Young American Jews feel emotionally distant from Israel. The cold, hard truth is undeniable: They feel less emotional attachment to Israel than their parents, and significantly less than their grandparents.

As the pithy volume from Albert Vorspan that neatly skewered American Jewish life proclaimed, “Start Worrying: Details to Follow.”

I began working with the campus Israel network just over two years ago, as the community discussion regarding young American Jews’ distancing from Israel was about to reach fever pitch, thanks to a June 2010 essay by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books. Beinart pointed to research, conducted by Steven Cohen of New York University among others, indicating that young American Jews were increasingly emotionally distanced from Israel. Beinart attributed this distancing to Israeli political policy and the lack of a place within the American Jewish establishment not only vocal dissent, but for active pressure on Israel to change its policy.

Pandemonium ensued. Some, wishing to advance an agenda to exert pressure on Israel from the outside, hailed Beinart as a hero, and even paid for his speaker tour on campuses across the US. Establishment organizations nervously denied that they were as rigid as Beinart claimed; some, as if to prove the point, stepped up their own vocal criticism of Israeli policy. Because the subject was “the kids,” nearly every “adult” seemed to have an opinion — and, usually, it entailed pointing the finger at some other grownup in the family.

Through it all — as such family disputes usually go — nearly no one bothered to ask the “kids” how they really felt; and even though the facts were there all along, most of the organized Jewish world never bothered to stop and check.

It was a sad day indeed, therefore, when I was given the opportunity earlier this winter to speak before a collection of Federation and Jewish foundation executives and to present the real data — and when I saw the surprise register in the eyes of those in attendance.

The truth is as surprising, and disturbing, as the original myth is dangerous.

As it turns out, Beinart was dead wrong: wrong in the facts, and wrong in the interpretation. In an interview in the Israel Campus Beat, Leonard Saxe, who directs the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, called Beinart “an ignorant consumer of research on American Jewish attitudes to Israel,” adding — not for the first time — “The bottom line is that Beinart is wrong about the facts. His thesis of how politics drives American attachment is a straw person, not sustained by evidence.”

Even Steven Cohen, upon whose research Beinart had relied, strenuously and repeatedly denied Beinart’s thesis. Cohen explained: “[D]istancing is about growing apathy about or disengagement with Israel. It means not thinking about, talking about, or caring about Israel. It does NOT mean opposition to Israeli government policies or criticism of Israel’s policies, both of which are signs of closeness and attachment.”

In fact, what Beinart had hypothesized as a sign of distancing was, in reality, the opposite. The left-right hypothesis about the origins of distancing was a myth manufactured from whole cloth. Polls like those conducted by The Israel Project, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and others consistently demonstrated high levels of support for Israel among young Americans in general, and young American Jews in particular, policy disagreements notwithstanding. The issue around distancing wasn’t the one that Beinart and others — perhaps with the aid of wishful thinking — hoped to see around policy disputes. In fact, Cohen’s research reflected a bitter irony: those young American Jews who demonstrated greater emotional distancing from Israel were actually more conservative in their political views than those who reported feeling emotionally closer to Israel.

Polls consistently demonstrated high levels of support for Israel among young Americans in general, and young American Jews. (Photo credit:CC-BY cbowns, Flickr)

Polls consistently demonstrated high levels of support for Israel among young Americans in general, and young American Jews. (Photo credit:CC-BY cbowns, Flickr)

How could that be? It was because those who reported feeling greater emotional distance from Israel were also reporting feeling greater emotional distance from Judaism and the Jewish community as a whole; and the American Jewish community tends to trend more liberal, politically, than the rest of American society. In short, the young Jews who reported feeling less emotionally attached to Israel looked and behaved more like the rest of America: politically moderate, generally positive regarding Israel, but more indifferent emotionally to Judaism, and Israel as a whole, than their parents. They simply didn’t see the importance of Judaism to their existence; Israel was just one piece of that growing indifference.

There, too, the data, including that from the work of Ira Sheskin at the University of Miami, was unequivocal: Lower reported levels of emotional attachment to Israel correlated strongly with two factors, neither of which was political views: (1) affiliation with the Jewish community and religious practice, and (2) intermarriage. As to the second factor, among those who were brought up in an intermarried family, or were intermarried themselves, the reported rate of emotional attachment to Israel, and to Judaism as a whole, was dramatically lower. Cohen makes it explicit: “[T]he prime mover in promoting distancing [is] intermarriage.”

Breathing a sigh of relief at the exposed myth of the left-right divide causing emotional distancing among young American Jews? Not so fast.

If Cohen is correct (and Beinart is not), then the American Jewish community is right to be very, very worried. As of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey — the last comprehensive data available on the subject — nearly half of college-aged Jews reported that they had only one Jewish parent in the home. The expectation is that the rate has only increased in the decade that has followed.

In other words, young American Jews aren’t emotionally distanced from Israel because of Israel’s policies; for many, Israel and Judaism are becoming no more important than those topics would be to any other American. And if, as Cohen claims, the prime mover in this emotional distancing is intermarriage, then the work of establishing the importance of Israel and Judaism to the next generation of young American Jews is only becoming even more urgent.

What that tells us is the work to establish the importance of Israel to the lives of young American Jews, and to young Americans as a whole, is still very real and pressing. We just don’t need myths to distract us from the very real facts in that regard.

Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat.

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