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Identity Check

Central to a recent, hotly-debated essay by Peter Beinart is the contention that younger American Jews, overwhelmingly of liberal disposition, are increasingly distanced and alienated from Israel—and that the major reason why is to be found in Israel's own posture and behavior.  Is this indeed so? 

Relevant Links
Beyond Distancing  Steven M. Cohen, Ari Y. Kelman, Reboot/Berman Jewish Policy Archive. The alienation of young American Jews from Israel is a function of age, not of politics.
Wrong Numbers  Theodore Sasson, Len Saxe, Tablet. Peter Beinart is wrong to say that liberalism means alienation from Israel.
The Continuity of Discontinuity  Steven M. Cohen, Ari Y. Kelman, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies/ Berman Jewish Policy Archive. Out of their discomfort with established institutions, some young Jews are creating new organizational frameworks.
A Connected Critic  Micha Odenheimer, Eretz Acheret. Faithfulness to one’s own is a prerequisite for a commitment to humanity: an interview with Michael Walzer.

Among the sources cited by Beinart is a 2007 study by the sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. Yet, although stipulating an unmistakable decline, at all ages, in the level of American Jewish identification with Israel and comfort with the idea of a Jewish state, Cohen and Kelman conclude that "contrary to widely held beliefs, left-liberal political identity is not primarily responsible for driving down the Israel-attachment scores among the non-Orthodox." Instead, they find intermarriage to be a far more meaningful correlative of lessened identification, while travel to Israel correlates with greater attachment. A subsequent study by Cohen and Sam Abrams comes to similar conclusions.

In a 2008 paper of their own, the sociologists Leonard Saxe and Theodore Sasson argue that while, among the non-Orthodox, younger Jews are less identified with Israel than older, that is nothing new: historically, American Jews' attachments to Israel deepen with age.  They also find American Jews to be both politically centrist and fundamentally committed to Israel's existence, aside from whatever views they may hold on particular issues like settlements and Palestinian statehood. For Saxe and Sasson, two variables exercise decisive influence over American Jewish attitudes: trips to Israel like those sponsored by Birthright (on which the pair have written a number of studies) and the overall climate of U.S. opinion, with "the increasingly pro-Israel orientation of the American public likely provid[ing] support for specifically Jewish feelings of attachment."

From all this there flow three conclusions and three questions. The first conclusion has to do with the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews; the attachment of the former to Israel is deep at all ages. The second is that, although younger non-Orthodox Jews are indeed less attached to Israel than are their elders, Israeli policies are not the reason why. And the third is that bedrock American support for Israel is an important factor.   

As for the questions, one concerns whether today's young Jews will grow into a deeper identification as family, community, and continuity assume greater significance in their lives. Crucial variables here include the growing rate of intermarriage and all that it implies for the maintenance of a distinctive Jewish identity, as well as the cluster of general social and cultural trends that is loosening attachments to place and ethnicity among the classes in which Jews are prominently represented. 

A second, related question is whether today's Jewish organizations—communal, religious, and political—will be attractive to younger Jews as time goes by. And a third is what will happen to their identification with Israel should elite opinion, notably in the academic and international circles now heaping criticism on the country, become decisively more determinative of Jewish attitudes than is American public opinion at large.

In sum, the attachments of young American Jews to both Israel and Judaism rise and fall due to a range of commitments, experiences, and values that are themselves subject to the winds of history and the vicissitudes of circumstance. Specific Israeli policies are one, by no means decisive, element in the mix.  Which leads to a final question: what can and should be done now, by Israel, the Jewish community—and by young Jews and non-Jews to whom Israel matters vitally—to strengthen each other at a time when legitimate criticism of Israel increasingly merges with de-legitimization and demonization, and to make Israel's cause a source of living import and pride?  

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Independent Patriot on June 21, 2010 at 7:54 am (Reply)
The fault is that of the parents. You do not need to be orthodox to have a love and understanding of your Jewish heritage and to pass it on to your children. The problme is, is that the Jews of this country have neglected teaching their children who they are and where they come from for genrations. This is not something that happened overnight. Grandparents did not teach their childen who are now the parents, love and respect for their Jewish heritage, nor do they have a basic understanding of Jewish history. This is decades in the making. Truthfully I think it all has more to do with "parenting issues" throughout the US rather than just a Jewish issue.(Can't tell the kiddies "no" they might not like you and might be mad at you) Tell me how many of the Jewish children who can't tell you anything about Jewish history understand the US Constitution? We have allowed idiots to teach our children and destroy any respect for both their Jewish and American heritages in exchange for some pathetic defunct leftist poltical inanity.
Ira Stoll on June 21, 2010 at 8:17 am (Reply)
I thought the Jack Shafer piece on this Beinart issue was also good.

