In early November 2021, The New York Times Magazine posted an essay under the provocative title “Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism.”1 The essay focused on a letter signed by 93 rabbinical and cantorial students at non-Orthodox seminaries castigating Israeli policies as “enabling apartheid” and American Jewish leaders for supporting those policies. To the reader, it appeared that younger American Jews, especially future communal leaders, were abandoning the long-prevailing pro-Israel communal consensus.
To be sure, the essay contained little that had not been advanced previously. In 2010, Peter Beinart, writing in the New York Review of Books, warned that American Jewish leadership’s support for Israel’s right-leaning government would alienate young Jews. Beinart contrasted Israeli policies with the liberalism and universalism favored by younger American Jews. He predicted that, with the exception of Orthodox Jews, the next generation of American Jews would relegate Zionism to an irrelevancy, if not worse.2
Recent data, emanating from the 2020 Pew survey of American Jewry, documents considerable attrition in young people’s identification with Israel, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons Beinart and the Times essay underscored. Pew reported that while two-thirds of Jews over age 65 expressed attachment to Israel, only 48% of Jews under 30 did so. Similarly, 52% of Jews over 65 considered Israel as “essential” to their Jewish identity, but barely a third of Jews under 30 agreed. More ominously, 37% of Jews under 30 believed that the United States had been “too supportive” of Israel, and 13% expressed support for the BDS movement, which delegitimizes Israel as a nation-state by echoing the international boycott of pre-Mandela apartheid South Africa.3
Two currents appeared to be driving these findings: Assimilation has continued at a rapid pace with mixed marriage rates now exceeding 70% among non-Orthodox Jews. Distancing from matters Jewish generally will, by definition, entail distancing from Israel. Second, differences of political culture and ethos, especially as voiced by those who signed the seminarians’ letter, pointed to a growing cultural and political gulf between the world’s two largest Jewish communities. American values of welcoming the stranger, multiculturalism and religious pluralism resonated greatly with younger American Jews, in pronounced contrast with Israelis’ emphasis upon survivalism and tribalism.
Contrasting perceptions of recent Democratic administrations illustrated vividly this “values gap.” President Barack Obama captured 70% of the Jewish vote, but his popularity rating among Jewish Israelis declined to a historic low of 4%. Similarly, a recent AJC survey of American and Israeli Jewish opinion reported that President Joe Biden commanded a 70% approval rating among American Jews, but only 18% of Israeli Jews agreed with that sentiment.4
Unsurprisingly, these findings rightfully concern Jewish leaders. Some, to be sure, denounced the Times essay for focusing upon a small group that invoked extreme language and that was unrepresentative of American Jewry. Others cited the success of Birthright in far exceeding expectations in attracting unprecedented numbers of participants for trips to Israel, thereby suggesting continued robust pro-Israel sentiment. Still others pointed to studies underscoring that as young people age, pro-Israel sentiments increase and approximate the level of support for Israel expressed by earlier generations.5
What, if anything, can be done to counter the attrition of Jewish attitudes toward Israel as reported by Pew?
First, there ought be no denying the problem. As Daniel Gordis wrote recently, American and Israeli Jews reside within two very different societies with differing cultures and value systems. The more American Jews internalize liberal and universalist values, Jewish identity and support for Israel are likely to attenuate.6 Pockets of intensified connection to Israel certainly exist, but the realities of assimilation need to be confronted honestly and without denying its corrosive impact.
Conversely, certain elites, notably those who signed the seminarians’ letter, have intensified their overall connections to Jewish heritage and concerns but believe current Israeli policies to be in pronounced conflict with Jewish teachings and heritage. Thus, increased intermarriage, alienation from matters Jewish generally and discontent with Israeli political direction combine to create a serious problem of young Jews distancing from Israel. The distancing may not be as great as some contend, but it also cannot be wished away.
Specifically, there appears to be a problem among intermarrieds and their progeny, a trend that increasingly may characterize the future family composition among non-Orthodox Jews. This population in particular scores weakly in terms of attachment to Jewish collectivity and peoplehood. Pedagogies and language need to be developed that speak to people with non-Jewish family members for whom Israel constitutes but one state among many and not a particularly attractive one.
