Young American Jews feel emotionally distant from Israel. The cold hard truth is undeniable: they feel less emotional attachment to Israel than their parents, and significantly less than their grandparents.
As the pithy volume from Albert Vorspan that neatly skewered American Jewish life proclaimed, “Start Worrying: Details to Follow.”
I began working with the campus Israel network just over two years ago, as the community discussion regarding young American Jews’ distancing from Israel was about to reach fever pitch thanks to a June 2010 essay by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books. Beinart pointed to research, conducted by Steven Cohen of New York University among others, indicating that young American Jews were increasingly emotionally distanced from Israel. Beinart attributed this distancing to Israeli political policy and the lack of a place within the American Jewish establishment for not only vocal dissent, but active pressure on Israel to change policy.
Pandemonium ensued. Some who wished to advance an agenda to exert pressure on Israel from the outside hailed Beinart as a hero, and even paid for his speaker tour on campuses across the country. Establishment organizations nervously denied that they were as rigid as Beinart claimed; some, as if to prove the point, stepped up their own vocal criticism of Israeli policy. Because the subject was “the kids,” nearly every “adult” in the family seemed to have an opinion—and, usually, it entailed pointing the finger at some other adult in the family.
Through it all, as such family disputes usually go, nearly no one bothered to ask the “kids” how they really felt; and even though the facts were there all along, most of the organized Jewish world never bothered to stop and check.
It was a sad day indeed, therefore, when I was given the opportunity earlier this winter to speak before a collection of Federation and Jewish foundation executives and to present the real data—and as I saw the surprise registered in the eyes of those in attendance.
The truth is as surprising, and disturbing, as the original myth is dangerous.
As it turns out, Beinart was dead wrong: wrong in the facts, and wrong in the interpretation. In an interview in Israel Campus Beat, Leonard Saxe, who directs the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, called Beinart “an ignorant consumer of research on American Jewish attitudes to Israel,” adding—not for the first time—“The bottom line is that Beinart is wrong about the facts. His thesis of how politics drives American attachment is a straw person, not sustained by evidence.”
Even Steven Cohen, upon whose research Beinart had relied, strenuously and repeatedly denied Beinart’s thesis. Cohen explained: “[D]istancing is about growing apathy about or disengagement with Israel. It means not thinking about, talking about, or caring about Israel. It does NOT mean opposition to Israeli government policies or criticism of Israel's policies, both of which are signs of closeness and attachment.”
In fact, what Beinart had hypothesized as a sign of distancing was, in reality, the opposite. The left-right hypothesis about the origins of distancing was a myth manufactured from whole cloth. Polls like those conducted by The Israel Project, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and others consistently demonstrated high levels of support for Israel among young Americans in general, and young American Jews in particular, notwithstanding policy disagreements. The issue around distancing wasn’t the one that Beinart and others—perhaps with the aid of wishful thinking—hoped to see around policy disputes. In fact, Cohen’s research reflected a bitter irony: those young American Jews who demonstrated greater emotional distancing from Israel were actually more conservative in their political views than those who reported feeling emotionally closer to Israel.
How could that be?
Continue reading at The Times of Israel.