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Going the Distance

This article is the first of a two-part series.  Today's feature discusses American Jews' attachment to Israel; Monday's feature will discuss Israelis' attachment to American Jews. —The Editors

Israel is a nation-state.  In contrast, Diaspora Jewryin particular, American Jewryis a network of voluntary communities, constituting not just different structures but different life-worlds.  While it is usually taken for granted that nation-states and their respective diasporas will grow apart, with Jews the issue is hotly debated.  This is, ironically, a tribute to just how intense the ties are in the first place.  But a debate it is: The question of "distancing" has in recent years taken its place alongside anti-Semitism, intermarriage, cultural illiteracy, and assimilation in the dubious honor roll of headaches that define Jewish communal life.  

For better or worse, we have the sociologists to thank.  Two studies in particular, by accomplished researchers, have been at the center of the distancing debate.  In Cultural Events and Jewish Identities, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman concluded that American Jews ages 18 to 35 are less attached to Israel than their parents and will grow more distanced over time. But in Understanding Young Adult Attachment to Israel, a team of Brandeis researchers led by Theodore Sasson argued that distancing is not happening.  In this alternative view, the relative weakness of young people's ties to Israel is a function of their position in the life cycle: As they grow older and establish families and communities, ties to Israel will feature more prominently in their world.

These studies generated discussion among professional Jews and other usual suspects, but the question really hit the big time when Peter Beinart, in his sensational New York Review of Books article, extrapolated from the studies to fashion a wholesale indictment of American Jewish leadership—whose lockstep allegiance to Israeli policies, he alleged, even the most misguided of them, was the cause of the distancing.  An aftershock came with an article in Commentary by Daniel Gordis on what he saw as alienation from Israel among, of all people, rabbinical students.  

The specter of distancing has been mobilized for agendas ranging from leftist politics to Orthodox triumphalism and has created a new cottage industry for sociologists.  But now seasoned journalist Shmuel Rosner and his colleague Inbal Hakman of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI, where I used to work), wade into this discussion with a paper summarizing the research and bringing order, even enlightenment.

Rosner and Hakman distinguish among three kinds of distancing: emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. Emotional distancing is a waning of visceral attachment to Israel ("how would you feel if Israel were destroyed?").  Cognitive distancing concerns the way people think about Israel as part of their Jewishness ("do you identify with Zionism?").  Behavioral distancing consists of concrete actions ("have you been to Israel?").  Most public discussion, as with Beinart and Gordis, focuses on the cognitive; the actual research focuses on the emotional. 

The research studies agree on several points:  A significant majority of American Jewry still feels connected to and supports Israel.  The clearest single marker of distancing is intermarriage.  Visits to Israel, more than almost any other factor, enhance attachment.  And among Orthodox Jews, while there is no general erosion in attachment, there are gaps between older and younger Jews, with some trends presaging the possibility of future distancing. Some of the dynamics driving these trends, like globalization and the decline in particularism among educated elites, are not specific to Jews.  Some—the loosening of fixed religious identities, decline of organized community, and rise in intermarriage—mark Jewish life as a whole.  Yet other drivers of distancing are specific to Israel, such as the Orthodox monopoly on religious life and, yes, growing unease over Israel's ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

The role of the Palestinian issue in distancing has sparked the most heated arguments, but the research studies—to their authors' surprise—have not found politics to be a key variable in attachment-versus-distancing.  It is the other way around: Young peoples' views on Israeli politics depend on how tied they feel to Israel in the first place.  Moreover, Rosner and Hakman note, "The very decision of young Jewish Americans to criticize Israel, often sharply, indicates their continued engagement, and is sometimes the mark of a very strong connection.  The investment of time, energy and resources in changing or improving Israel embodies a desire for greater involvement and partnership, rather than distancing."

This is critical.  Sometimes—as recognized by the most acute Jewish thinkers, like Rav Kook—the most trenchant critics of Israel or Jewish communal life are those who care the most.  The key question is whether critics act in a spirit of genuine connection and commitment, with due humility regarding the practical consequences of their positions and a recognition that it is the Israelis on the ground who will need to live with those consequences.  These caveats, of commitment and humility, apply equally on all sides of the debates.  The evangelical Christian, the armchair warrior in New Jersey, the Jewish campus activist—all deserve a hearing.  All of their ideas should be debated on their merits; and all, as Pirkei Avot counsels, should "take care with their words."

