The Alienation of American Jews from Israel*
Professor Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR and Director of the Florence G. Heller / JCCA Research Center. Previously, he taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Queens College, with visiting appointments at Yale, Brandeis, and JTS. Amongst his numerous publications is The Jew Within (with Arnold Eisen), Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences (with Charles Liebman) and American Modernity & Jewish Identity, and American Assimilation or Jewish Revival? He also serves as research consultant to the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, and Synagogue 3000.
American Jews have long maintained a remarkable relationship with Israel. Over the years, their fervent attachment has produced billions of dollars in ongoing philanthropic assistance, a powerful and effective pro-Israel lobby, tens of thousands of visits annually, a steady stream of aliyah, and myriad other examples of contact and support, ranging from Israeli film festivals to a growing American Jewish competency in Hebrew. All these expressions of support and engagement rest upon feelings of warmth, attachment and closeness, perhaps even a passionate love of Israel. Yet these feelings of attachment may well be changing, as warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation. Inevitably, if sufficiently pronounced and widespread, this prospective sea-change in attitudes toward Israel will have profound effects upon American Jews’ relationships with Israel. In turn, it will also affect Israelis’ sense of connection with, or isolation from, American Jewry.
Indeed, a mounting body of evidence has pointed to a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews, and the distancing seems to be most pronounced among younger Jews. Insofar as younger Jews are less attached to Israel, the inevitable replacement of the older population with younger birth cohorts leads to a growing distancing in the population overall.
In recent years, several studies have pointed to the distancing phenomenon, be they studies focusing on attitudes toward Israel specifically (e.g., Cohen 2002; Luntz), or those painting a more generalized portrait of Jewish identity among younger adult American Jews (e.g., Cohen and Kelman 2007; Greenberg 2004, 2006; Ukeles et al. 2006). Studies pointing to an attenuated American Jewish relationship with Israel are not a recent phenomenon; in fact, they stretch back nearly a quarter of a century. With such titles as, “Are American and Israeli Jews Drifting Apart?” (Cohen 1989), “Ties and Tensions” (Cohen 1987), or “From Romantic Idealists to Loving Realists: The Changing Place of Israel in the Consciousness of American Jews” (Cohen 1985), a long trail of literature documents diminishing attachment to Israel among American Jews.
One explanation for these trends and age-related variations looks to the impact of history and how Israel has appeared in various periods over the last 60 years. Thus, members of the oldest generation of American Jews, born before World War II, may be highly attached to Israel in part because they can remember the Holocaust and the subsequent founding of the State. Their children, the Baby Boomers, have also experienced events that have, for many, forged a strong sense of Israel connection. For them, memories of the Six Day War and the ensuing period of pro-Israel mobilization have created strong feelings of attachment. Many members of these two generations see Israel as socially progressive, tolerant, peace-seeking, efficient, democratic and proudly Jewish, a society that has successfully withstood mortal threats from malevolent, hostile and fanatical enemies.
But the same cannot be said for younger Jews, especially today’s younger adult Jews. Those born after 1974 draw upon memories and impressions less likely to cast Israel in a positive, let alone heroic light. The First Lebanon War in 1982, the First and Second Intifadas and the Second Lebanon War are all perceived as far more morally and politically complex than the wars Israel fought between 1948 and 1974, casting Israel in a more troubling light.
Surveys over time suggest a weakening of American Jewish attachment to Israel, with comparable measures generally recording declines over the years (Cohen 2002). Yet periods of Israeli-Arab hostilities have prompted expressions of American Jewish support, ranging from political mobilization to philanthropic generosity, with accompanying evidence in the surveys. Not surprisingly, the trend lines are mixed, in that some measures rise and fall over the years.
Whenever younger people differ from their elders, either of two processes is taking place. One possibility is that “family life cycle” effects are at work – young adults differ because they are largely single and/or childless; presumably, marriage and parenthood will alter their views or behaviors to come to more closely resemble those of their elders. Joining churches and synagogues is a classic example of a life cycle effect: the advent of children provokes church and synagogue affiliation, and in time, the single and childless unaffiliated adult of today becomes the affiliated married parent of tomorrow.
