This is the third part in an ongoing debate with Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. The first part is here, and the second part here. We will be discussing many issues over the next few weeks, and readers are more than welcome to weigh in, send questions or comments, and take part in this conversation about Jewish life in America today.
Our dialogue can be fruitful and friendly, even though I was obviously able to piss you off in ways that might make it somewhat less amiable than previously expected (note to readers: I assume and hope that when this exchange-of-fire comes to an end, I’ll still be able to buy Steven lunch, and make peace). But you asked a question about my critical post on the Workmen’s Circle study, and it’s my duty to respond: why did I report this and not that. Well, here are the reasons and the detailed explanation:
1. You ask: Why did I not report the fact that Jews don’t list Israel high on their agenda when they go to the polls? Easy answer: because it can’t be considered news. We all know that. Many of us reported this in the past. Based on what? Well, based on studies by someone with a name highly resembling yours. Here’s what I wrote four years ago, in a long piece about the Jewish vote of 2008:
A study published at the beginning of November by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard University entitled “The Diminished Place of Israel in the Political Thinking of Young Jews” burrows even more deeply into the phenomenon. “Among those 65 and over, 54 percent rate ‘high’ or ‘very high’ the Israel-Palestine conflict as a consideration in determining their vote for Obama or McCain,” Cohen and Abrams write. “This figure comes in contrast with far lower levels among younger non-Orthodox Jews: 39 percent among those 35 to 54 [years old], and just 29 percent among those under 35.”
I guess that’s enough reason for me to go in another direction when I reported your findings. And by the way, you must have missed it but I did use previously reported numbers from the WC study that I thought were newsworthy. Both the political Obama-Romney findings (here) and your numbers on party identification that we used as part of our Jewish Party-Identification project (here).
2. You complain about the “pattern of selective reception to our research”. I plead guilty as charged. Of course I’m selective - that’s the whole point of writing. I’m selecting the information that I deem important, interesting, worthy - and inform the readers. I select the information that is more problematic - and contest it. I select the issues I find important - and highlight them. I’m sorry - truly I am - for having upset so many good people by my critical post. But I don’t work for the Workmen’s Circle, and don’t have to report the findings they chose to emphasize. If I’m honest (and I try to be), if I have an open mind (and I hope I still do), if I don’t manipulate the facts or try to manipulate the readers – which I don’t - then I can be as selective as I want with your findings.
3. I was never really “contesting [y]our finding that young Jews are not all that supportive of the current Israeli government’s approach to the conflict with the Palestinians” - as you say in your letter. In fact, I would not at all be surprised to discover that young Jews are more critical of Israeli policies than older Jews. I even wrote that, “Yes, the numbers for the young show a little tendency to be more critical of Israel than the older groups”. That’s not the point. I didn’t like some of the things presented in this study, not because I was upset with the answers - but rather because I was upset with the questions. There were a couple of things in this study that seemed to me highly suspicious in the way the questions were construed. Examples (and I urge the readers to read the whole post if they want to really understand this debate):
The questions with which you built the Trust Index are confusing, and fairly complicated to answer.
When you asked about Israel’s desire for peace you - suspiciously - chose to emphasize that you refer to policies of “the current Israeli government” - not Israelis, not Israel. I can hardly see why you’d want to ask the question in such way, except for leading respondents in certain direction.
I also don’t understand why your list of issues that voters might or might not consider important does not include “Israel” - instead of the really puzzling combination of “Israel and the Palestinians”.
In short, you imply that I don’t like your findings on this matter of “trust” when in fact what I think is that you don’t have reliable findings to report on this matter. You hint - more than hint - that my omissions are a manifestation of political bias. In fact, they stem from my inability to grasp why this study was constructed the way it was. And true, I also hinted that politics might have played a role in the way your study was reported. But by stating very clearly (in the press release) that your findings match the agenda of the Workmen’s Circle, you really didn’t leave me with any other choice.
So - this is my side of the story. Let’s have yours.
All the best,
Here’s my response to your comment:
Your piece in the Jewish Journal from a few days ago questions the veracity of our conclusion from the Workmen’s Circle survey of American Jews about the diminished trust in Israel’s leaders of young folks. In our view (Prof. Samuel Abrams and myself), the data supporting our claim to age-related differences in assessments of Israeli leaders are powerful and convincing (although, maybe not to you).
But, I’ll try to convince you—and your fair-minded readers.
To start… By reviewing which answers to which questions hang together (or correlated), we created a composite index (we call it, “Trust in Israeli Leaders,” but we’re open to other suggestions) that consists of answers to three questions:
The Palestinian Authority truly wants peace
The current Israeli government truly wants peace
Regarding Israel and the Palestinians, who should the US support?
The index gave points for disagreeing that the PA wants peace, for agreeing that the Israeli government wants peace, and for saying that the US should support Israel (rather than other answers such as the Palestinians or the more popular, “both equally”).
We think that anyone who answered all three questions in that manner really trusts the current Israeli government which has, after all, been saying, in effect: “We want peace; the PA doesn’t; and the US should support us and not them.” To us, that feels like trust in Israeli leaders.
Now among those age 65 and over, 56% score at the top of this scale, affirming all three positions. As age diminishes, so too do the scores on the Trust in Israel Index. It falls to a low of 28% among those under 35.
By any measure, that’s a very compelling change of heart from old to young. At the same time, those affirming none or one of the items (meaning that they qualify as Israel government skeptics) amount to only 18% of those 65+. The skeptical number rises to 42% (!) among the young. In other words, as we go from old to young, we get fewer true-believers and more doubting skeptics.
We also know from other questions that the youngsters are more likely to see Israeli leaders as really trying to work to prevent a Palestinian state and they are less likely to blame the Palestinians rather than the Israelis for the stuck peace process.
You question the phrasing of some of our questions. But what does that have to do with comparisons between different age groups? All ages were asked the same questions, be they brilliant and balanced or faulty and tendentious.
You question the labeling of the index. That’s a fair point. What would you call these three items? For us, “trust” is a widely used social science term that we feel is relatively tame.
You raise other good points in your comment. But I’ve chosen to focus on the main issue at hand: the evidence and what it says about young Jews today.