The Pew Research Center’s new study on the American Jewish community confirms what Len Saxe and my colleagues at the Cohen Center/Steinhardt Institute have been reporting for several years: the American Jewish community is much larger and more complex than many believed. The new survey is sure to spark plenty of discussion. One debate it will hopefully settle concerns American Jews’ connection to Israel.
Comparing the new survey’s findings to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, the report states that “emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the last decade… Overall, about seven-in-ten American Jews surveyed say they feel either very attached (30 percent) or somewhat attached (39 percent) to Israel, essentially unchanged since 2000-2001.”
The resilience of American Jews’ emotional attachment to Israel is remarkable in light of other trends identified in the Pew report. The survey finds that attachment declines from the oldest over-65 cohort (38 percent very attached) to the youngest cohort of 18-29-year-olds (25 percent very attached). Similar snapshots of American Jewry have led observers to erroneously conclude that attachment to Israel is declining with each passing generation.
The Pew report, however, correctly observes that generational decline only happens if the younger cohorts maintain their lower levels of attachment as they mature. Clearly, that didn’t happen during the period since the last NJPS. If it had, the overall level of attachment would have declined. Indeed, my research with multiple data sets has shown that it didn’t happen over a longer period, about a quarter-century. A reasonable interpretation would be that American Jews become more emotionally attached to Israel as they grow older—or, at least, that’s how it has worked up until now.
The Pew study also documents significant skepticism concerning Israeli policies on settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Nearly half of all respondents (48 percent) doubt that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace, but three-quarters of American Jews also doubt the Palestinians’ sincerity. Similarly, 44 percent of respondents believe that West Bank settlements hurt Israel’s security, compared to just 17 percent who believe they help and 29 percent that they make no difference. The juxtaposition of these critical views with a high level of emotional attachment means that—by and large—American Jews distinguish between their political judgments concerning Israeli policies and their overall feelings of attachment to the Jewish state.
The new study also captures a substantial secularizing trend, a phenomenon that has also fueled speculation about distancing from Israel. Most denominational switching has been away from observance—Orthodox Jews become Conservative, Conservative Jews become Reform, and Reform Jews leave religion altogether. The proportion of American Jews who identify as Jewish but not when asked about their religion has increased to about one-in-five—comparable to Americans as a whole. Compared to the NJPS a decade ago, the general level of religious observance has declined: Attendance at a Passover seder slipped from 78 percent to 70 percent, while fasting for all or part of Yom Kippur slipped from 60 percent to 53 percent.
But the survey shows that attachment to Israel has proven more resilient than denominational affiliation and core communal and religious practices. The Pew study may settle the debate about American Jews’ connection to Israel during the past and present. It will not, however, provide the final word concerning the future. Today’s younger cohorts are demographically unique. Young adult Jews are more likely to have grown up in intermarried households, more likely to intermarry themselves, and more likely to identify as secular Jews. Will they follow in the footsteps of previous cohorts and become more Israel attached as they age?
One cause for optimism can be found in responses to the survey’s questions concerning travel to Israel. Overall, the proportion of American Jews that have visited Israel has increased to 43 percent. More importantly, the 18-29 cohort is more likely to have visited Israel than any cohort other than the 65-and-older group. Nearly half of them—48 percent—visited Israel as part of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Looking ahead, although demographic, religious and political trends may put downward pressure on Israel attachment, the direct experience of hundreds of thousands of young people will surely push back.
Theodore Sasson is Professor of International and Global Studies at Middlebury College and Senior Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. His book The New American Zionism will be published by New York University Press in November.