Identity Check

By Yehudah Mirsky
Monday, June 21, 2010

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?  

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