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Young Jews’ Israel alienation

by Shmuel Rosner

May 27, 2014 | 3:30 am

Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright)

Two questions have constantly been on my mind in recent years, probably too much so. The first is: Is there a trend of alienation of the world’s Jews from Israel? The second is: If there is such a trend, what’s the reason for it? I have some new numbers for you — courtesy of professor Steven Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — through which we can try to start answering these two questions. 

The second question depends on the first and has meaning only if the answer to the first question is positive. The problem is, though, that we can’t answer the first question with complete confidence. We know that previous “distancing” claims have been exaggerated; we know that the overall picture is complex, and we know that there are contradictory findings from different studies. The much-talked-about Pew Research Center study of American Jews included a full chapter on “connection with and attitudes toward Israel,” yet the debate still rages. Generally speaking, it proves that “seven-in-ten American Jews (69 percent) say they are emotionally very attached (30 percent) or somewhat attached (39 percent) to Israel” —presumably good enough. But it gets murky as we look at the detailed numbers, and even murkier when different scholars keep delving into their spreadsheets in an attempt to better understand the undercurrents of community attitudes.

Two weeks ago, The Forward’s Nathan Guttman wrote about the impact of intermarriage on young Jewish Americans’ attitude toward Israel. The source for his numbers was Cohen. “The data paint an alarming picture of a growing problem that eventually could imperil ties between American Jewry and Israel,” Guttman wrote. Cohen found that “a fifth of non-Orthodox young Jews could be categorized as “Israel-alienated” — that is, “members of the Jewish community who both indicate having low attachment to Israel and think the United States is too supportive of it.” The members of this group have two main characteristics: Intermarriage is the most visible, and liberal attitudes is the other factor that plays a role. According to Cohen’s analysis of the Pew numbers, the “Israel-alienated” group is 20.75 percent of the 18-29 Jewish American age group, 19.62 percent of those with “intermarried parents” and a lower but still significant 13.91 percent of Jews with “liberal” views. The “intermarried” and the “liberal” explanations for the alienation don’t tell the same story, don’t point to the same conclusions and don’t satisfy the same observers. We have to be honest in this discussion — finding the answer in “intermarriage” takes the blame for “alienation” away from Israel and puts it squarely on the inability of the American-Jewish community to find a remedy to the problem (if it’s even a problem) of intermarriage. On the other hand, finding the answer in “liberal” views makes Israel’s “hawkish” and “conservative” character a culprit in the story of alienation (and remember, we are not yet certain that there is such a thing).

It is important to acknowledge the underlying narrative told by each set of numbers, as no one in this field is free of bias and ideology (and that includes me, of course). Hence, the follow-up question I asked Cohen is hardly innocent, as he was quick to understand. I asked him to look back at his numbers and examine the theory that the two drivers of alienation — the two groups of “intermarried” and “liberal” — are the same. If the “intermarried” are also the “liberal” and the “liberal” are also the “intermarried,” the problem of competing narratives is more or less solved.

You think you know the answer to my question? I tried it with five to six knowledgeable Israelis, and all of them — all of them — got the answer wrong. They all assumed that the more liberal a Jew is, the more likely he is to come from an interfaith-marriage home. Cohen’s numbers support the opposite conclusion. That is to say: Jews from interfaith families are less liberal than Jews from two-Jewish-parents families. “Liberal” for the in-married is at 36 percent, while for the intermarried it is 21 percent (the detailed numbers can be seen at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain); “very liberal” for the in-married is at 17 percent, while, for the intermarried, it is at 11 percent. That is to say: The “intermarried” and the “liberals” are not the same group. This was not even surprising for Cohen, as he already wrote back in 1983, in his book “American Modernity and Jewish Identity” that intermarriage pulls Jews back toward the American political center. 

So where does all this leave us?

As usual, it leaves us realizing that reality is complex. If there is alienation from Israel among young American Jews, it is driven mostly by the growing phenomenon of intermarriage, but also by the young Jews’ political affiliation. In the age group of 18-29 — and again, this only refers to non-Orthodox Jews — close to 60 percent are “liberal.” Close to 20 percent of the “liberals” believe that the U.S. is “too supportive of Israel.” Do the math and draw the proper conclusion: Peter Beinart was wrong to simplistically argue that there is a “distancing” that mostly emanates from the politics of Israel and Jewish organizations. It would also be wrong to simplistically assume the opposite — that the policies of Israel and Jewish organizations have nothing to do with the sense of alienation.

The conclusions, as far as policies are concerned, are as follows: Israel might be able to help the American-Jewish community somewhat in figuring out how to reverse the trend of intermarriage or in finding new ways to connect intermarried Jews to the community and to Judaism. But it cannot run away from having to also develop a better way to connect with young “liberal” Jews. Namely, to adopt both a policy and a vocabulary that doesn’t alienate them.

That is, if Israel cares enough to attempt to keep them close. And of course, it doesn’t have to: The ultimate conclusion of some Israelis can be that losing young American liberals is still preferable to altering Israeli policies and language. But that’s a topic for a different discussion.

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