Israel-Diaspora Index: Attrition in the Younger Generatio
Relations between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry improved somewhat this year. Israel’s change of government, and the new government’s greater attention to concerns of the American Jewish community (at least at the declarative level), have raised hopes for practical relations-improving measures as well, certainly within establishment Judaism.
At the same time, the Ukraine crisis has roused the Jewish world and engendered an array of collaborations between the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and major Jewish organizations worldwide on behalf of Ukrainian and Russian Jewry.
Aside from this uptick of cooperation, the fundamental trends and deeper currents of Israel-Diaspora relations have not changed. The Diaspora Connection Index published for the past five years by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which includes a rating for Israeli attitudes toward the Diaspora, shows no shift. Data have also been collected on the trend of younger non-Orthodox American Jews distancing from their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. The bulk of this chapter is devoted to this trend.
Young Jews in the U.S. and Israel
Attitudes toward Israel within the American Jewish community are affected, though not solely, by what is happening in Israel. From this perspective, Israeli policy in Judea and Samaria is significant, as are developments in the fraught arena of religion and state relations. Beyond that, Israel’s definition as a Jewish state has become a stumbling block for Jews on the margins of the American Jewish community. The political radicalization of some young progressive Jews in North American, along with various processes underway within the Jewish community, already affect, and may come to affect more profoundly, support for Israel.
Israel is a central identity component for most older American Jews. Whether they support Israeli policy or are angered by it, they remain committed to the Zionist project and organize their Jewish identity around it. However, identification and support for Israel among younger Jews is eroding, along with their Jewish identity.
In the last couple of years, two major surveys have been conducted that (among other things) mapped the attitudes of young American Jews toward Israel. The Pew Research Center released its survey in mid-2021, and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) released theirs in April 2022. Both revealed worrisome trends in regard to attitudes vis-a-vis Israel.
The Pew survey (May 2021), the most in-depth and comprehensive survey of U.S. Jews, found that young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 relate differently to Israel compared to older age cohorts.1 To the extent the surveys can be compared, a decline in affinity for Israel is apparent – even in comparison with Pew’s previous survey of American Jewry (from 2013)2
For example, only 54% of young Jews feel they have something in common with Israeli Jews (versus 66% of Jews in the oldest age range); just 48% feel an emotional attachment to Israel (versus 67% in the oldest age range, and 61% of young Jews who felt this way in the 2013 Pew survey); 27% think that a connection to Israel is not essential to their Jewish identity (compared to 8% of Jews in the oldest age range); and only 27% oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel. Furthermore, according to the 2021 Pew survey, some 40% of young Jews self-identify as “Jews of no religion” (they respond “I have no religion” to the question about their religious affiliation, and “yes” to the question about whether they consider themselves Jewish in some way apart from religion). Among this young cohort of Jews, just 27% feel that caring about Israel is a meaningful component of their Jewish identity (compared to 45% in the 2013 Pew survey); 67% of them say they have nothing in common with Jews in Israel. Only 15% of these Jews have visited Israel. This is a group that comprises a large share of young American Jews.
The AJC survey was administered to young Jewish adults (millennials – ages 25-40) in the U.S. and in Israel. It examined the attitudes of American Jews in this age group toward Israel, and the attitudes of the same cohort in Israel toward the American Jewish community.3
The survey of attitudes of American Jewish millennials toward Israel found that 25% exhibit a sense of alienation, and a willingness to “pay” with reduced support for Israel in exchange for legitimacy among their broader peer group, most of which appears to be critical of Israel. Thus, 41% of American millennial Jews do not consider ties with Israel to be important; 26% feel that it is appropriate to distance themselves from Israel in order to gain legitimacy among their friends; 27% say that the anti-Israel climate on college campuses has caused them to rethink their commitment to Israel; 22% feel that ties between American Jewry and Israel are not particularly important; 25% do not feel a sense of responsibility toward Jews in Israel.
