Young American Jews Opt Out
The historic bargain linking American Jewry and Israel since the founding of the State is coming to an end. The terms of the deal were unspoken, but clear: Israel would provide American Jews with a sense of pride and identity as Jews, and they, in turn, would shower upon Israel their financial and political support. But Israel is no longer a source of pride for non-Orthodox Jews, and the identity it provides is not one which they wish to share.
That conclusion emerges from a recent study published by sociologists Stephen Cohen and Ari Kelman. They found that American Jews under 35 do not care very much about Israel. They are not just apathetic about Israel, that indifference is “giving way to downright alienation,” write Cohen and Kelman.
More than half of Jews under 35 said that they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy. The death and expulsion of millions is something they could live with. By those standards, they probably would not see the Holocaust as a “personal” tragedy either.
What young Jews under 35 feel towards Israel goes beyond apathy to outright resentment. Israel complicates their social lives and muddies their political identity. Only 54% profess to be comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state at all. In Europe and on elite American campuses, internationalism and a world-without-borders are the rage. The Jews of Israel, with their stubborn insistence on protecting their nation-state, are, as always, out-of-sync.
Young American Jews do not wish to be tarred with their atavisms. On campus and where enlightened folk meet, Israel is scorned as a colonial oppressor. Who wants to be identified as a sympathizer with apartheid? Once Reform Judaism disavowed Zionism for fear of being thought disloyal to their host countries, and young American Jews today share similar fears of being out of step with their enlightened peers.
Molly Umberger, whose mother is program director of the leftist New Israel Fund (NIF), told the Jerusalem Post that she views both Israel and Palestinians as having made lots of mistakes and the situation as complicated, but generally “tries not to think about [Israel].” (No wonder when Bruce Temkin, the director of the NIF, describes Israel as a “turn-off.”) Daniel Alperin, 33, describes his interest in Israel as waning when he began to hear “the bad stuff” – probably about the time he entered college.
Already the trends lines were pointing in this direction forty years ago. In a 1965 Commentary symposium of younger Jewish intellectuals – the least religiously identified segment of American Jewry – only one Eliahu expressed complete comfort with Israel’s creation and pride in its accomplishments, and he eventually made aliyah. The rest expressed various degrees of discomfort with Israel’s militarism (and this was before 1967 and the “occupation”). The only Jewish identity they acknowledged at all was that of the “Jew” as the perpetually alienated critic of those in power – not exactly one upon which to base a connection to other Jews. Now the rest of American Jewry is catching up to those once young intellectuals.
JEWISH AGENCY chairman Zev Bielski labeled the results “very distressing,” and then proceeded to give a ridiculous explanation for those numbers: the comfortable life of most American Jews.
Cohen and Kelman know better. And their answer is summed up in the demographic they did not interview for their study: Orthodox Jews. For a survey of young Orthodox Jews would have yielded a diametrically opposite result.
Among younger Jews, those for whom their Judaism is important – primarily the Orthodox — will remain connected to the fate of their fellow Jews in Israel. Most Orthodox American youth will study in Israel after high school, some for many years. And almost all will visit Israel many times. Eretz Yisrael is not a mere abstraction for them, but the center of the spiritual life of the Jewish people.
Even an anti-Zionist Satmar chassid living in the secluded village of Monroe will intensify his prayers when Israel is at war and follow the action closely. Why? Because for him the name Jew means something.
The majority of young American Jews and the majority of young Israelis share in common a lack of interest in their Judaism. But that shared negativity provides little basis for a relationship. Shared gene pools won’t do it either – that smacks of racism. And ethnic identity, it turns out, cannot be passed down, or survive the breakup of ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods.
But the survey signals something else as well: a declining understanding on the part of American Jews of Judaism in terms of a national identity that imposes obligations to one’s co-nationals. That is being replaced by a return to the self-definition of classic German Reform: German (or in this case American) nationals of the Mosaic persuasion.
Cohen and Kelman are wrong to argue that ethnic identity is being replaced by religious identity. For when young American Jews say that they view their Judaism as a religious not national identity, the religion they refer to is a pretty tepid affair. Precisely because it is so tepid does it fail to provide them a sense of connection to their fellow Jews, whether in America or abroad. It is a religion largely lacking connection to the Land of Israel, and even more importantly to the defining event in Jewish history the giving of Torah at Sinai. Absent the latter, there is no common mission to link the descendants of those who stood at Sinai.
Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College (Reform), described the new Reform prayer book as emphasizing Reform Jews’ increased interest in spirituality over national identity. Unfortunately, however, the Torah defines us as a nation, not just a faith community. Any religion that downplays the common national identity of Jews is not Torah Judaism, but some new creation.
The impact of the declining sense of responsibility to one’s fellow Jews is being felt within American Jewry itself, not just in attitudes towards Israel. Already only 6% of giving by mega-Jewish foundations goes to remotely Jewish causes. It is hardly surprising, for instance, that non-Jewish spouses are not eager to contribute to Jewish causes. In time, funding the institutions of American Jewry will become ever more difficult. And the Orthodox will be left to donate to Israel.
The political implications for Israel are large as well. Fortunately, Professors Walt and Mearsheimer are wrong about an Israel Lobby comprised mostly of those with Jewish-sounding names. It is devout Christians, and not some nefarious Israel Lobby, which is the primary bulwark of American support for Israel today. That we have to rely on Christian support, rather than our fellow Jews, however, is a very mixed blessing indeed.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on September 24, 2007.