“American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup,” so stated a prominently placed column by Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times. Yet a November 2018 J Street poll of American Jewish attitudes toward the Jewish State reveals stability and strength.
“65% of respondents felt either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, compared to 35% who felt not very attached or not at all attached to the Jewish state.”
“Asked if, compared to five to 10 years ago, they felt more positive, more negative, or the same toward Israel, 55% said they felt about the same, 26% said more positively and only 19% felt more negatively.”
A debate about the American Jewish attachment to Israel is not new. Already in the mid-1990s, Steven M Cohen published, “Did American Jews Really Grow More Distant from Israel, 1983-1993? – A Reconsideration.” Cohen concluded that, “prominent observers of American Jewish public opinion may have erred in inferring an increasing remoteness from Israel, when all they were observing was an increasing discomfort with Israeli policies… The Jewish public’s [positive] feelings about Israel… remain instinctual and largely divorced from Israel’s policy judgments.”
The debate resurfaced in 2007. Partnering with Ari Kelman, Cohen polled attitudes among non-Orthodox Jewish young adults. The survey results warned that “feelings of attachment may well be changing, as warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation.”
Yet, sociologists at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center came to a different conclusion. They posted that most American Jews were “still connected…There is no evidence that attachment to Israel [has] declined [over the 20+ years of polling].” So why did young Jewish adults exhibit a lesser degree of attachment than their elders? The Cohen Center team noted that Jews “age into” Israel attachment: “As they age, American Jewish adults perhaps become more tolerant of parochial concerns [such as attachment to Israel].”
A source of varied perceptions is the manner in which polling questions are framed. For example, in January 2018, a Pew survey reported a split among Democrats in which 27% “sympathize” with Israel and 25% with the Palestinians. Yet, a Gallup poll taken just one month later went beyond measuring “sympathy” and queried being “pro-Israel.” After all, Israel is often regarded as a reliable and strong US ally, as a democracy, and as a high-tech innovative society. Gallup found that “Americans’ stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as strongly ‘pro-Israel’ as at any time in Gallup’s three-decade trend,” 74% of American adults have a favorable view of Israel, while 23% have an unfavorable view. According to Gallup:
- Support for Israel is at 83% among Republicans, 72% among Independents, and 64% among Democrats.
- 21% say they have a favorable view of the Palestinian government and 71% report an unfavorable one.
Democrat pollster Mark Mellman interpreted Gallup and other relevant data to mean that “the majority of Democrats still have a positive impression of Israel – and the overwhelming majority of Democratic elected officials have a very strongly positive attitude toward Israel.” Mellman notes that even those progressive Democrats who indicate “more sympathy” with the Palestinians are not necessarily against Israel. “What does the question of sympathy mean? One meaning could be… who do you feel worse for? And if … you feel worse for Palestinians than Israelis, that doesn’t necessarily make you not pro-Israel.”
Later in 2018, a Jewishly targeted poll by the Mellman Group revealed that 91% of American Jewish voters say to poll-takers that they are “pro-Israel” albeit with a range of attitudes: 32% are pro-Israel as well as supportive of the policies of the current Israeli government; 35% are pro-Israel and critical of some of those policies; and 24% are pro-Israel and critical of many of those policies. Keep in mind that 91% support is an astronomically high figure in a highly diverse Jewish community, exceeding the percentage that attend a Passover seder or observe Yom Kippur!
Maintaining Diaspora attachment for Israel does require attention to areas of current concern.
First, the importance of a connection to Diaspora synagogue life looms large. The Pew survey of 2013 reveals “a gradient.” Greater intensity of Jewish religious living [Orthodox, then Conservative, then Reform, then no denomination, then no religion] yields greater attachment to the Jewish state. Young adults raised in Orthodox homes overwhelmingly feel an attachment to Israel. “Eight Up: The College Years” examined the attitudes of Conservative collegians and found that more than 90% regarded Israel as either “important” or “very important” to them. Most Reform young adults remain connected, too. Yet impressive levels of Israel attachment among the religious movements stands in contrast to less supportive data among young Jews of “no denomination,” and especially to those who are “not Jewish by religion.” We must strengthen the affordability of American synagogues to prospective members, especially young adults.
Second is the factor of intermarriage. The Cohen and Kelman 2007 study noticed that high percentages of young Jewish liberals and of young Jewish conservatives remain “attached” to Israel albeit in different ways. They pondered, “If Israeli policies aren’t undermining Israel attachment, then what is it?” Their answer is that “the primary driver is intermarriage. Younger Jews are far more likely to marry non-Jews, and [many of] the intermarried are far less Israel attached than are the in-married – and even the non-married.”
Israel supporters should react strategically: 1. Assist single Jews seeking to meet marital partners who share their Judaism via JDate.com, SawYouAtSinai.com, etc. 2. Actively promote Israel attachment among intermarried households raising their children as Jews.
Third, the impact of the Netanyahu government acceding to delegitimization of non-Orthodox Jewish streams. Birthright programs prove that young people can be positively influenced by encountering Israel first-hand. They experience the vitality of a Jewish nation in which Hebrew is being spoken, Jewish holy days are marked as a national events, and Jewish values are at play in economic, self-defense, and cultural life.
A looming cloud is the Israeli government’s rejection of non-Orthodox Judaism. After all, synagogue culture provides the Israel-attachment that was nurtured among most American Jews! Interviewing Birthright participants, Theodore Sasson reported that: “Respondents in…. [focus] groups cited the ambiguous legal status of non-Orthodox movements in Israel as a reason for feeling personally alienated.” Among representative comments, Sasson shared the following: “[if I made aliya]… I don’t know where… I would fit in because I feel very connected to my religion and feel very much a part of it. But I feel I would be devalued completely in Israel in terms of the way I practice my religion and am involved in Judaism. It is alienating.”
Finally, the fact that some hard core respondents feel totally detached from Israel is not new. Jews on the extreme right and the extreme left do feel estrangement. The far right tends toward isolationism – disengagement from all countries outside the USA. The far left veers toward Progressive coalitions aligning into “intersectionality” anti-Israel clusters. As a counter effort, added support should be offered to AIPAC’s work among liberal Zionists and to groups like the Democratic Majority for Israel, which “plans to work with progressive groups to educate them as to why support for Israel reflects shared interests but also shared progressive values.”
In sum, Gallup confirms that large percentages of Republicans and Independents are pro-Israel. The Mellman Group data documents even stronger, albeit diverse, “pro-Israel” attachments among 9 out of 10 American Jews. As for somewhat smaller pro-Israel support among Democrats in general, Mellman concludes from polling data, “Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel… [Yes] there are a few discordant voices but we want to make sure that what’s a very small problem doesn’t metastasize into a bigger problem.”
While The New York Times article is not accurate, it is correct in one sense. Supporters of Israel should remain vigilant in sustaining Israel-Diaspora relations. Yes, a minority of Jews has always and will continue to feel detached from Israel. However, for the mainstream, times of partial discord are to be expected – especially when Israel is governed by a right wing coalition and most American Jews tend toward the center-left. However, disagreements about policies are part of global Jewish family dynamics and not indications of an impending “divorce”!