American Jewish-Israel Relations in the 21st Century

Following is the speech I gave on January 25, 2015 at Congregation Or Hadash in Ft. Washington, PA of the topic of American Jewish-Israel Relations in the 21st Century.  The program was dedicated to Barbara Siegel, z”l, widow of Burt Siegel, longtime friend and colleague in the Jewish community relations field. __________________________________________________________

I initially had a hard time conceptualizing how to approach my presentation here this evening on American Jewish-Israel relations …then I received your flyer announcing the program, which made reference to the 21st century, and my problem was solved.

While many in my generation, the baby boomers, have made it into the 21st century and hope to spend a significant additional amount of time visiting here, the truth is that this century belongs to our children, the so-called millennials (born between 81-97), and our grandchildren.

Consequently, I decided to focus specifically on the younger generation. Although I am far from being a medical doctor, I plan on offering you a diagnosis, a prognosis and a prescription for what I personally would like to see implemented in this relationship as the 21st century unfolds.

Some additional preliminary comments: a relationship is a two-way proposition, meaning that its quality depends on engagement not just from the American Jewish side, but from Israelis as well. I am not particularly qualified, nor does time permit anyway, to do a serious examination of the Israeli side of this equation.

Our connection, our attachment, our relationship as American Jews to Israel is largely driven by two factors— first, the strength of our self identification as Jews and feeling part of a collective called the Jewish people, which has achieved national sovereignty in the State of Israel; the second factor is situational, the real world environment in which Israel and the American Jewish community exist.

First, let’s consider some data— and there is an abundance of survey material on the American Jewish-Israel relationship.  The most recent and comprehensive study of American Jewry was done by Pew in 2013.

My parents’ generation, dubbed the “greatest generation,” has the highest religious Jewish identification at 93%, while 81% of the baby boomers see their Jewish identity in religious terms; and only 68% of the millennials think of themselves as religiously Jewish– still a substantial majority, but a significant drop off. And the trend is clear.

This is an important finding because there is a correlation between religious self identification and attachment to Israel.  Religious Jews have a much higher degree of attachment to Israel than Jews who identify as Jews in other ways, culturally for example. 49% of religiously identifying Jews believe caring about Israel is an essential part of being Jewish; while only 23% of non-religiously identified Jews believe caring about Israel is essential.

What does this mean? Less religiously identified, the younger generation is less likely to feel attached Israel, and, indeed, this is what the Pew survey shows.  The baby boomer generation is very attached to Israel at between 32-35%, with over 65 year olds at 38%, while the millennials who are very attached Israel come in at 25%. I suspect that, but for the Birthright program, this figure would have been significantly lower. What this means is that the Greatest Generation and baby boomer generations are Jewish more instinctively; whereas the millenials in a sense are all “Jews by choice.”

So much for the Jewish identification factor… clearly, the trend is for less attachment, less experiencing Israel as an important part of one’s Jewish identity. What about the real world environment and how that has shaped our relationship?  My parents’ generation lived through World War II and the Holocaust, and then witnessed the amazing establishment of the state of Israel, with widespread international support and recognition in 1948. They built an extensive network of powerful Jewish institutions — mostly in suburbia — from federations, to welfare agencies, to JCCs, to synagogues. It was a membership model. You “belonged,” and, even if Israel wasn’t the highest communal priority, support for nation building in an Israel struggling with enormous economic and security challenges was a given.

Then came 1967 and the Six Day War — with the older segment of the baby boomer generation in its early 20s or teens — and Israel was transformed into one of if not THE central issue in American Jewish life.     This development received further reinforcement six years later with the traumatic Yom Kippur war.     AIPAC went from being a tiny operation run out of a living room into an organizational powerhouse, dominating the Jewish public affairs agenda.  Federation fundraising skyrocketed on Israel’s back— political advocacy and philanthropy became the primary channels for Israel involvement.                                                                                                                                                 Notwithstanding its military successes, we experienced a vulnerable Israel; an Israel almost universally perceived as fully committed to achieving peace with its neighbors — if only they would come to accept the existence of the Jewish state in the Middle East. This was the Israel of the kibbutz, of the beloved Golda Meir — it was relatively easy to form a deep and loving bond with such a society, and many of us did. Our Israel also struggled economically under a heavy defense burden and fundraising continued to revolve heavily around assisting our brothers and sisters in the Jewish state.

What about the millennials? The military conflicts they have witnessed — unlike the clean army versus army battles of 67 and 73 — are morally ambiguous intifadas and asymmetric warfare in Lebanon and Gaza, which by their very nature have resulted in considerable civilian casualties on the Arab side. They have witnessed a dramatic growth of government-supported Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank, which, while not making peace with the Palestinians and the broader Arab world impossible, they create complications that will be difficult to overcome in any negotiating process.

The word “occupation” is an integral part of their lexicon. They have not known a time when Israel did not control all of Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Especially in recent years, they also see the growth of a strain in Israeli leadership – I don’t need to name names — that seeks to privilege Israel’s Jewish identity over its democratic character. Far from requiring Diaspora largesse, Israel’s economy is healthy—in some ways healthier than our own. Does “start-up” nation need American Jewish charity? Israeli funds are helping bring our kids on Birthright trips.

