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The end of Jews “distancing” from Israel? (Yeah, right)

by Shmuel Rosner

February 14, 2012 | 3:41 am

Steven Cohen, the father of “distancing” – a much talked about theory according to which young American Jews of the current generation are moving away from Israel – appeared two weeks ago before the Knesset Committee for Diaspora and Absorption, headed by MK Einat Wilf (you can watch him here. Note to readers: I’m speaking right after Cohen).

Cohen was measured. After much debate with colleagues, and among other scholars, he still believes that “distancing” is real. And the cause: Interfaith marriage. Cohen made sure to be very clear as to the reason, knowing full well that a new distancing battle is fast approaching with the upcoming publication of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism. If Cohen is the father of “distancing”, Beinart is the father of making “distancing” a tool of political discourse. His widely read article on The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment was ideologically manipulative and factually dubious, but the core argument stuck. Evidence to the contrary aside, people around the Jewish world started talking about the growing alienation of young American Jews from Israel.

That is why one needs to be an optimist or a fool to believe that another study can finally put to rest the talk of “distancing”, or at least help us rid of “political distancing” brouhaha. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m an optimist. Not when it comes to this public debate. But I’m going to try and do my part by reporting of the findings of this new study by Ted Sasson, Benjamin Phillips, Graham Wright, Charles Kadushin and Leonard Saxe, all members of the Brandeis University faction of distancing-deniers. Namely, it is not the first time for them to argue that “distancing” theory is based on unconvincing proof, that the data doesn’t give one reason to believe in this theory. They argue that the younger generation of American Jews was always somewhat more distant than the elder generation, and that as young Jews grow older they become less distant and more attached to Israel.

But with the new study they are able to make their case much more forcefully and, hopefully, more convincingly to the broader Jewish public. The study is based on pairs of cross-sectional surveys conducted at ten-year intervals during the 1990s and 2000s. These make it possible for researchers compare data from a longer period of time as to examine possible decline in feelings of attachments to Israel. The surveys used: “the National Jewish Population Surveys (1990 and 2000-01) and three pairs of community surveys: Boston (1995 and 2005), South Palm Beach (1995 and 2005), and Miami (1994 and 2004)”. These surveys all asked “similar questions about Israel”, enabling scholars to compare and analyze them.

There are a lot of details in this new study, and a lot to chew on, but the bottom line is what most readers care about, and it is quite clear: “In all four pairs of surveys under analysis, the overall level of emotional attachment to Israel increased between Time 1 (a survey conducted in the 1990s) and Time 2 (a survey conducted in the 2000s)”. It didn’t decrease – that’s what one would expect if there’s “distancing” – but rather increased. The authors state it plainly: “there is no evidence of declining attachment across the generations” as “the available evidence suggests increased attachment between the early 1990s and mid-2000s for the American Jewish population as a whole and increased attachment over the lifecycle for individual American Jews (in particular as they aged into mid-life). The evidence does not show decline from the older to the younger generations during the period 1990-2005”.

This of course leaves an opening for the Beinart school of thought to argue that distancing is a phenomenon of the late 2000s. Since the Brandeis scholars believe that the increase in attachment was somehow related to “political violence in Israel” – namely, to the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada – maybe the end of violence, the rise of the Netanyahu government, the stalemate in peace talks and all other possibly frustrating developments of the last 5-6 years have resulted in some sense of alienation. If that’s the case, though, this might be a short lived phenomenon as new developments (Arab upheaval, Iran) change the attitudes of young Jews yet again. And anyway, we don’t know that there’s distancing after 2005, we just know that there wasn’t such thing until 2005. Or as the new study puts it: “there is no evidence of widespread alienation from Israel deriving from political disagreement”.

Not until now. But what about the future? The scholars can’t discount the possibility of future alienation for political reasons: “According to Gallup surveys, Republicans are more supportive of Israel than Independents, who are, in turn, more supportive than Democrats… Given that American Jews participate in the broader American polity and overwhelmingly identify as Democratic, the possibility of future alienation deriving from political disagreement cannot be discounted”.

To sum it all up: Possible distancing in the future – yes, it is always possible. Proven distancing of the younger generation – no.

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