NEW YORK (JTA) – Flying in the face of two decades of research that indicates that American Jews are falling out of love with Israel, a new report says that American Jews love Israel as much as they always have – and that in the future, that sentiment may grow more intense.
Conventional wisdom, based largely on the work of sociologist Steven Cohen, is that American Jews are becoming less attached to Israel by the generation, as younger Jews typically feel less close to Israel and Israelis than older Jews, states the paper.
The conventional argument is that as young Jews become older Jews, they take their Israel apathy with them, and then successive younger generations feel even less attached to Israel.
But that notion – and Cohen – are plain wrong, states the Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s paper, “American Jewish Attachment to Israel: An Assessment of the ‘Distancing’ Hypothesis.”
“It is our sense that a consensus has been solidifying in Jewish intellectual circles that American Jewry is growing more distant from Israel,” Theodore Sasson, the paper’s lead researcher, told JTA. “We didn’t think there was any evidence of that.”
The trouble with the commonly held notion, says the Steinhardt paper, is that it is based on a variety of surveys – such as Gallup polls, the National Jewish Population Study and smaller focus group studies – that do not ask the same questions year after year and therefore, can not be compared.
The “distancing theory,” said Sasson, is based on the idea that older Jews saw Israel in a much different phase in its history than have younger Jews. Older Jews saw Israel at its miraculous birth and fighting a war for independence, and achieving victory in its 1967 Six-Day War. Many younger Jews, in contrast, know the Israel of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, the more complicated entity that is viewed by much of the world as the oppressor of the Palestinian people.
But when one looks at questionnaires that consistently asked the same set of questions about Israel year after year, one finds that Jewish sentiment is not changing significantly for the worse, at all, argues the Steinhardt paper.
It says the best such data exists in the American Jewish Committee’s annual Survey of Jewish Public Opinion, which has been poling Jews since the early 1980s with roughly the same set of questions. And that survey shows that very little has changed in terms of American Jews’ view on Israel over the past 13 years.
According to the AJC surveys, since 1994, the percentage of Jews who agree with the statement “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” has fallen from 75 percent to just less than 70 percent, a number that Sasson calls insignificant.
Over the same time, the percentage of Jews who said they feel “very close” or “fairly close” to Israel actually rose from 66 to 70 percent.
What is really happening, says the Steinhardt report, is that Jews tend to become closer to Israel as they grow older. So, when one looks at age cohorts year by year, there tends not to be a dropping off in affinity for Israel. Older Jews simply feel closer to Israel.
When you add to that the success of birthright israel, which has sent some 140,000 American Jews between the ages of 18 and 25 on free trips to Israel since 2000, young Jews stand to become even close to Israel, according to the report.
At first glance, the Steinhardt paper looks like a stab at Cohen, who has long been at intellectual odds with Steinhardt researchers – who are based at Brandeis – and in particular with the director of the Steinhardt Center, Len Saxe.
The paper acknowledges Cohen in its foreword, but it then proceeds to cite him more than 25 times in refuting his research.
“I am honored that they wold take my research so seriously as to base their work on it,” Cohen told JTA in a telephone interview Tuesday.
In particular, Cohen and Saxe have squabbled publicly over intermarriage, with Cohen arguing vehemently that intermarriage is a detriment to Judaism’s survival, and Saxe providing research to the contrary – most notably a 2006 survey of Boston-areas families that showed that 60 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children as Jewish.
And here too, the debate seems to boil down to intermarriage, Cohen told JTA.
The annual AJC polls – which Cohen said he helped formulate back in the early 1980s – only questions Jews who identify as Jewish and excludes Jews who say they have no religion, Cohen says, a fact that the AJC confirmed.
This gives a vastly different portrait of Jews than other surveys such as the NJPS, Cohen said.
For instance, the 2000 National Jewish Population Study showed that 38 percent of Jews belong to a synagogue, while the 2000 AJC survey showed that 59 percent of Jews are affiliated.
Though the Steinhardt survey does a good job of showing that Jews who identify as Jewish are indeed staying close to Israel – a notion with which Cohen agrees – it is missing the point that intermarried Jews and their children are falling away from Israel, Cohen said.
“The intermarried and children of the intermarried are dragging down the Jewish people’s commitment to Israel,” he said. “Commitment among the in-married is as high as it ever was, but we are moving to two populations.”
He added: “Their data cannot refute our contention that intermarriage – among other factors – is bringing about disengagement from Israel, both by its impact on the Jewish spouses, and by its impact upon the growing number of Jewish children who are the products of intermarried couples.”.
Sasson said that his paper controlled with certain variable to account for intermarriage. He added that in 2000, 15 percent of respondants to the AJC survey were intermarried and that in 2005, 22.5 percent were intermarried. Even among the intermarried, the sentiment toward Israel has remained the same, he said.
But, he said, the intermarriage factor is not so simple. Much of what will happen in the future regarding sentiment toward Israel from the intermarried community will depend on education and trips to Israel, such as birthright.
“Steven even told me,” Sasson said, referring to Cohen, “it’s birthright against intermarriage.”