Why Israel Must Stop Alienating American Jews
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.