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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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