Jewish Journal


July 21, 2012

The ‘distancing’ debate: And the credit goes to….‎



The AIPAC Conference in Washington D.C., March 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Prof. Len Saxe of Brandeis University was reading the Workmen’s ‎Circle latest survey and drew a lesson from it that is surprisingly ‎obvious – but more surprisingly still, one that needs to be highlighted. ‎Since this survey effectively ends the debate over the “distancing” of ‎young Jews from Israel (my long paper on distancing can be found ‎here), Saxe suggests that next time we avoid debating views that ‎contradict facts:‎

Debate over the distancing hypothesis has animated scholars and ‎policy wonks over the last decade, but perhaps it can be put to ‎rest… as we move to more profound questions, we should pause to ‎try to draw lessons from the recent debate. The specifics of ‎American Jewish attitudes to Israel notwithstanding, one lesson ‎is how we attend to data.  Do we privilege instincts, anecdotes, or ‎even theoretical assumptions over quality data?  How we manage ‎the incongruence of our perceptions and actual data is not only an ‎issue for those of us who study the Jewish community, but also for ‎those who lead it.‎

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This debate about handling and interpreting data is at the core of my ‎exchange with Prof. Steven Cohen – we’ve already posted installments ‎‎1, 2 and 3, of it, and will keep posting next week. But what Saxe is ‎focused on is the conclusion drawn by Cohen, the leading scholar on ‎whose work the distancing infrastructures were built, that young ‎Jewish Americans are in fact closer to Israel than their older cohorts. ‎And please note, Cohen doesn’t retract “distancing” – he just believes ‎that the course has been reversed:‎

The big news - we think - is that we have evidence of a turnaround ‎in the frequently ‎observed long-term slide in attachment to Israel ‎among successively younger age ‎cohorts. In our study, as in so ‎many others, Israel attachment levels are lower among ‎those ages ‎‎35-44 than among those 45-54, who are in turn less attached than ‎those ‎ages 55-64. But in contrast with previous studies including ‎my own, we have the first ‎statistically significant results pointing ‎to higher attachment among those under 35.‎

So, are we all on the same page now? We are when it comes to current ‎distancing – there is no such thing. We are not when it comes to ‎distancing in the past. Saxe says: No distancing now, not distancing ‎earlier in time. Cohen says: We were able – by the force of our actions – ‎to stop distancing from increasing. In other words: Saxe gives the credit ‎to young Americans Jews who were always smart enough not to ‎distance themselves from Israel. Cohen gives the credit to the Jewish ‎institutions, leaders and philanthropists that acted promptly to bring ‎the young back into the Jewish fold.‎

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