July 10, 2012
‘Trust’ problem for young American Jews? Hard for me to see it
I hope to have a chance to write more about the new Workmen’s Circle survey of American Jews – and to discuss it with one of the authors, Prof. Steven Cohen, later this week or maybe next week. In the meantime, here are some highlights and reservations:
1. The good news: It’s simple – travel brings American Jewish youngsters closer to Israel. No ifs, no buts, nothing. Get them to go, and the closeness index will climb. Even as young American Jews are becoming a bit more skeptical about Israel’s policies, they still are feeling closer to the country. Even if these youngsters are disengaged from organized Judaism – travel still does the trick. Like magic.
2. Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. There are two indices in this new study – one for closeness (attachment to Israel) and one for what the study defines as the “Trust Index”. The attachment index is simple, and comprises two questions:
The Trust Index – the one in which young American Jews score a little lower – is built around three much more nuanced questions, confusingly framed:
I’m sorry, but with such questions I tend not to trust the Trust Index.
3. I’m also a little suspicious of the motivations behind the promotion of such a confusing index. In the press release, it was made quite clear that the good people of the WC would like readers to consider the two indices as a on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand type of study.
4. “Jews can be both attached to Israel and assume fairly independent if not skeptical stances toward Israeli government policies”, it says (I’m quoting Prof Samuel Abrams, one of the two authors). Again, telling us that yes, American Jews love Israel, but that we should beware, because they are critical of its policies. I’m sorry, but I don’t see it in the numbers. What I see is this: a 15% rise for the youngest age group on “attachment”, compared to a very negligible 2% decline on the mysterious “trust index”.
5. One should note though that decline in the “trust index” is more noticeable if one compares the two younger groups (and not just the youngest) to the older groups. Should we consider this as proof of a decline? Or maybe it’s the other way around: the decline in trust – noticeable between the groups aged 35-44 (59 on the index) and 45-54 (67 on the index) – has almost stopped.
6. I was puzzled by more than one Israel-related question in this study. For example, one question asks respondents to identify “important issues” from a long list. Is Israel important? There’s no such available answer – the only available answer is “Israel and the Palestinians”. Well, what about those quirky Jews to which “Israel” is important, and “the Palestinians” are not in the same category? What are they not given a chance to express their views?
7. Let’s just say it: From the press release it would seem that this survey presents a mixed report on the feelings of American Jews towards Israel and its policies. A more “nuanced view” as the headline promises. Yes, the numbers for the young show a little tendency to be more critical of Israel than the older groups, but really, how much can one interpret such minor differences when the overall picture is so vivid? Take a look at some numbers.
8. Only 13% of respondents do not view “the current Israeli government” as one that “truly wants peace”. Thirteen percent believe the “Netanyahu-doesn’t-want-peace” mantra. That’s pretty low. And by the way, I’d take issue with the decision to ask about the “current” government as opposed to the Israeli government – it is a way for those drafting the questions to hint that there might be a problem with the “current” government.
10. And remember: this survey excluded the two most Israel-attached groups of American Jews – the Orthodox and the day-school educated. With them, I’m not even sure the percentage of Jews trusting the Palestinians not to want to destroy Israel would be high enough to be recorded.
11. The most telling answer in this poll is the one asking about US support: 73% of American Jews would like the US to support Israel, period. The “nuanced view” of those wanting support for “both equally” (Israel and the Palestinians) is 17%. Now, this is hardly the final word on American Jews’ relations with Israel, their complicated feelings and their growing criticism of some Israeli policies. But all in all, it is another nail in the coffin of “distancing”. There is no detectable distancing in this survey, there is no sign of probable future distancing. There are also a lot of reasons to be optimistic about relations between Israel and the next generation of American Jews – just get them to visit.