Alternatively, “birth cohort” effects could be operating – younger people differ simply because they were born at a different time, years or decades after their elders. The imprint of their history differs from that of their elders and, presumably, is less likely to change with the passage of time. Musical taste is a well-known illustration of a birth cohort effect: Baby Boomers will always have a special place in their hearts for The Beatles, Stones and Temptations, while Generation X might have a similar place for Nirvana or Public Enemy. Marriage and child-bearing rarely provoke a re-shuffling of one’s iPod or CD collection.
If it turns out that age-related variations in Israel attitudes are tied to the family life cycle, then we can presume that many young people will come to adopt their elders’ warmer attitudes toward Israel as they mature. However, if these gaps between old and young regarding Israel attachment are due primarily to birth cohort effects, then we may presume that the declines are more permanent and that the gaps today will influence the stance of American Jewry toward Israel for years to come.
In short, with respect to younger Jews and their presumably diminished attachment to Israel, this research focuses upon three questions:
1) How broad-based is the distancing, and how comprehensive the evidence? To what extent are younger Jews, in fact, more distant from Israel than their elders?
2) Insofar as younger Jews are more distant, can the gap in Israel-related attitudes be seen as a life cycle effect, one that will presumably largely evaporate over time, or does it have the signs of a more enduring birth cohort effect, one tied to relatively permanent features of the younger age groups?
3) To what may the age-related variations be attributed? Are they related, as many believe, to political orientations? Or are other factors more critical?
Younger Jews are less attached
The charts below graphically present the results for four age groups, ranging from 65+ to under 35. The results are nearly uniform. In all cases, those 65 and over report the highest levels of attachment. For all measures, those who are 50-64 exhibit higher levels of Israel-related attachment, support, caring or engagement than those under 50. And in almost every instance (with just two exceptions), those who are 35-49 outscore those who are under 35.
The range of viewpoints covered by these generalizations is truly broad. The survey questions capture attitudes that encompass feeling attached to Israel as well as feeling proud, excited, ambivalent or ashamed about Israel. The survey also includes questions regarding caring about Israel, feeling concerned about U.S. support for Israel, seeing Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy, talking to others about Israel or being drawn to news stories about Israel. Other questions relate to identifying as pro-Israel, as a Zionist and a supporter of Israel, as well as rejecting the notion that Israel occupies lands that belong to someone else and feeling comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State of Israel. Results for any one of these indicators may be dismissed as a peculiarity or as reflecting a very specific behavior or attitude. But the gaps between younger and older Jews for all measures suggest that a broad-based distancing from Israel is well under way and has been under way for decades. Whereas previous studies have pointed to gaps between old and young in a few select indicators of attachment to Israel, this study demonstrates declining attachment over a wide variety and large number of indicators, testifying to the breadth, depth and irrefutable nature of that decline.
The results for a summary scale measuring overall attachment to Israel make the point most vividly. Based upon a composite of respondents’ answers to several questions, we divided respondents into high, moderate, and low levels of attachment to Israel. Among the most elderly group, those highly attached to Israel vastly exceed those with low attachment. Among those 50-64, the margin narrows such that the number of highly attached only slightly exceed the low-attached. Among those 35-49, the two figures actually reverse: the low-attached vastly exceed those with high attachment. Among those under 35, the low vs. high gap in Israel attachment widens further still, such that of the four age groups, those under 35 emerge as the least attached, followed by those 35-49.
That each age group is less Israel-attached than its elders suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term and ongoing decline in Israel attachment. The age-related differences cannot be attributed primarily to family life cycle effects, if only because the age-related declines characterize the entire age spectrum from the very old to the very young. Rather, we are in the midst of a massive shift in attitudes toward Israel, propelled forward by the process of cohort replacement, where the maturing younger cohorts that are the least Israel-engaged are replacing the oldest cohorts that are the most Israel-engaged.
With all this said, caring for Israel among younger adult Jews has not evaporated entirely. Far from it. On a variety of measures, approximately 60% of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of 35 express a measure of interest in, caring for and attachment to Israel. While this figure falls short of comparable figures for their elders, it can be said that most young Jews still express attachment to Israel. Moreover, we need to recall that this analysis sets aside the Orthodox. With the Orthodox, and with their growing percentage in the population, even among younger adult Jews the number who may be reasonably said to feel attachment to Israel approaches three-quarters of the population. At the same time, as these graphs readily demonstrate, the trend lines for the non-Orthodox population certainly point to declining attachment. These declines characterize not just the youngest adult Jews, but the entire age spectrum from oldest, to older-middle-aged, to younger-middle-aged, to young adults.