The mirror image of the survey of American millennial Jews, the survey AJC administered to Jews of the same age cohort in Israel, examined the degree of connection and attachment felt by Jews in Israel toward the American Jewish community. The overall picture that emerges from the survey of Israelis is more positive. For example, on the (identical) question about the importance of ties between the communities, only 6% of Israelis answered that maintaining ties is not important to them (versus 41% of the American respondents!). A caring attitude toward the American Jewish community is also evident with regard to rising antisemitism in the United States. Sixty percent of the Israeli respondents said that they pay considerable attention to this issue. However, the Israelis also expressed less buy in to the notion of mutual guarantee than the Americans. To the question about responsibility toward the other community, only 42% of the Israelis answered that they feel responsible to help fellow Jews in the United States, compared to 58% of the American respondents who do feel such responsibility toward Israel.
Reasons for the trend
What are the reasons for the younger generation’s eroding attachment to Israel (beyond the erosion of their Jewish identity)? It appears that the challenges facing the entire American Jewish community are having an even stronger effect on the community’s younger generation:
The political challenge: The U.S. political landscape has changed. The center, once the core component, is eroding, and the margins are strengthening. On the far right, voices of White supremacy, which view anything non-white or non-Christian as abhorrent, are no longer regarded as illegitimate. On the left, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which regards the “privileged” as oppressors, and cancel culture are transforming all substantive discussion into an identity discourse in which the downtrodden good (African Americans, Palestinians) face off against the White bad guys – including Jews and Israel.
This reality erodes the American Jewish community’s sense of identification with Israel. A large majority of U.S. Jews (71%) vote Democrat. The radicalization of American politics, which comes at the expense of the center, has left the liberal Jewish public scrambling for legitimacy and political sympathy that can no longer be taken for granted. The dilemma facing these Jews is a tough one. Some are progressives who will never move to the American right. On the other hand, joining the far-left means lowering their Jewish profile, renouncing support for Israel, and “confessing” to the injustices for which they are responsible by virtue of being rich and powerful. The result is that the small American Jewish minority, which once enjoyed significant influence, is now navigating a more complex reality in which politics, both left and right, threatens its sociopolitical status. In this reality, young American Jews in the process of consolidating their identity find it easier and often more “correct,” given the climate on academic campuses, to identify with the political extremes.
The identity challenge: For generations, the “streams” of American Judaism – the Reform, the Conservative and, to a lesser degree, the Orthodox – have led the American Jewish community. Among older Jews the situation has not changed substantially, but among younger non-Orthodox Jews most are non-denominational, that is, they do not “identify” with any stream. The meaning of this non-identification is two-fold. Some young Jews – the proportion is unclear but not large – are developing a new kind of Jewish identity. The majority, however, appear to be on a path of eroding Jewish identity.
The causes are varied and subject to dispute. Some believe that an excess of Jewish pluralism facilitated this development. Others think it is a natural process for a minority living in an open majority society. But it is clear that the current trend is also influenced by political processes. Young men and women studying on elite American campuses face a cruel choice: belonging to the “correct” side of the political and social map while diminishing their Jewish identity, or preserving and giving clear expression to their identity, which exposes them to condemnation for the sake of a Jewish-particularist identity they do not always understand and to which they do not always relate. In this context, Israel is, for them, the most difficult and dangerous of symbols. Jewish identity itself may still have legitimacy among the American left, but Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish nation-state is dwindling, and attitudes toward the state are increasingly critical and harsh. For a quarter of young American Jews, an inward identification with Israel – and certainly an outward identification it – is a step too far.
The physical antisemitism challenge: Decades after the Holocaust, as its memory fades, antisemitism is once again rearing its head in the United States. The number of antisemitic incidents has increased in the past two years, as has Jewish anxiety: 90% of Jews feel that antisemitism is a problem in the United States (for more information, see page … of the Antisemitism Index).
The strain of antisemitism that manifests as hatred of Israel and the denial of its right to exist automatically identifies Jews with Israel and places them in the line of fire. Jews are not always welcome in the folds of radical American left. Expressions of antisemitism such as tearing down mezuzahs and desecrating holy spaces and objects are becoming commonplace in leftist strongholds. This reality further incentivizes young Jews to loosen their ties to Judaism.