Going the Distance

By Yehudah Mirsky
Friday, April 27, 2012

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.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/goingthedistance

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