Interpreting the data
The general expectation is that those on the political left should be less approving and appreciative of Israel than those on the right. Yet the results do not substantiate the claim that leftist identities are at the heart of the erosion in attachment to Israel. If we can draw any conclusion, it is that political moderation is somewhat more associated with Israel attachment, perhaps suggesting that conventionality or political indifference pose little challenge to expressing positive views of Israel. In other words, the relationship between political views and attachment to Israel is far from uniform or consistent. Neither left-wing nor right-wing views are clearly associated with distancing from Israel.
The relationships between alienation, political views and age are rather curious. The most alienated group is the small number of young people with relatively right-leaning political views where as many as 21% feel alienated from Israel. Among their left-leaning age-peers, just 11% qualify as alienated, as do 12% of those with moderate or “other” political leanings. Thus, contrary to general impressions, it is those who identify as conservative or Republican who are the most distant from Israel, and not those who see themselves as liberal Democrats – at least among those under 35. However, such is not the case among those 35-49. For this age group, those on the left express more alienation than those on the right (14% vs. 5%). In contrast with the next younger group, we find more alienation on the left than on the right.
What are we to make of these contradictory findings? We could infer that political identities carry a different implication for those under 35 as compared with those 35-49. But such an inference, unsupported by any compelling theory or previous substantiating evidence, demands far more evidence than available in this survey. Rather, we can retreat to a more modest and sustainable claim: political identity, for the general population, has little bearing upon feelings of warmth toward or alienation from Israel. Whatever conclusion one may draw from the actions of political elites, or the writing of intellectual figures, left-of-center political identity (seeing oneself as liberal and a Democrat) in the general population exerts seemingly little influence on the level of attachment to Israel.
The impact of intermarriage
If the impact of political attitudes upon pro-Israel feelings is complex or ambiguous, that of intermarriage is far more straightforward. Rising intermarriage, with all that it reflects and all that it brings about, has helped drive down feelings of attachment to Israel. Among the intermarried, those with low attachment to Israel are more than double the number with high attachment. Among the in-married and non-married, the number with high attachment to Israel surpasses the number with low attachment. In short, intermarried Jews sharply trail others with respect to overall attachment to Israel. Since a far greater numbers of younger Jews than older Jews are intermarried – in this sample of non-Orthodox Jews, the percentage of individuals who are intermarried climbs as one moves down the age ladder from 9% among the oldest (65+) to 62% of the youngest (under 35) – it stands to reason that there would be lesser attachment to Israel amongst the younger group than in the older ones.
Moreover, we find similar patterns with respect to “alienation” from Israel, the most distant category. Among the in-married and non-married, just under 5% qualify as alienated from Israel, but among the intermarried, three times that number (15%) qualify as alienated. Among the in-married and non-married, alienation is not at all associated with youthfulness; for them, the youngest are simply not the most alienated from Israel. However, matters are quite different among the intermarried. Here, alienation from Israel climbs dramatically as one moves from old to young, such that the young intermarried adults are the most alienated among the intermarried. Among those who are under 35 and intermarried, nearly 18% qualify as alienated.
Thus, three trend lines converge to make intermarriage a major factor in driving down the Israel attachment scores of younger adults. First, many more young people are intermarried. Second, the intermarried are more distant and more alienated from Israel. Third, the youngest intermarried are the most distant and alienated from Israel.
The impact of visiting Israel
For advocates of warmer ties between American Jews and Israel, the analysis thus far may well seem disheartening. Younger Jews are more distant from Israel, and their shifting attitudes are promoting an overall cooling of American Jewish passions for Israel. Intermarriage is a significant factor in the distancing of young people from Israel, in that intermarriage is more frequent, and the younger intermarried Jews are especially distant from Israel. The rather unexpected relationship between alienation from Israel and political attitudes points strongly to the importance of ethnic cohesion (Jews relating to Jews) as a factor in buttressing attachment to Israel.