I have a couple of posts about the topic here and here

In response to the Jewish Ideas Daily piece, the reference to "a time when legitimate criticism of Israel increasingly merges with de-legitimization and demonization," what criticism of Israel, especially public criticism by Diaspora Jews, do you think is legitimate? The assumption seems almost to be that there is a whole category that is legitimate criticism of Israel, which is an assumption that could probably use further examination.
Yehudah Mirsky on June 21, 2010 at 9:27 am (Reply)
Thanks for reading and commenting on the piece. I certainly think that Israel (where I live) can legitimately be criticized, as can anyone else, and that people are free to express opinions on it as they do on any other matters occurring beyond their own national borders. I also expect that those criticisms will be made thoughtfully, with an awareness of the context and complexities of the issue at hand, and with the recognition that people in the country in question, in this case Israel, will have to live with the consequences of the policies being advocated. I also recognize that that thoughtfulness and recognition is regularly lacking (to put it mildly) in discussions of Israel. In writing this piece I tried to introduce a (hopefully) helpful bit of nuance into the larger discussion.
tz on June 22, 2010 at 2:25 am (Reply)
Distanced, no. I keep up with israeli news every day, have friends and family from there and living there, and have been learning to speak hebrew for years with the goal of being fluent.

Alienated, yes. With every new day I am more saddened by the actions of extremists, bigots, warmongers, thieves, theocrats and fascists who make israeli policy.

I long for a time when I can be more proud of the state itself, but as it stands this American Jew will have to be satisfied with being proud of my heritage and loved ones within and without the sad state of Israel, but ashamed of Israel itself. Does that answer your question?
tz on June 22, 2010 at 2:34 am (Reply)
Also, to answer your other question, I think a great way to achieve your goal would be to encourage "antizionist" American Jews to connect with Israeli Jews with similar viewpoints, when they are not lucky enough to have these relationships already. Learning that there are people inside of the country with histories similar to theirs and who feel critical of the Israeli government just like them, could be good for everyone, don't you think? Build a wider international network for your cause and reinforce the humanity of Israelis at the same time.

Problem is most American Jewish orgs will discourage this. Many have policies that literally punish and excommunicate anyone in the community who is critical of Israel. The San Francisco JCF is one example. Perhaps you should spend some energy focusing on this problem?