In the end, Rosner and Hakman observe, distancing is part of a complex system that involves both external drivers over which Jews and Israel have little control, like global geopolitics, and internal drivers over which they have a great deal of control, like religious pluralism in Israel.  It is a mix of push and pull that should be studied with a care befitting its complications.  Building on an earlier IPPI study, Rosner and Hakman's new paper proposes that Israel remove legal barriers to non-Orthodox Judaism, expand its cultural and educational presence in America, engage with new Jewish organizations and communities, and do some homework—in order to learn about American Jewry on its own terms, not merely as an extension of Israel's political and fundraising needs.  

More generally, Rosner and Hakman suggest that our thinking should concentrate less on the negative term "distancing" than on the more positive and self-reflective question of how to cultivate attachments and connections in a world of wide-open choices.

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Jacob Silver on April 27, 2012 at 9:45 am (Reply)
This article is well written, and it lays out the issues clearly. The "attachment" of Jews to Israel is a complex question. It depends first of all on the definition of Jew. And this is 80% of the complexity. There are Reform Jews, although this number is significantly diminishing, who think of Judaism as simply a religion or faith, similar to Christianity and Islam. Their connection is weak. There are extreme Orthodox, of which the Naturei Karta are an outlier, whose connection to Judaism is so complete and so faith-based that they cannot relate to the present Israel, and will not, until God, or an unambiguous prophet of God, establishes a State of Israel. Their connection is weak but ambiguous. Most of the other movements have members, including most of the Reform, which identify and feel a connection to the State of Israel. But individuals among these will temper their connection with current needs and crises. These may be employment or unemployment problems, marital problems, problems with offspring, problems deriving from the care for elders, and others. It is important to encourage interest among young people. in this connection Taglit Israel is a very effective program. This program should be expanded. For Jewish leaders who are concerned about strengthening the Jewish connection to Israel, there is no better way than increasing the number of young Jews who participate in Taglit Israel.
Naomi Paiss on April 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm (Reply)
This article is thought-provoking. We at New Israel Fund have been engaged lovingly and critically with Israel for 33 years and would be first to say that engagement means engagement with the real Israel, with all its issues, rather than sitting back and enjoying the mythological version. Getting Israelis to engage more with American Jews is worthwhile as well. But we cannot ignore the growing values divide between those in in power in Israel, who drive anti-democratic and anti-peace policies, and the "distancing" that creates in liberal American Jews of all ages. It does no one any good, anywhere on the political spectrum, for more Americans to dismiss Israel engagement as hopeless. Israel will have to respond in ways beyond religious pluralism, as important as that is, to keep that community of democratic and humanistic values alive.
Ellen on April 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Reply)
Sorry to interject this note of realism into the conversation, but more and more Americans are dismissing engagement with the Arab side of this conflict as hopeless. Even none other than Hanan Ashrawi stated several years ago that in the Western world people have lost interest in the Palestinian cause, and the lack of decent leadership on her side of the conflict is clearly one of the reasons. She made this comment before the outbreak of the Arab Revolts, which has knocked the Palestinians far down on the agenda of international busybodies, who these days seem to be providing cover for Bashar Assad to slaughter his own citizens. So much for the community of democratic and humanistic values.
Hannah on April 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm (Reply)
A survey released this week on Jewish values in America supports the point that Naomi has made here. The value that is most important for American Jews is social justice, dwarfing other values, such as support of Israel or religious observance. It is hard for American Jews to witness examples of social injustice in America (immigrants being mistreated, citizens without health insurance) or examples of social injustice Israel (women being told to go to the back of the bus, African immigrants being mistreated,Arab citizens being treated as second class) without speaking out, because that is the value that is most important to them. They are speaking from the heart to people they believe share their values. But in looking at the future, the more those values differ, the more there will be distancing.
Stephen on April 29, 2012 at 6:03 am (Reply)