A few more facts from the Pew study….Respondents were asked whether for them being Jewish was mainly a matter of ancestry, culture or religion. Those not identifying religiously chose ancestry and culture by 83%, which is not surprising; but that also was the top category, at 55%, even among those who identified religiously.

When  asked what is essential to being Jewish, leading ethical and moral life came in at 69%, justice and equality 56%, and caring about Israel only 43%. These were numbers for the Jews generally, not broken down by age.

So we’re getting a pretty clear picture of our “patient,” the Jewish millennial.  They don’t define identity in religious terms; but are more cultural;  they are less attached to Israel than previous generations; and do not see Israel as integral part of being Jewish;  they are growing into maturity in an age when Israel/Israeli policy is subject to a lot of criticism, and they do not have the historical experience — the wonder and awe of living through the 48-73 era of birth and national self-defense — to be able to place current events in a broader context.

So much for the diagnosis; now here is my prognosis. Given the trends identified in the Pew study; the likelihood of continuing and messy conflict between Israel and the Palestinian for the foreseeable future; and the direction of some in the Israeli political class who seem prepared to sacrifice Israel’s democracy to its Jewish character — a sacrifice American Jews overwhelmingly reject — the connection between the millennial generation and Israel is likely to further erode as we pass through 21st century.

If you are like I am, you face this prognosis with sadness. If you are like I am, you believe that an attachment to Israel can and should be an integral part of one’s Jewish identity. If you are like I am, you want your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see Israel, representing the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty after two millennia, to be the most important development in modern Jewish history and you want them to forge a meaningful personal connection to Israel.

I believe the prognosis can be somewhat improved with appropriate intervention.  But, first, a couple of preliminary comments on intervention….Our goal should be to help the younger generation satisfactorily finish the following two sentences for themselves:

First—It is important that I remain Jewish and that my children remain Jewish because….

I firmly believe that Israel cannot and should not provide the exclusive or even central answer to that question. Jewish families and institutions, especially synagogues, are challenged to work cooperatively to help young people find their own answers. If successful, and only if we are successful with this question, then we can frame a second sentence the millenials have to be able to answer….

It is important that I support Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people because…

The first question does not necessarily feed into the second, especially for the young generation.

It is not enough to say—I care about my Jewish identity; therefore, automatically, I support and want to be in relationship with the State of Israel.  This equation may be valid to some degree with older generations; but not with the millenials. Furthermore, I am convinced advocacy and philanthropy, which served as the pillars of involvement for previous generations, will not speak nearly as deeply to the hearts of millenials as I have tried to explain here.

Something else is needed. American Jewish and Israel the Jewish state are not enough. An additional element must be added to this formula — — and for some time now I have been convinced that this additional element, while not a panacea, is “shared interest.”

What this means is that we bring young Jews into relationship with Israel and Israelis on the basis of the things that THEY care about—and my supposition is that they all have an interest in something. It may be their chosen professions; it may be issues of concern; it may be hobbies. So it is Jewish plus Israel — AND ALSO law or medicine or high tech or culture or education or human rights or environment or archeology, and the list can go and on. And the point here is that we need to connect Israeli and American Jews on the foundation of these shared interests.

Personal example: My daughter loves dance, was a dance and psychology major in college, and became interested in a professional career in dance or occupational therapy. Before grad school at the Jefferson OT master’s program, she spent almost half a year on the MASA program in Tel Aviv interning for the Bat Sheva dance company and at the Sports Center for the Disabled.  These experiences connected her to Israel in a far deeper and meaningful way than had she simply volunteered to pick oranges on a kibbutz, not that there is anything wrong with that.

This has programmatic implications not only in Israel itself, but here as well — especially here because only a small percentage of our young people will end up on long term programs like MASA. So when synagogues and other communal institutions plan their Israel-related activities, including their missions, they should bring in a range of speakers and programs reflecting a wide area of interests that may attract young people not necessarily drawn to political topics.

And once we light the spark, once they take the “bait,” we have to be creative in nurturing direct and ongoing connections between Israelis and American Jews with similar interests. Some of this tailoring to specialized interests, in fact, has occurred in such programs as Birthright. But I believe in order for this approach to be effective, it requires a real paradigm shift throughout the community more broadly, something which has yet to take place.

To sum up—

  • Establishment of the state of Israel is the most important development in modern Jewish life;
  • American Jewish identity can’t and shouldn’t be built exclusively on the back of Israel;
  • A meaningful ongoing relationship between American Jews and Israel is mutually beneficial;
  • The millenials, who will occupy a good part of the 21st century, are not likely to build their connections in the same way previous generations did;
  • But, if we are smart and proactive as a community, we can find effective ways to help them move toward an even deeper and meaningful relationship.

As Theodore Herzl said, eem tirzu ain zo agadah— if you will it, it is no dream.


About the Author
Martin J. Raffel served for 27 years as Senior Vice President at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and Director of its Task Force on Israel, World Jewry and International Human Rights.