ing is that younger Jews are mov­ing to­wards a more neu­tral po­si­tion re­gard­ing Is­rael,” Co­hen said. While younger Jews aren’t nec­es­sar­ily em­brac­ing anti-Is­rael po­si­tions, they are more likely to be am­biva­lent.

There are two rea­sons for this, Co­hen said. The first stems from the fact that Amer­i­can Jews are defin­ing their iden­tity in more per­sonal and less col­lec­tive terms. “They are more spir­i­tual and less eth­nic,” he ex­plained. “And Is­rael falls in the eth­nic com­part­ment.”

The sec­ond rea­son has to do with the ways in which Is­rael is chang­ing. “Is­raeli poli­cies are far more ap­peal­ing to po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tives and more alien­at­ing to po­lit­i­cal lib­er­als,” said Co­hen. “Is­rael’s poli­cies are de­priv­ing Amer­i­can Jewry of a ma­jor pil­lar of in­spi­ra­tion and mo­bil­ity.”

But when young Jews stop iden­ti­fy­ing with Is­rael or car­ing about it, this re­in­forces a lack of en­gage­ment with their Jewish iden­tity over­all. Which means that los­ing our con­nec­tion to Is­rael is ex­is­ten­tially dan­ger­ous for the Jewish di­as­pora com­mu­nity.

“It’s a huge con­cern,” said Ja­son Isaac­son, As­so­ciate Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor for Pol­icy of the Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee. It’s also why AJC puts an em­pha­sis on con­trast­ing Is­rael and with what Isaac­son called Is­rael’s “more au­to­cratic neigh­bors” and stresses Is­rael’s “hunger for peace with the Pales­tinian peo­ple whose lead­er­ship has re­sisted the course of the ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

But Isaac­son ad­mit­ted that it’s a case that’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to make, thanks to the in­her­ent ten­sion be­tween some of Is­rael’s ac­tions and the lib­eral val­ues that mat­ter to Amer­i­can Jews – es­pe­cially young Jews.

Is­rael is now no longer a force unit­ing Amer­i­can Jews; rather, it’s di­vid­ing them along gen­er­a­tional lines.

“Ob­vi­ously the ac­tions of the gov­ern­ment on mat­ters re­lat­ing to the Pales­tini­ans color this,” Isaac­son said. “The em­brace of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment by an Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion that is not pop­u­lar in many parts of the next gen­er­a­tion, all is part of this mix, so cut­ting through that and in­tro­duc­ing the re­al­ity of Is­rael and the re­al­ity of Is­rael’s sit­u­a­tion is a chal­lenge.”

Based on polls the AJC reg­u­larly con­ducts, Isaac­son says that main­stream Amer­i­can Jews are “un­com­fort­able with the oc­cu­pa­tion.”

“It’s not in our na­ture and it’s not the destiny of the Jewish peo­ple to oc­cupy another peo­ple,” Isaac­son said. “But they’re stuck in this sit­u­a­tion where they can­not move for­ward un­less there’s a will­ing part­ner and un­less they find ways on both sides to rise above the con­flict and point to­ward a more rea­son­able com­pro­mise.”

Isaac­son stressed that Is­raeli and Amer­i­can Jews agree on this front. “Is­rael does not want to be in the oc­cu­pa­tion busi­ness for­ever,” he said. “It shouldn’t be.”

But other polling sug­gests that Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank is an area where Amer­i­can Jews and Is­raeli Jews strongly dif­fer. While 42% of Is­raelis said that West Bank set­tle­ments help Is­rael’s se­cu­rity, only 17% of Amer­i­can Jews felt the same way.

The Bay Area sur­vey joins mount­ing ev­i­dence that Amer­i­can Jews are feel­ing deeply alien­ated from Is­rael. More and more, Is­rael’s cur­rent lead­er­ship is pre­clud­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with its poli­cies. While there is still a fierce (and mon­eyed) mi­nor­ity will­ing to sup­port Is­rael on its own terms, the younger gen­er­a­tion and the ma­jor­ity of Jews no longer fit into that cat­e­gory.

And yet, we know from the past that Amer­i­can Jews want an Is­rael they can iden­tify with — fiercely. What’s more, they need it to sur­vive in Amer­ica as Jews. Ab­sent the strong ties of com­mu­nity and re­li­gion, Is­rael has pro­vided a source of in­spi­ra­tion that kept Jews con­nected to each other even in the Di­as­pora.

That 50-year pil­lar of our iden­tity looks like it’s crum­bling. Na­tion­al­ism has been tainted by the rise of white supremacists in the U.S., and its stain is spread­ing through Pres­i­dent Trump and ev­ery­thing he touches – which now in­cludes Is­rael.

Val­ues-driven mil­len­ni­als won’t en­dorse some­thing that doesn’t fit their val­ues. If mon­eyed Amer­i­can Jews want to strengthen Jewish con­ti­nu­ity, they should stop spend­ing their money try­ing to con­vince Amer­i­can Jews that they aren’t see­ing what they see when they look at Is­rael, and start con­vinc­ing Is­raeli lead­ers to pur­sue poli­cies that Amer­i­can Jews can be proud of.

In fact, this does seem to be hap­pen­ing. The AJC’s Isaac­son told me he speaks to Is­raeli of­fi­cials and lead­ers about the ways in which they are alien­at­ing young Jews. “It’s has­bara, but it’s not just has­bara,” Isaac­son said, re­fer­ring to Is­raeli gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda pre­sented in a pos­i­tive light. “It’s ac­tion. It’s poli­cies. And ob­vi­ously these are is­sues that we dis­cuss in­ten­sively and con­tin­u­ously with our friends and brethren in Is­rael.”

Young Amer­i­can Jews are hav­ing an ef­fect on the Amer­i­can Jewish lead­er­ship. By re­fus­ing to en­dorse Is­rael’s short­com­ings, they are push­ing their lead­ers to de­mand change.

It’s a good thing. Our fu­ture as Jews – even in the Di­as­pora – de­pends on it.


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