Instead of carping on the sidelines about anti-peace policies, the New Israel Fund should create programs to flood liberal American Jews of all ages (a kind of a Peace Corps) into the Palestinian Authority and Israeli society to help educate both sides on human rights issues and social justice. This is tongue-in-cheek, but it illustrates that outsiders have little influence over the underpinnings of the intracability of this conflict. Lack of trust is a huge obstacle, criminally perpetuated by the hate education of the PA and the contempt and loathing of Israelis toward Palestinians. Victimizing the victims on both sides of a conflict has never worked. It is no wonder that this hopelessness is a huge turn-off for young American, and other diaspora, Jews who would prefer to devote their energies to their own inspirational life goals and aspirations. I can believe that this "distancing" is a stage of life phenomenon.
Naomi Paiss on April 29, 2012 at 5:16 pm (Reply)
One thing NIF does not do is sit on the sidelines, since we're supporting pretty much all of Israel's human rights, social justice, and religious pluralism organizations one way or another--and taking a lot of attacks for it from the settlers, the hard-line right, the ultra-orthodox, and so on. But we agree that arguing over victimhood is useless and just widens the gap between the two parties. Better to work for better societies on both sides, because peaceful, prosperous democracies that value their own minorities are a lot more likely to make peace.
Daniel Greenberg on April 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm (Reply)
Putting too much stock in democratic peace theory is a recipe for disappointment. Practically, democratizing societies are quite prone to violent outbursts. Moreover, if New Israel Fund has the view that there are two "sides," that all "settlers" have equal rights only on one side, and that only on one side must governments "respond" to "keep democratic and humanistic values alive," then you're not really working to help two societies have congruent values anyway. This might be better than sitting on the sidelines or it might not, depending on the extent to which NIF's beneficiaries "take care with their words" and "cultivate attachments." Perhaps it would send a clearer message if NIF acknowledged that not only Boycott Divestment and Sanctions' ends but its means are careless and sever attachments.
Ellen on April 30, 2012 at 9:40 am (Reply)
Yes, the Palestinian Authority has built an education system based on Jew-hatred. Obviously, this makes the peace process impossible, as younger Palestinians have no motivation to be realistic about their predicament or willing to coexist with a "Jewish" state. Liberal Jews in the diaspora refuse to recognize this reality and instead criticize Israel endlessly, which only makes them look like delusionary fools and undermines their own credibility among Israelis and the affiliated part of American Jewry, which is increasingly not liberal. They have dug their own graves by their refusal to stare reality in the face.
Naomi Paiss on April 30, 2012 at 10:11 am (Reply)
As a matter of factsee the following article, in a public forum, regarding BDS: NIF's brief is to work in Israel. We don't work with the Palestinian groups; an organization must be a registered Israeli nonprofit to receive our funding or assistance. That doesn't mean there's not a lot of work to be done there; others are trying to do it.
J. M. Rice on April 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm (Reply)
Someone once said that the Diaspora, the galut, was the best thing that could have happened to the Jews. Had this not happened, Jews might have remained just another of the parochial, endlessly bickering sects of the Levant. What has made the People great is centuries of dialectic: thesis of Torah, antithesis of world, synthesis of Mishna and Talmud. The 18th-century sage Moses Mendelssohn believed that a synthesis between Jewishness and Germanness was possible. Alas, his dream was doomed, but only by force and fiat, for his dream was shared by many. In fact, synthesis became the norm for Diaspora Jews. For example, from the mid-1800s through the Great War, German Jews were as repelled as German Gentiles by the mass migrations of Eastern Jews, unassimilated Jews who inflamed Hitler's anti-Semitism on the streets of Vienna, the Jews who bore their shtetls on their backs, as the Hasidim and other Haredim still do in New York and Tel Aviv. Ruth Geller reported that the response of New York Jews to European refugees from the Holocaust was, "What are you doing here?" In other words, assimilation and "distancing," as Mirsky suggests, are not anathema to Jewish identity. One could make the case that Christian denominations are syntheses, or local inflections, of the overarching religion, rather than heretical threats to it. Could "distancing" merely be the expression of a less formal but just as real local inflection of Judaism? For that matter, could one not find "distancing" present in all worldwide religions? Are we, then, talking not so much about a Jewish issue as a human one? A young American Jewish girl was once asked if she wanted to go to Jerusalem. She replied that she didn't need to "go to Jerusalem" because "Jerusalem is in my heart." The American Indian sage Black Elk regarded the "central mountain of the world" as Harney Peak, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. "But," said Black Elk in telling of his visions from Harney Peak, South Dakota, "everywhere is the center of the world." Even as Black Elk was propounding this insight, the devoted Zionist Albert Einstein was inferring from his discovery of relativity that every point is the center of the universe (as every child knows about himself). Distancing is a matter of degree--not tropic, not arctic, but temperate. That's where a great culture evolves.

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