So far, so good

So far, so good

A new JPPI study examines how the discourse on the phenomena of 'distancing' from Israel is used to drive political and institutional agendas among US Jews

American and Israeli flags in Jerusalem (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
American and Israeli flags in Jerusalem (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of a paper entitled “The Challenge of Peoplehood: Strengthening the Attachment of Young American Jews to Israelin the Time of the Distancing Discourse” that was written by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman for the Jewish People Policy Institute. The full version of the paper can be found here.


The claim that young American Jews are distancing themselves from Israelis is rapidly becoming a major preoccupation of those in charge of cultivating the Jewish people. In its most basic formulation, the distancing hypothesis is as follows: American Jews between the ages of 18 to 35, who comprise roughly a quarter of the adult Jewish population in America, are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel. Their emotional attachment to Israel is decreasing and the place Israel occupies in their consciousness as a fundamental component of Jewish identity is eroding.

It is helpful to distinguish between two conceptually distinct forms of distancing, each reflecting a different process, each requiring different measurement tools, and each necessitating a different policy approach:

(a) Emotional distancing, which involves a weakening of visceral attachment to Israel.

(b) Cognitive distancing, which reflects various reservations about the centrality of the State of Israel for Jewish thriving.

To these two, we should add another category that is useful in conducting distancing research, even though it is primarily a manifestation of (a) or (b) above:

Behavioral distancing, which reflects erosion in actions manifesting connection with Israel.

Current claims of distancing rely on research that primarily examines emotional distancing, for which there is no research-based evidence at present. Nevertheless, the distancing discourse – which has been enormously influenced by essays in the public sphere such as those by Peter Beinart in The New York Review of Books and Daniel Gordis in Commentary — focuses on phenomena primarily associated with cognitive distancing, for which there is some circumstantial evidence at the present time. The discourse tends to ignore behavioral distancing, for which there is some supporting evidence (i.e., fewer sermons about Israel), but also much evidence to the contrary (i.e., increased visits toIsrael, and increased financial giving to Israel).

The debate

The distancing hypothesis is the subject of debate among several groups of researchers, who have relied on varied sets of data to substantiate their respective positions. The ongoing debate over distancing has had some positive effects. It is spurring the broadening and intensification of research, and creating improvement in our knowledge of the Diaspora-Israel relationship. Yet, many of these studies, and the controversies among researchers, are not well understood by the general public because they involve analysis of complex data and competing interpretations of that data. As a result, there is a discrepancy between the professional debate about the data and their meaning, and the public debate, which often adopts interpretations that are overly simplistic or serve other agendas. Two key and diverging approaches among the researchers illustrate the dilemma.

One research group, led by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, stated that, with the exception of Orthodox youth, the young generation of American Jews is “less attached toIsrael.” Cohen and Kelman’s working assumption is that this weakened attachment to Israel will lead in the future (i.e., when that generation grows older) to a general distancing of American Jews from Israel, and they emphasize that the main driver of distancing is interfaith marriage.

Distancing narrative as a political weapon? Peter Beinart (photo credit: CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)
Distancing narrative as a political weapon? Peter Beinart (photo credit: CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)

The other research group, led by a team from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center (Leonard Saxe, Charles Kadushin, Theodore Sasson, and others), examines the degree of attachment as compared to previous decades, and finds no dramatic change – certainly not one for the worse – in the attachment of American Jews to Israel. According to this group, the weakened attachment observable in studies of younger Jews is not the result of a distancing trend, but is, rather, a permanent feature of the Jewish life cycle. Young people are, indeed, more distant from Israel, but as they grow older they grow more attached.

We draw two conclusions based on the research to date:

– There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of US Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained, and even increased, level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

– Nonetheless, the changed circumstances surrounding American Jewish youth today raise the suspicion that studies pointing to distancing in the present, while not based on conclusive evidence, give more reason for worry than past studies. These changed circumstances include: The general tendency of disengagement from any fixed identity in many spheres of American life; the increasing emphasis on components of Jewish identity within the private sphere at the expense of traditional communal identity; a substantial increase in the percentage of mixed marriages; the return to relative calm on the Israeli front (obviously, war with Iran or other dramatic and tragic world events may develop into such external engagement-enhancing); indications of growing unease among young Jews toward Israeli policy; a decline in the centrality of organized Jewish community institutions.

Researchers are in agreement on many important points, and these points of agreement are often as fundamental as their points of contention:

– According to all studies, a significant majority of American Jews still supports Israel, is emotionally attached to Israel, and regards Israel as an essential element of its Jewish identity.

– There are clear gaps in Israel attachment between younger and older generations.

– The Israel attachment of Jews who are married to non-Jews is weaker than that of Jews who married Jews. (The rate of mixed marriages among younger American Jews is about 50 percent.)

– No significant erosion was measured in the Israel attachment of American Orthodox Jews, and to a lesser extent, in the attachment of communally engaged Jews.