Yehudah Mirsky on June 22, 2010 at 4:48 pm (Reply)
Well, you've certainly answered my question as far as where you stand and in demonstrating that human care and political alienation are not incompatible. I myself think that ties between Israelis and non-Israelis of all political stripes and persuasions are a good thing, and certainly that engaging with Israelis who are deeply critical and deeply Zionist (and there are) is a good thing too. As for the SF Federation, and not being all that familiar myself with the specifics, BDS seems to me an example of the old adage that 'hard cases make bad law,' i.e the BDS movement drives people, organizations and communities to draw lines that they otherwise would not want to draw. And thanks for writing.
Ezra Chwat on June 23, 2010 at 1:59 am (Reply)
Well done Yehuda, An informative and stimulating essay.
I might add an additional factor that is being overlooked, in the alienation of American Jews towards Israel and Zionism. A reaction to the intense socio-demographic change that the Jewish people have undergone in the last generation, and its effect on Diaspora Jewry in general. In relation to the factors you mentioned, this has a mutually-compounding effect on all of them.
In the Judaism you and I were born into fifty years ago, the Jewish state was a mere blot at the fringes of Jewish consciousness. The State was barely a generation old, and a held small percentage of world Jewry. One could boldly identify with Judaism in the same vein as the hundreds of generations of the Diaspora did before us, without the pull of the nationhood and its ramifications. The battles of the Bible had long been transformed into ethical and religious struggles against external and behavioral evil.
This is clearly no longer so. With Israeli population soon to be the majority of World Jewry, and the State under disproportionate scrutiny of world attention, it can no longer lapse from consciousness, as the central denominator if Jewish identification.
This change confronts the very identity of Diaspora Jew with a progressively uncomfortable challenge: Just how Jewish am I if I'm not Israeli? Hard-put to answer this, he will grasp at straws like Holocaust consciousness, and any non-Zionist Jewish causes and issues, to provide an alternative that will allow for the continuity of Jewish identity despite the foreseen liquidation of the Diaspora. Ultimately, the strongest straw for non-Orthodox American Jewry is the flag of universal human rights and liberalism that we have traditionally cherished and championed as our calling card as a light among the Nations. If Judaism is an ethic, and not a nation, it not only justifies the permanence of the exile it even demands a rejection of Zionism and the nationalist values that it obligates.
It would be tempting, but shallow, to parallel the revulsion felt by non-orthodox towards the Jewish State, to their revulsion for Orthodoxy. The former polemic is on the ethical-vs.-religious axis, the latter on the ethical-vs.-national axis, so they seem similar. Yet one remains to ponder what the stimulus of this revulsion is to begin with? After having raised the above point- a deeper parallel can be drawn. A Jew who wishes to remaining exile is pushed to justify his Jewish identity by glorifying with ideal of the exile. Could it be the same reactionary stimulus that spurned the VaYoel Moshe against Zionism that is driving American non-orthodox Jewry in the same direction?
It is at this point that Beinart has actually hit the nail right on the head (albeit the wrong nail as I will explain). As the latter two thirds of his essay point out, what is unappealing to a Cosmopolitan Western Jew is not hard-line Israeli policy, but rather the consensus of nationalist values in Israeli society.
Unfortunately for Beinart, he relies on sources like Yaron Ezrahi for his analysis of internal Israeli Social dialectics. Thus the misconception of the dissipation of what “came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation”. In truth this consensus of libertarian values was cherished by a limited sector, albeit a politically powerful one. This sector is on the verge of collapse due to the inevitable forces of demographic impotency, and the extended inapplicability of these values in the intolerant Middle Eastern climate. Furthermore, Ezrahi’s analysis of the "gulf" of Israeli divisiveness does not perceive a dialog of two value systems of equal footing, but as a one legitimate, universally accepted, value system pit against some kind of tribal psychosis set off by post-Holocaust Trauma. It's an unfortunate polemic habit of the Israeli Left to assume intellectual superiority by pleading insanity for their opponents. Though this habit may suit Beinart's point, he is misled by it to a misunderstanding of the Israeli consensus. Post-holocaust paranoia was the trendy diagnosis over three decades ago for the Begin/Kahane Zionists, and even then it was unfair. The persistence in its usage just discloses how long one has been out of touch. To today's Israeli nationalists, the majority being non-European, the Holocaust is far from the center of identity and consciousness.
The internal Israeli divide has long been rigidly stratified on lines of social affiliation. The religious and Oriental sectors that comprise the Israeli majority have always given preference to national values to universal ones. They do so by virtue of affiliation, not political dialog. The “Great Divide” in defining the aims of 21st century Zionism can be defined as such: The minority bearers of universal values, presently "gasping for air" (Beinart's term) are by and large those who ancestors landed in Israel by historical misfortune that Europe became unbearable for Jews at the same time when America was stingy on immigration. These Jews cannot in clear conscience stake a claim against the Palestinians. The Religious/Oriental majority (or their ancestors) came here because they understood that the Exile was over.( I recall Thomas Freidman had already made this observation in wake of the Begin victory over thirty years ago).
I cannot see how non-orthodox western Jewry, desperately justifying a continuity of the exile as an inherit value, can be reconciled with the Israeli nationalist majority.
One can also ponder how the above factor affects the Gentile American approach to Israel and Diaspora Jews. Perhaps the change in the centrality and long-term stability of the Jewish Nationa-State can be considered one of the causes of a consensus that once admired Golda and now rejects Bibi, even though the former was far more explicit in her denial of Palestinian nationhood. But this is a different essay.
I'm sorry to have omitted comment about how the Orthodox of the Diaspora fit in this picture. If the non-orthodox feel alienated from Zionism because of its dissonance with their universal humanist values, this clearly doesn't affect the Orthodox. They have been long conditioned to live at peace with dissonance, some even thrive on it.

ezra chwat on June 24, 2010 at 6:51 am (Reply)
Forgive me for flashing a term that needs clarification: "Vayoel Moshe" is the catchword of the Satmar doctrine that Zionism is not just an aberration of Judaism, but rather diametrically opposed. My point here is the hypothesis that both Satmar and the progressively non-zionist Diaspora developed their doctrine as a reaction to the confrontation with Zionism that demands them to either delegitimize or be delegitimized.

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