Alan Silverstein

Has American-Jewish Zionism Unraveled?

On Sunday, Nov. 7, the New York Times Magazine included an article depicting the alleged “unraveling of American Zionism.” What the story omits is the abundant evidence to the contrary. A rebuttal is in order.

I am reminded of a piece by Steven M. Cohen entitled: “Did American Jews Really Grow More Distant From Israel, 1983-1993? — A Reconsideration,” which appears in the book “Envisioning Israel: The Changing Ideals and Images of North American Jews” (1996), edited by Allon Gal.

After careful review of the data, the author concludes that: 1) Younger Jews tend to be less attached to Israel but habitually “age into” greater attachment over the course of their lifetime. 2) Jewish “elites” (professional and lay leaders) tend to be more critical of Israel than are the members of grassroots American Jewry; in this piece, as in the recent New York Times article, elites garner disproportionate attention. And 3) For many center-left American Jews, “distancing” from Israel during periods of Likud (right-wing) governance implies dissatisfaction with the current Israeli policies, not detachment from the Jewish state.

As a response to the Times’ analysis of Nov. 7, consider 2020-21 data about attitudes toward Israel among grassroots American Jews. The most recent relevant Gallup Poll revealed that “about 9 in 10 American Jews are more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians,” as are 60 percent of Americans in general. Furthermore, 95 percent of grassroots American Jews hold “favorable views” of Medinat Yisrael in contrast to only 10 percent holding such views toward the Palestinian Authority. Among Americans-at-large, 71 percent view Israel favorably, while just 21 percent regard the PA in that regard.

The 2020 surveys by the American Jewish Committee and the Pew Research Center provide similar findings. According to the AJC, 81 percent of American Jews come from families that are pro-Israel; 71 percent regard Israeli Jews either as “siblings,” or “first cousins,” or “extended family”; 60 percent consider Israel as “important” to their Jewish identity. The Pew survey of America’s Jews found that 82 percent indicate that “caring about Israel” is an important or essential part of what being Jewish means to them; 68 percent feel emotionally attached to the Jewish state; 57 percent follow the news about Israel.

With the return to campuses this fall following a year of remote learning, many grassroots Jewish students are reaffirming their support for Israel and their Jewish identity. Sign-ups for Birthright Israel trips are booming. A substantial number of Jewish students are enrolling in accredited Hebrew language courses and other Judaic studies courses. Israel committees at campus Hillels are quite active. The strength of Jewish identity among students is evidenced by large attendance at Friday evening Shabbat meals at both campus Hillels and Chabad centers.

Zionist attitudes among Orthodox Jews remain strong, with gap-year yeshiva-in-Israel study becoming practically the norm for high school graduates. Young single Conservative Jews continue to make aliyah in sizable numbers, as processed annually by the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization. Reform Jews continue to top the charts among U.S. voters in elections for the World Zionist Congress.

So, is there erosion of support for Israel? Yes, a cadre of vocal Jews are adherents of intersectionality and feel compelled to join their non-Jewish peers in siding with the Palestinian cause against Zionism. Their views are not to be confused with progressive Zionists who criticize certain Israeli policies but strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. Both in the Knesset and in American-Jewish life, there is a spectrum of pro-Zionist opinions, spanning the left, center, and right.

True detachment is more frequently evident among a sizable subset of the 1.5 million individuals designated by Pew as “Jews of no religion.” Part of this growing sector of “American Jewry” is comprised of those raised with only one Jewish parent in a home devoid of Judaism and of Jewish peoplehood and/or identification with Israel. These young men and women do not identify as Jews religiously, culturally, or ethnically. They do so only in terms of love for Jewish grandparents; they are indifferent to the Jewish state. Accordingly, they present a group worthy of attention for Jewish peoplehood outreach.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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