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Young American Jews & Israel

Young American Jews & Israel

What Jews under 35 feel towards Israel goes beyond apathy to outright resentment.


Sociologists Stephen Cohen and Ari Kelman have now confirmed what everyone already knew: Young American Jews 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.

Most Jews under 35 would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.

"These results are very upsetting," said Jewish Agency chairman Zev Bielski. He then proceeded to give an inane 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. A survey of young Orthodox Jews would have yielded a diametrically opposed and highly embarrassing 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.

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.

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? Young American Jews today share 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 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.

The historic link between American Jewry and Israel is coming to an end.

The implications of Cohen and Kelman's findings for American Jewry are great. 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 many Jews, and the identity it provides is not one which they wish to share.

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.

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.

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.

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 originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

October 27, 2007

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 71

(57) Raymond Bastarache, April 30, 2014 4:40 PM

American Jews and Israel

The only answer I could come with... in this situation... would be... like Joshua of old: "Who is on the Lord's side?" . Shalom.

(56) Bill, January 7, 2014 5:51 AM

Muslims converting Teenage Israeli girls to Islam

In this article I read, which almost made me sick, was about a Muslim Missionary in Northern Israel targeting teenage Israeli Jewish girls for conversion to Islam. Why should I be rebuffed by Every Israeli female here in the US to support Israel allowing towel heads to violate our women?

(55) Beverly Kurtin, November 11, 2013 11:01 PM

I'd love to visit Israel

Although I have the desire to visit Israel, or possibly make the move to live in Israel, I'll never be able to do so. Why? Money, rather the lack of it, keeps me in the good old USA. I'm part of that generation that were alive when Israel became a state, but she was just starting.
Now, kids get free trips to Israel while those of us in our 70s who can't afford the fares to get there still see Israel as something about which to be proud and support it as much as we can.

It is VERY disturbing to see President Obama and the Secretary of State Kerry turning against Israel. Kerry simply does not understand the dynamics in the area. He just said a few days ago that unless Israel relaxes their stance, other countries around the country will go against Israel.

That I find to be inexcusable. The facts are clear: The Arab states do not want an independent Palestine and the Palestinians themselves do not want an independent state. Why? Because by keeping the so-called Palestinians in a stateless position, it is an open sore. The Palestinian leaders don't want an independent state because that would shut down the cash flow that they are putting into their own funds.
When Arafat's family had his wealth figured...he had over a billion dollars in savings and investments. That's why pouring more money into the situation is NOT the problem.

For 19 years, the Jordanians had Samaria and Judea which they called the West Bank and Egypt had Gaza. Why didn't they form an independent state then? BECAUSE THEY DO NOT WANT THE PALESTINIANS TO HAVE A STATE OF THEIR OWN. Of all the countries in the middle east ONLY Israel have given the Palestinians equal rights, the franchise, all of the things that the other Arab countries deny them.

I love Israel and when the fertilizer hits the air moving device for Jews here in the US, we'll have one "safe" place to go.

(54) Abigail, March 27, 2013 10:59 PM

Some survey but not enough research done!

Of course this article panders to the motto and the smug feelings of superiority. American Jewry stinks. American young Jews are even worse, would not care about the holocaust. Well, a real and honest investigations with real research and interviews on campuses and among professionals and other youngsters, would reveal that people have woken up to the fact not to fall for Hillel's (one example of the massive propaganda millions out of the state of Israel to indoctrinate Jews esp. the youth and student movements) propaganda. They see for themselves what the state of Israel is anno 21st century including how the state got established.The truth is ugly enough for to ignore. The Palestinians are only goyim, right? What does it make us? Go to,, and get real with yourselves. Anything less makes you complicit. And that at Pesach. We are inflicting a small holocaust ourselves upon innocents and only care about ourselves!

(53) Frank Adam, January 11, 2013 12:06 PM

Why have the Orthodox failed to keep engaged the middling majority?

There is a two way question in the preening that the Orthodox have maintained the engagement. Why is it that they have failed to do so for so many? After all pretty well all the Jewish Community came West with an orthodox observant background. The observances of personal piety have a part but they have to also make an obvious payback; ditto the study of the tradition and both observances and studies have very obviously failed to do enough to retain a large slice of the community. Why? Over to you rabbinate and melamedim.... Admittedly this is not just a Jewish problem but also for Catholics and other Christians and eventually Moslems too which is why the religious Moslems are so terrified "the West" will somehow dissolve them too. It is time fo rrabbis and others to do soem hard thinking not so much about observances in the modern World as about the basics of what religion does - wishes to do - sociologically in any society, then the urban industrial society of our times in particular.

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