Gitit Levy-Paz
Gitit Levy-Paz

Beyond the TV Screen: American Jews and Israel

According to the new Pew survey, most US Jews are concerned about Israel and even feel connected to it. However, almost half of them know nothing, or nearly nothing about BDS movement waging an international campaign against the State of Israel. A new Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) research study points to one possibility for bridging between knowledge gaps and emotional connection.

The new Pew survey offers some encouraging data, and some less so, about the connection between US Jews and Israel. More than 80% of American Jews feel that concern for Israel is an essential or important component of their Jewish identity, and nearly 60% feel a strong or certain emotional bond to Israel. On the other hand, the survey also shows that emotional connection and concern are stronger among the older generations, Jews aged 50 and up, and is weaker among those under the age of 30.

In addition, to varying degrees, 56% of US Jews are familiar with the BDS movement. Of those, around 10% support the movement and 43% oppose it; another 43% are unaware of its existence.

It is interesting to draw a correspondence between the Pew data and findings from a recent Jewish People Policy Institute study of the impact of watching Israeli television series (Shtisel, Fauda and others) on the connection American Jews feel to Israel, and on learning about Israel.

Pew’s data showing the emotional affiliation and concern for Israel among most American Jews is encouraging, and somewhat assuages worries about a split between the world’s two largest Jewish communities. However, the generational imbalance is disturbing and may point to a growing disaffection among young Jews. Although some assert that with age young American Jews will become more moderate and their affinity to the State of Israel will deepen, their argument is less than comforting. In any event, it doesn’t soften the blow that 43% of US Jews have almost never, or never, heard of the BDS movement — a finding that vividly illustrates their disconnect.

Clearly, there is a gap between feeling, intention, and self-perception on one side, and tangible connection, knowledge, and involvement on the other. Most American Jews express a commitment, more or less, to Israel. However, in practice (knowledge, involvement), the percentage of American Jews who know virtually nothing about BDS and the percent who oppose it is the same — 43%. (We won’t get into the 10% of American Jews who support BDS here.)

The gap between theory and practice demands a bridge that can contribute to raising knowledge, involvement, and familiarity levels regarding Israel, and add flesh to the bones of abstract support.

JPPI’s new research on the impact of Israeli television on Diaspora Jews demonstrates that viewing Israeli programs can contribute to strengthening Jewish identity and emotional connection to Israel.

A survey administered as part of the JPPI study found that Israeli television provides Jews who already have a meaningful Jewish identity and a strong connection to Israel an additional and significant experiential platform for expressing and strengthening their attachment to Israel.

For Jews less “connected” to Israel and their Judaism, the conclusions were less clear-cut.

Most viewers acknowledged that the series positively affected their sympathy for Israel. In addition, among Jews without a lot of knowledge about Israel, watching these series clearly enhances their attachment to Israel. With respect to all groups surveyed, it was found that the TV series either positively impacted viewers or had no impact at all, but the study did not find that watching the programs had any negative effect on viewers with regard to Israel.

As for knowledge of, and learning about, Israel, the inference is that beyond formal study, watching these shows generates curiosity and interest that often leads to a genuine link to the country. Facebook provides insight into the diverse processes of learning while watching Israeli programs.

Different Facebook groups, whose members — Jews and non-Jews from all over the world — are viewers of Israeli television series, have become a resource for learning about Israel and Israelis as well as Judaism and Jews. Experts often participate in group discussions, which provide a significant vehicle for exchanging opinions and knowledge. Two examples among many are the groups “Shtisel — Let’s Talk About It,” which has 30,000 members, and “Fauda (Fan Discussion Group),” which has nearly 10,000 members.

The main point is that along with strengthening emotional bonds, the television series open a window into Israel that is sorely missing for many American Jews. As some viewers have noted, they get a feeling of having a weekly visit to Israel, a visit that may be virtual but whose impact is tangible. In this way, Israeli programs supplement the relationship between American Jews and Israel and transform it into something richer and more complete.

In one interview, Rotem Shamir, Fauda’s director, discussed reactions to the series in various countries. He remarked that US Jews are the “AIPAC of the series,” “the heavy fans” that attend events at which the writers and actors appear and are always eager to “listen and talk.”

The medium of television is particularly suited to young people because it doesn’t require the financial means necessary, for example, for extended stays in Israel. As the New Pew survey tells us, it is precisely among this demographic that distancing and disaffection from Israel — and Judaism — is most pronounced. Watching Israeli television series offers, pardon the pun, an important channel for learning about Israel and for facilitating emotional attachment to it.

About the Author
Dr. Gitit Levy-Paz is a fellow at JPPI and she teaches at Bar Ilan University.
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