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The Rosner-Gerstein exchange, part 2: Are American Jews becoming less attached to Israel?

by Shmuel Rosner

January 21, 2013 | 12:57 pm

Jim Gerstein

Jim Gerstein is a founding partner of GBA Strategies  based in D.C., which provides strategic planning and communications services. He acts as pollster for J Street and was executive director of the Democracy Corps. Gerstein was also a key consultant for Ehud Barak's prime ministerial campaign in 1999.

 

( Part one of the exchange can be found here)

 

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your answer – part of which will be the topic of my next question.

You allude, more than once in your first response, to the "weakening connection between Israel and American Jews", but such weakening is hardly a matter on which there's broad agreement. In a couple of recent papers that I wrote for the Jewish People Policy Institute I've made the case – based on examination of all available research – that "There are no conclusive findings indicating a generational erosion of Israel-attachment in the last two decades. Rather, all attempts, to date, to examine aggregated data over time have found stability in the level of US Jews’ attachment to Israel". Moreover, current research points to a "closening" of young American Jews to Israel:

Assuming the researchers who are documenting this process are correct, the young American generation is not only not distancing from Israel, it is coming closer to it. This “closening” – again, with appropriate caution – can be seen as encouraging, not only because of what has been documented so far, but also because if Israel travel programs are its main cause, we can expect a continuation and strengthening of this trend.

True, not all studies agree about this to the last detail. But the claim that became very common in recent years and to which you seem to also allude in your comments – that is, of weakening ties because of political reasons – was refuted by every study that closely looked at the matter. In fact, in a previous exchange I had here with Prof. Steven Cohen – a major proponent of the distancing formula - he explained that differences of opinion on matters such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict don't seem to have much impact on the state of connections:

The increased attachment to Israel among the young adults does not seem to bring with it an increased confidence in Israel’s policies and leadership in the context of the conflict with the Palestinians... Apparently, while attachment to Israel and trust in Israeli leaders are correlated, they are not the same sentiment. Among those under 35, people in my own age demographic, Jews can be both attached to Israel and assume fairly independent if not skeptical stances toward Israeli government policies.

Cohen believes, as he recently wrote, that it is the impact of the rate of Jewish intermarriage that is "especially negative upon attachment to Israel". In fact, this has been his view since the early studies on "distancing" – it isn't politics but rather interfaith marriages that drive some groups of young American Jews away from Israel (this doesn't mean that other groups who aren't "distancing" agree with Israeli policies).

My questions:

  1. Do you think there's distancing, and do you think that political views significantly contribute to distancing (or "weakening" as you describe it)? In other words: do you disagree with the research I sighted above?
  2. You basically argue that those "organizations and individuals [that] are already trying to make it harder for elected officials and candidates to pass the threshold on supporting Israel" contribute to "weakening the connection" between the American and the Israeli Jewish communities. Can you back up such a claim with data or other convincing evidence?
  3. How would you respond to a counter-claim according to which it is left-wing organizations like J Street – with which you work – that are much more instrumental in driving young Jews away from Israel by way of constantly criticizing the country and highlighting its weaknesses and vices?

Thank you for your honest answers and for taking the time to have this exchange.

Shmuel

 

Dear Shmuel,

Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss these interesting issues.  Regarding the "distancing debate," I am moved by the Steven Cohen data that show younger Jews less attached to Israel than older generations.  Aside from the Cohen research, a 2010 survey that I conducted with Brandeis researchers for Repair the World showed that only 9 percent of American Jews 18-35 years-old cited Israel-related issues as an area of interest for their volunteering.  This ranked behind other areas such as assisting the needy (36 percent), education issues (30 percent), environmental issues (29 percent), health issues (27 percent), human rights (13 percent), and conflict resolution (10 percent).  I do think that additional work ought to be done in this field to dig deeper into what drives strong and weak connections among American Jews toward Israel, and this relates to your question about whether political views contribute to the distancing.  One finding, in this regard, stands out to me from a J Street survey in 2009 when 40 percent of Jews under 30 years-old said that Avigdor Lieberman's appointment to the cabinet would weaken their connection to Israel.  Other data from the 2012 election night national survey of American Jews show that young Jews have much more favorable views toward the UN than older Jews, and this impacts their perceptions of how the UN treats Israel (67 percent under 40 years say the UN treats Israel fairly) and issues like granting Palestinian statehood (55 percent support / 28 percent oppose among Jews under 40).  

This leads to your second question regarding the effect of organizations and individuals who try to make it harder for elected officials to pass the threshold on what it means to support Israel.  When the Prime Minister of Israel gives a major speech to an American Jewish audience comparing the U.S. government not bombing Auschwitz in 1944 to the current U.S. position on dealing with Iran, it makes a comparison completely at odds with American Jews' views of how America has supported Israel for decades and their own trust in a President who they support overwhelmingly.  There are several other examples of Jewish organizations criticizing President Obama - a President who received 70 percent of the Jewish vote in 2012 despite a horrible economy and significant amounts of money spent by Republican Jewish groups to target Jewish voters - in ways that reflect a major gap between the beliefs and values of American Jews on the one hand and the positions of Jewish organizations on the other hand.  

Regarding your question about Jewish organizations that criticize Israeli government policies, only 31 percent of American Jews say that it bothers them when Jews disagree publicly with Israeli government policy.   Moreover, large majorities want the U.S. to play an active role to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict even if it means publicly stating its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs.  I think it is critical to distinguish between criticizing Israel (as stated in your question) and opposing the policies of the current Israeli government.  I am the first to admit that I didn't like it when the right wing in the U.S. opposed Yitzhak Rabin's peace efforts.  But there is no evidence that their criticism of the Israeli government drove away American Jews from the state of Israel.  Today, there is no evidence that criticism of the Netanyahu government causes the disconnection between American Jews and Israel.  In fact, it is reasonable to argue that the organizations that give voice to American Jewish opposition to Netanyahu policy - and defend President Obama against right wing attacks - are one of the key links for American Jews to Israel.   

Best wishes to you and your readers for a happy and healthy 2013.

Jim

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