October 31, 2013
So What is Pew’s Verdict: Are Young American Jews Attached to Israel?
At some point my line of questioning seemed to get on Prof. Steven Cohen’s nerves – and it was my fault, I guess. We will get to that later. But first of all- Cohen’s numbers, the reason for this post. I received these numbers from the Israel Policy Forum, a Jewish American left-of-center organization. They were first presented by Cohen at an IPF conference call a couple of days ago (the IPF “advocates for a strong, Jewish and democratic Israel at peace with its neighbors, and promotes pragmatic strategies for achieving regional peace and security”). But here you will get all of them, properly presented. You will also get some snippets from Cohen’s analysis of the numbers, and you will get to understand why I got on his nerves.
In the conference call, Prof. Steven Spiegel was asking the questions - Cohen was giving the answers. The topic was “the recent Pew research poll on American Jewish trends as well as a recent study that he produced in conjunction with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs on rabbinic attitudes towards Israel”.
We will focus on Pew. Cohen presented numbers that can’t be found in the original Pew report. These are numbers that were run for Prof. Cohen by the Pew Research Center, at his request. And it was really a simple request: “running all the Israel numbers by age without the orthodox”. Since we know that the Orthodox are highly attached to Israel, and that the whole discussion surrounding attachment to (and “distance” from) Israel is about young non-Orthodox Jews, Cohen wanted to see how the numbers break down for that particuarly nteresting group.
So what did Cohen discover? For example, that when asked about emotional attachment to Israel, 35% of the older Jews (65 plus) are very attached, while among the youngest (18-29) only 21% are “very attached”. As you’d expect, similar gaps can be found in the other questions as well. Example: “how much is caring about Israel essential to your emotion of being Jewish - your part of being Jewish?” Cohen pointed out that “this was the largest change we saw in all the different items presented”. Among older people, 52% say it's essential, among the younger adults just 32%. Younger people travel to Israel more than their elders, and that’s “one reason the younger people may be more in touch than they would be otherwise”. The so-called “Birthright bump” was identified by Cohen in a previous study that we discussed here. Still, “they're going to Israel more and yet their attachment levels are equal to or lower than those who have been there less and who are a little older, and certainly a lot less than those who are oldest”.
Younger Jews are also more dovish in the views they express regarding the Middle East peace process and are more critical of Israel and suspicious of its policies. Cohen spoke about the higher percentage of young Jews who believe in the chances for peace. You can see it in this table (and let me remind you: these are the Pew numbers without the Orthodox).
Is there a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully?
The dovish approach of younger (non-Orthodox) Jews was even more visible when the question about government efforts for peace was presented. “The support for the notion that Israel's making a sincere effort for peace declines as you go from old to young - from 44% to 23%. The Palestinians- you know, the belief in Palestinians- rises from 8% to 19% so that among 65 and over if you look at the Israeli position versus the Palestinian, you know, the Israeli one wins 44% to 8%. Among those who are 18 to 29 they are almost tied, 23% to 19%. So in a sense the balance shifts from overwhelmingly 'pro-Israel' so to speak, or Israel-side, to neutrality”. See it in the table:
Efforts to Bring About a Peace Settlement
The dovish approach becomes somewhat worrisome as younger Jews are asked about America’s support for Israel. “We see a shift from the older to younger in the percentage who think that America has been too supportive of Israel from a mere 6% among those 65 and over to 27% among those 18 to 29”, Cohen said. He also said that further inquiry is needed, and that there are signs that connect such views to the rate of interfaith marriages. Cohen has emphasized many times in the past “the ongoing corrosive effect of intermarriage” on attachment to Israel.
The impression we initially got from Pew was one of surprisingly strong support for Israel among American Jews. Ted Sasson, writing in Tablet, was naïve enough to hope that the Pew survey will “settle” the debate concerning American Jews’ connection to Israel. Yet Cohen, in his presentation, seemed to believe that the initial relief was based on false premises. Rabbi Eric Yoffie even asked Cohen about this during the phone briefing. “My overall take on these numbers was that this is an extraordinary degree of support, policy differences not”, Yoffie said. Yet Cohen doesn’t see such a rosy picture. So I asked him – by email - if he believes the differences between the young and the older are a generational shift, or possibly the result of a life cycle phenomenon. I also asked if this means going back to the good-old “distancing” debate – a debate on which I have written thousands of words. And I guess the second part of my question – bluntly put, tongue in cheek – was the part Cohen found annoying: Do young Jews, I asked, “say they believe in peace because they are young and dumb, or do you think they'll still believe in it when they are 64?” This question was merely my attempt to find out if “distancing” is truly back.
This debate, put simply, is about whether younger Jews today – non-Orthodox Jews – are becoming less attached to Israel than their elders. Some say they are, some say they aren’t, some say that what we see in polls such as Pew's is the usual differences between younger and more liberal Jews to older and more conservative ones, a gap that will close with the aging of the younger Jews.
Cohen believes the gap is here to stay. His response to my first question was: “Higher levels of skepticism regarding whether the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement are probably more a matter of generation than of maturation. As a general rule, communal identities (like belonging to synagogues) change with family life cycle changes. Political identities are formed in adolescence and young adulthood and remain fairly stable throughout the life course. My sense is that views about Israel's sincerity in pursuing peace, settlement construction, and related matters is closely tied to political identities which are more stable and enduring”. He says that “the greater readiness of younger adults to believe that there's a way for Israel and a Palestinian state to coexist peacefully may be due in part to their youthfulness, in part to their socially progressive worldview, and in part because they are ethnically de-tribalized”. I get the sense that he doesn’t see this as equivalent to being “young and dumb"- and rightly so.
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Here are all the numbers I have from the Cohen presentation: