The Great Divorce
In reading Peter Beinart's, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," I am reminded of Sam Norich's quip: "You exaggerate, but not enough!" Indeed, American Jews' disillusionment with Israel is more far-reaching than Beinart portrays; the causes for distancing extend beyond dissonance with liberal values; and distancing operates differently for the Jewish public and the most engaged in Jewish life.
Beinart is right to locate detachment among the non-Orthodox. Over the years, Orthodox Jews have grown increasingly attached to Israel, as gap-year study in Israel has become de rigueur, and more than 2,000 Orthodox Jews make aliya (migrate to Israel) annually.
In contrast, the 90 percent of American Jews who are not Orthodox have been moving toward less engagement with Israel. This move has been tempered only by Birthright Israel and Masa, programs bringing thousands of young American Jews to Israel annually.
Detachment from Israel among the American Jewish public differs critically from disillusionment among the more Jewishly active and engaged. For the public, distancing is not much driven by political considerations. If Israeli policies were largely responsible for distancing, then liberal Jews should be more distant from Israel than centrist or politically conservative Jews. In fact, as Ari Kelman and I find in "Beyond Distancing," attachment to Israel is unrelated to political identity.
If Israeli policies aren't undermining Israel attachment, then what is? As Ari and I found, the primary driver is intermarriage. Younger Jews are far more likely to marry non-Jews, and the intermarried are far less Israel-attached than those who marry fellow Jews -- and even non-married Jews. Intermarriage reflects and promotes departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic "groupiness," of which Israel attachment is part.
Where Israeli policies do come into play is with a critical segment of Jewishly engaged young adults. Younger, active Jews are just as "engaged" with Israel as their older counterparts, but they are far less likely to see themselves "pro-Israel." Significantly, despite the efflorescence of new Jewish initiatives in such domains as culture, social justice, and new media, hardly any new initiatives by young people relate to Israel. More pointedly, when asked to engage the Israel question on any side of the agenda, younger leaders resist doing so, in part out of fear of controversy in their own communities or fear of repercussions from donors who fund their initiatives. Younger Jews believe they have only two acceptable choices if they are to remain welcome in conventional Jewish precincts: public advocacy or private ambivalence.
If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews, organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative -- one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics (see, for example, For the Sake of Zion).
Steven Cohen is a sociologist and professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.