The American Jewish community can do little to stop the advance of birth cohorts through the population, to influence political attitudes, or to significantly drive down the intermarriage rate in the foreseeable future. That said, what can be done to counter the decline in Israel attachment, particularly among younger Jews?
In the last several years, American Jewish philanthropists, communal organizations and Israeli public bodies have undertaken significant efforts to expand the participation of young people in Israel travel programs, both of short and long duration. Among the many sought-after outcomes associated with this effort is the hope and expectation that participants will return with a stronger attachment to Israel. Indeed, one can argue that if the programs have little impact on feelings about Israel, it is unlikely that they will influence other aspects of Jewish identity and connection.
A full and proper analysis of the impact of an Israel trip goes well beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, we can gain some inkling as to how Israel travel is associated with Israel attachment, discerning how the relationship between travel and attachment may differ for different age groups. If there is evidence of an impact, is the impact consistent across age groups, or is it higher – or lower – for young adults? To what extent does the trip to Israel matter and to whom?
Overall, we do indeed find very sharp differences in attachment to Israel associated with travel to Israel. Among those who have never been to Israel, the number with a high level of attachment is less than half the number with a low level of attachment (19% vs. 42%). Among those with only one trip, the relationship is reversed: those with high levels of attachment are double the number of those with a low degree of attachment to Israel (34% vs. 17%). Those who have been to Israel two or more times are even more firmly attached to Israel, with 52% scoring high and under 10% at the low end of attachment. Finally, among those who have lived in Israel (such as might be reported by participants in a semester or year program in Israel), 68% score high on attachment, and just 6% score low. These results do not definitively establish the impact of the Israel trip, but they do open the door to the possibility, if not probability, that trips matter, that more trips are better than fewer, and that trips of longer duration have more impact than those with shorter duration.
Certainly not all these variations in Israel attachment can be attributed to the trips themselves. Self-selection plays a major role in determining who chooses to travel to Israel, and who travels multiple times or for extended periods. Simply put, the more Jewishly involved travel more readily, more often, and for longer duration. Statistically, almost half the gap between travelers and non-travelers remains after controlling for prior Jewish involvement. That said, it seems fair to say that the Israel trip still leaves a noticeable lasting impact on attitudes toward Israel. On an Israel-attitude scale ranging from 0 to 100, the single Israel trip taken at any point in one’s life is associated with about 8 percentage points of improvement in scores and a reduction of 4 points in the number who qualify as alienated from Israel (about 8% of the total sample). These numbers are both substantively and statistically significant. When considered in light of other published studies, these findings certainly underscore the value of trips to Israel as promoting attachment to Israel.
Perhaps of greater interest is evidence of a differential relationship between trips and attachment, depending on age. In brief, however important the single trip to Israel may be for promoting attachment toward and preventing alienation from Israel, the impact is clearly more pronounced among those under the age of 35 than those 35-64. The net impact of a trip on the 0-100 Israel-attitude scale amounts to just 4 points for those 50-64, 9 points for those 35-49, and 12 points for those under 35. For the issue of alienation, the same progression runs from 1 point to 4 points to fully 13 points for those under 35. In other words, even when we extract the differences in Jewish identity between one-time travelers to Israel and those who have never been, the apparent impact of the trip on feeling attached to Israel and upon (not) feeling alienated from Israel is noticeably strongest among the younger adults. The bottom line: as important as Israel travel may be for fortifying commitment to Israel and preventing alienation, it is even more important, and most important, for younger Jews.
Absent any trip to Israel, most Jews score on the lowest rung of Israel attachment, and only a few manage to harbor warm feelings toward Israel, but even among the non-travelers, the putative impact varies by age group. For those 65 and over who never went, more than twice as many score high on attachment and not quite half as many score low when compared with those under 35 who have not gone. In other words, going to Israel at some point is almost a requirement for a young person to feel highly attached to Israel. Older generations (especially those who can remember the founding of the State) manage, at times, to develop closeness to Israel even without having ever visited.
Older Jews express considerable attachment to Israel, and very few are genuinely alienated from Israel. The same cannot be said for younger adult Jews. In sharp contrast to their parents and grandparents, non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders. Moreover, in the past one could speak of mounting indifference to Israel as the major orientation of the unengaged. In contrast, these days we find instances of genuine alienation as many more Jews, especially young people, profess a near-total absence of any positive feelings toward Israel.