– Both groups of researchers (and others) accept the claim that visits to Israel enhance attachment to Israel. Among young, non-Orthodox American Jews, about 35% visit Israel before the age of 35. This is a higher percentage than their parents’ generation. Subsidized visit Israel programs (with Birthright as the flagship) are steadily increasing this number.

– Researchers have not found in the data collected so far any significant indication of distancing that could be interpreted as rooted in political disagreement (i.e., an expression of resentment or disappointment due to Israeli government positions on political issues).

Forms of perceived distancing

Four phenomena are commonly perceived as expressions of distancing:

Criticism of Israel: This is the most familiar form of expression popularly perceived and presented as proof of distancing. Research shows that, within the American Jewish community today, there is much greater openness to direct and often sharp criticism of Israel. In some cases, this an expression of a dwindling sense of identification with Israel among American Jews. Nevertheless, it should be reiterated that the studies undertaken so far have failed to identify a distinctly political component affecting the Israel-attachment of the majority of young American Jews. Moreover, the very decision of young Jewish Americans to criticize Israel, often very sharply, indicates their continued engagement, and is sometimes the mark of a very strong connection.

Rejection of Israel’s centrality: Israel is not necessarily a central identity component of American Jewishness. The historical and conceptual roots of this phenomenon include negation of Zionism due to religious views (Judaism as a religion rather than a nation); competitive views (Zionism negates the Diaspora); cultural objections (Judaism is a diasporic religion), etc. In previous generations, the centrality of Israel came to the fore in times of crisis due to external events, and more skeptical voices were marginalized. In recent years, decentralizing Israel is more prevalent and perceived as a legitimate voice in the public discourse. In any case, a distinction should be made between instances in which the rejection of Israel’s centrality entails distancing (i.e., if Israel is not central, there is no need for attachment or caring), and cases in which Israel’s centrality according to the classic Zionist version (negation of the Diaspora) is rejected, but the sense of attachment and caring (stemming from Jewish Peoplehood or simple gut feelings) is preserved.

Negation of particularism: There is a documented aversion among young American Jews to values that are perceived as particularistic, and a tendency to favor values that are perceived as universal. Consequently, young Jews so inclined find it difficult to identify not only with an Israel that upholds values that are different from their own, but also with an Israel that upholds values similar to their own, by virtue of its being a Jewish state — a particularistic, rather than a universal, notion.

Indifference/apathy: Many studies, including in recent years, have demonstrated a correlation between intensity of Jewish identity and Israel attachment among young American Jews. It is possible to be Jewishly involved while disengaged from Israel. However, the common reality for the majority of Jewish Americans is that young Jews whose Jewish identity is strong would also be “more strongly attached” to Israel, whereas “young Jews who have no interest in living a creative Jewish life are distancing themselves from Israel as well.”

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of US Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies… indicate a sustained, and even increased, level of attachment.

Contrary to the first three instances (criticism, negation of Israel’s centrality, negation of particularism), which are active in nature and ideologically based (i.e., phenomena possibly leading to cognitive distancing), indifference is a passive phenomenon that reflects a general loss of interest in Judaism, which can be expected to lead to emotional distancing. Loss of interest in Israel is often disguised as ideologically based because indifference is perceived as negative, and those who are indifferent are more comfortable presenting their motives as principled. It is, however, easily distinguishable because most indifference to Israel relates to a general indifference to Judaism.

Utilization of the distancing discourse

The distancing narrative often has appeal because raising the specter of distancing serves various interests. We have identified four main categories of distancing utilization:

(a) Distancing in the service of a political agenda: The distancing narrative is often a political weapon used by the left against Israeli government policies. As a result, the belief that Israel’s policies are the main cause of distancing is widespread among broad sectors in both Israel and the US. The argument has added appeal because it shifts responsibility for distancing away from the American Jewish setting and places it on the shoulders of Israel’s government. Yet, the existing quantitative research does not support the claim that the controversy over Israel’s political course is a central distancing generator. The very repetition of this argument gives it credence and may eventually generate a mental shift sufficient to actualize it.

(b) Distancing in the service of organizational causes: The distancing narrative also has been used to shift responsibility, not only to the government of Israel but to the Jewish-American establishment, thereby bolstering an argument for the need of organizational change.

(c) Distancing in the service of philanthropic causes: The distancing discourse is also spreading because it provides a means of mobilizing resources. Central Jewish organizations, which are suffering from a steady decline in donations, are searching for ways to re-motivate donors. Combating distancing has donor appeal. Thus, distancing has joined the basket of threats to Judaism and to Israel which are motivating factors in the Jewish world, propelling certain sectors into action.

(d) Distancing in the service of religious denominational interests: The gist of this argument is that the manner in which state and religion is ordered in Israel, which favors Orthodox Jewish doctrine and practices and delegates governmental functions exclusively to Orthodox clerics, is a central factor in the distancing of young American Jews from Israel.

Turning to the distancing narrative to advance the goals of various ideological and institutional actors has tended to obstruct a pragmatic and objective discussion of what needs to be done to promote a healthy partnership between the two communities, minimizing distancing drivers and maximizing attachment drivers.

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