It has become an accepted point of Jewish communal debates in recent years that young American Jews are “distancing” from Israel. However, a contrarian view, that holds that a feeling of attachment to the Jewish state is at least as strong among young Jews as it is for older Jews, has been gaining traction of late, and it is buttressed by a recent poll, sent out yesterday by Mitchell Bard’s American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
The poll posed questions to 400 American Jewish undergraduate students and found that 66 percent of them view themselves as feeling “very close” or “fairly close” to Israel. By design, this question of a feeling of closeness is the same posed in the AJC’s 2011 annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which found that 68 percent of the general Jewish population also described their feeling toward Israel in similar terms. This, as well as the polls other results mean, according to Bard, that “Contrary to the claims of some outspoken critics, young Jews do not feel alienated from Israel.”
One rather large caveat should be recognized when looking at the survey results: 43 percent of the interviewees attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva. According to the most recent surveys, there are about 230,000 students in Jewish day schools out of a school age population of about 1.2 million. So, realistically, about 20 percent of young Jews today attend day school. And, as the poll found, they are much more likely to express strong support for and a feeling of connection to Israel than their peers who have not.
Still, the basic results seem clear. Most young Jews feel connected to Israel in roughly the same proportion as their elders. They largely aren’t, though, speaking up about it. And their voices are largely not heard in the debate surrounding their views that continues to roil the Jewish world.
Perhaps the most important point these results, buttressed by the fact of Birthright, represent is that the current American Jewish generation may be a lot more like the last one than most people seem to want to recognize. Not terribly well-educated about Israel or other Jewish matters, it may nevertheless view a positive disposition toward Israel as a fundamental aspect of Jewish authenticity. Far from being beset by the supposed anti-democratic turns of a Jewish state they can no longer identify with, they, like their parents, view with pride a state and society they mostly don’t understand.
The Jews whose views of Israel are changing rather seem to be emerging non-Orthodox leadership. Many of them – from writers, philanthropists, rabbis and others – do seem to be more outspoken in their critiques of Israel and distancing from the Jewish state than was the case in the past.
But rather than leading the Jewish future – on this issue at least – these leaders may face a more uncomfortable reality of proposed constituents unwilling to follow them away from Israel and who instead say things like, “I’m a Zionist, pure and simple.” All of which means that a future where the attention-grabbing young Jews of today find themselves outside of their own community tomorrow may just be more likely than any other scenario.