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Attachment to Israel Is Found to Be Declining Among Young American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October 2007

American Jews’ connection to Israel drops off with each subsequent generation, a new study suggests.  
The authors of the study, sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman, found a consistent increase in alienation in each younger generation, with middle-aged Jews less attached to Israel than older Jews, and younger Jews less attached than middle-aged Jews.  
“Every measure indicates a decline of attachment to Israel” from one generation to the next, Kelman, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis declared.  
The report, titled “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel,” was commissioned by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.  
Washington Jewish Week (Sept. 13, 2007) reports that, “The major findings are that successively younger American Jews feel increasingly distant from Israel, and that this trend has been increasing steadily for decades. For example, less than half (48 percent) of respondents under 35 agreed that ‘Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy,’ compared to 78 percent of those 65 and older. And just 54 percent of the younger group are ‘comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state,’ compared to 81 percent of those 65 or older, 74 percent of those 50-64 and 64 percent of the 35-49 age group.”  
According to one of the report’s co-authors, Steven Cohen, a sociologist and research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, the differences are more a function of when people were born than where they are on the life-cycle continuum. That means the American Jewish detachment from Israel will increase as younger Jews age and replace their parents and grandparents’ generations.  
“There is growing discomfort with the drawing of hard group boundaries of all sorts,” Cohen said of the so-called “millenials,” those born after 1980. “The idea of a Jewish state reflects hard group boundaries, that there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else. That does not sit well with young Jews.”  
The report, declares U.S. News and World Report (Sept. 17, 2007), reflects what its authors “believe is a key indicator of a change from a more collective, ethnic, or even tribal view of being Jewish toward what they call ‘privatized Judaism.’ The latter, in their view, promotes a ‘more open notion of community, a more fluid conception of Jewish identity, and a more critical approach to peoplehood and belonging’ — all of which would presumably accompany diminished attachment to the Jewish homeland.”  
Among the factors influencing this trend, reports U.S. News, are “the dimming memory of Israel’s early heroic struggles for independence ... intermarriage receives close attention ... The author found that Jews of all ages in mixed marriages score lower in attachment to Israel than do nonmarried Jews or Jews married within the faith. But younger intermarried Jews are significantly more alienated from Israel than older intermarried Jews or younger intramarried and unmarried Jews.”  
The report also indicates that the overall slide in attachment to, or interest in, Israel does not mean that young American Jews are “less Jewish.” On the contrary, numerous recent studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate great cultural and religious vitality and creativity among young Jews. Israel is just not as much part of the picture.  
Steven Cohen expresses the view that, “It’s worrying that young Jews may be creating a latter day Jewish Bundism, which affirms Jewish belonging but is neutral to the Zionist enterprise. We’re seeing this growing phenomenon of Jews who have no problem saying the Sh’ma, but won’t sing Hatikva.”  
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar, which provides networking and support to new start-up minyanim nationwide, said that young Jews have a more nuanced attitude toward Israel than their elders. In the independent minyan movement, he said, that means they have not yet figured out how to do Israel programming. “I think that reflects a problem that our generation has not solved; how to engage with Israel without slogan-slinging, but still remain emotionally engaged,” he said.  
Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told The Jerusalem Post that, “These results are very upsetting.” He blamed a combination of a “comfortable life” in America and growing materialism for the detachment from Israel. He said the only way to combat this growing trend was to invest more in such programs as “Birthright Israel,” which offers free trips to Israel to young Jews.  
According to the report, only 60 percent of American Jews under 35 believed caring about Israel was an important part of being Jewish. Among those over the age of 65, 80 percent believed that caring about Israel was a way to express their Jewish identity.

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