The decline in context
This age-related decline characterizes almost all available measures of genuine Israel attachment and thus cannot be attributed to measurement idiosyncrasy. At the same time, the bottom has not fallen out entirely: about 60% of younger adult Jews who are not Orthodox profess some attachment to Israel. While less attached than their elders, most younger adult Jews still view Israel positively. The small but growing minority of younger generation Jews who are indifferent toward, if not alienated from, Israel did not suddenly emerge. Their distant views are not a matter of a recent, single, pivotal development or a sudden plunge in attachment. Rather, the erosion in Israel engagement has taken place over the entire age spectrum, from elderly, to upper-middle-aged, to lower-middle-aged, to young adult. The phenomenon has the markings of a birth cohort effect rather than a family life cycle effect. A family life cycle effect would show strong relationships with marriage or the advent of children. We might see increases and decreases in attachment over the life cycle as family circumstances change. But here, the trend lines are fairly consistent with age: each drop in age is associated with a drop in Israel attachment. It does appear that levels of attachment are linked to when people were born and came to adulthood, rather than a particular stage in life.
Contrary to widely held beliefs, left-liberal political identity is not primarily responsible for driving down the Israel attachment scores among the non-Orthodox. If left-liberal politics were influential, we should see significant differences in Israel attachment between liberal-Democrats and conservative-Republicans. The absence of such a pattern, and the inconsistent variations within age groups, run contrary to the assertion that political views are the prime source of disaffection from Israel.
Rather, in thinking about why many younger Jews are indifferent to Israel, we need to look at intermarriage and what it reflects, promotes and symbolizes. The intermarried are far less attached to Israel than the in-married or non-married. They are far more numerous among young people than among their elders. And the distance from Israel is greater among the younger adult intermarried than among the older adult intermarried.
Intermarriage flows from and helps produce a more personalized rather than collective view of being Jewish, a trend that has mounted and become increasingly apparent over the years, as reported in Cohen 1998, Cohen and Eisen 2000, Horowitz 2000 and Liebman 1999. These works speak of “ethnic decline,” “The Jew Within,” “Jewish journeys” and “privatized Judaism,” all of which accompany, reflect and contextualize the intermarriage phenomenon. Intermarriage represents and advances more open and fluid group boundaries along with a commensurate drop in Jewish tribalism, collective Jewish identity and Jewish Peoplehood (Cohen and Wertheimer 2006). It also both comes out of and promotes a more open notion of community, a more fluid conception of Jewish identity, and a more critical approach to peoplehood and belonging. As much as anything else, this shift in the meaning of being Jewish in America explains the retreat from engagement with Israel.
This study underscores previous findings showing that promoting trips to Israel may be the most policy-relevant action organized Jews can undertake to stem the erosion in Israel attachment among younger adult Jews. A single trip has clear positive effects on Israel attachment, repeat trips are even more effective and so are trips of longer duration. Travel to Israel is more essential for securing a pro-Israel identity among young people than it is among their elders. Older people who have never been to Israel have had several ways of shaping a positive relationship with Israel. Their younger counterparts have had few such experiences or opportunities aside from travel to Israel.
Notwithstanding the clear patterns of age-related decline in attachment, as well as the clear emergence of small (but growing) minorities who may be termed indifferent or even alienated from Israel, the results also point to a majority of young adults with warm and positive feelings toward Israel. Their large number suggests a sizeable and significant reservoir of good feelings, and of potential candidates for travel programs and other forms of Israel education.
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Liebman, Charles S. “Post-War American Jewry: From Ethnic to Privatized Judaism.” Pp. 7-17 in E. Abrams and D. Dalin (eds.), Secularism, Spirituality and the Future of American Jewry. Washington, D. C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999.
Luntz, Frank. “Israel and American Jews in the Age of Eminem.” New York: Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, 2003.
Ukeles, Jacob B., Ron Miller, and Pearl Beck. Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today. New York: American Jewish Committee, 2006.
*This article is an edited and abridged version of a more comprehensive report, BEYOND DISTANCING: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel (Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, 2007), Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. The full report is available at http://www.acbp.net/About/PDF/Beyond%20Distancing.pdf