Two counter-images come to mind that may provide the basis for such a pedagogy: Israel as ties of kinship, i.e. gratification at coming into contact with fellow Jews for whom living in a Jewish society comprises a daily-felt reality, and Israel as homeland, i.e. affinity for reasons of history much as other ethnicities in America look favorably or, minimally, take an interest in their country of origin. To be sure, these suggestions hardly will work in all or even a majority of cases. Conversely, however, they may resonate with more limited potential constituencies, e.g. participants in Birthright trips.
More generally, much greater emphasis must be placed on values of peoplehood and mutual responsibility between Jews worldwide. Granted that these traditional values often appear dissonant with universal values of common humanity, and for some the very ideas of statehood and sovereignty suggest only enhanced national enmities. But Jewish tradition itself posits a natural dialectic between the particular and the universal. Jewish values both transcend national boundaries and simultaneously promote ties of peoplehood.
Moreover, the very story of peoplehood claims the return to statehood as its greatest success narrative in modern times. Unquestionably that return entailed tragedy for non-Jewish inhabitants of the historic Jewish homeland. In that sense the Arab-Israeli conflict is hardly a conflict of angels and devils so much as a conflict of two peoples with claims to the same land. That was the logic of geographic partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states in 1948 and which remains compelling today.
Put simply, such a conflict may be resolved not as a zero-sum game, but through reasonable compromises on both sides, something that Israel has understood at numerous points in her history but whose proposals for Palestinian statehood regrettably met with Palestinian rejection.
More important and most critical, Jewish education concerning Israel has been woefully deficient. In the recent AJC survey 63% of respondents described the Israel education they received as “weak,” while fewer than half correctly identified David Ben-Gurion as the first Prime Minister of Israel.7 Israel education ought to prioritize understanding Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, flawed and incomplete to be sure, but committed to remaining both Jewish and democratic. Courses and pedagogical units on modern Israel need to teach Israel holistically as a vibrant society confronting challenges on both internal and external fronts — at times successfully and at times unsuccessfully.
Thankfully, the Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education is now vigorously enriching our teens, students and teachers with contemporary content in rich Jewish historical context. The Arab-Israeli conflict must be taught candidly but within this context of the larger history of Israel, which far transcends armed conflict alone. And teaching the failures of Israeli policy ought not translate as teaching students to forfeit allegiance to the Jewish state, much as America’s shortcomings, albeit quite real, ought not overshadow America’s overall record as a liberal and pluralistic democracy.
Last, as Gordis argues, we should not be seeking perfection in Israel.8 To take one example, American Jews understandably are disappointed in Israel’s failure thus far to implement a compromise proposal over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, agreed to over eight years ago, and are particularly puzzled why an issue American Jews deem vital to their identity and attachment to Israel simply does not register with the Israeli public. Often overlooked, however, is the Israeli reality of the challenge and necessity to integrate a haredi population projected to comprise a third of Israeli Jewry within a generation.9 That reality, to be sure, hardly mitigates the claim that the Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people and not to one sector alone. But it also entails recognizing that compromises may often be difficult to implement when the opposition of critical sectors remains defiant.
Put simply, a candid approach, emphasizing education rather than hasbarah and geared toward attaining literacy rather than pro-Israel advocacy, is more likely to result in greater empathy and understanding for Israel and what she faces. Success is hardly guaranteed, and some losses are likely inevitable. But the effort is well worth the cost and in fact signals what Jews, as People of the Book, have always done: Study our heritage, weigh difficult questions, and struggle with answers that are rarely definitive or completely satisfying but that speak to our core definition as a people in ongoing dialogue with its tradition and unceasing in its quest for truth.
1. The print edition of the Times Magazine featured a less provocative title. See Marc Tracy, “Generation Exodus,” New York Times Magazine, Nov. 7, 2021, 30-35,46.
2. Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010.
3. Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 2021.
4. AJC 2021 Survey of American and Israeli Jewish Opinion.
5. Ira Stoll, “New York Times Magazine Offers Look ‘Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism,’” Algemeiner, Nov. 2, 2021. Alan Silverstein, “Has American-Jewish Zionism Unraveled?” Jewish Standard, Nov. 18, 2021, for reaction to the Times essay upon its publication, and, more generally, Ted Sasson, The New American Zionism, N.Y., 2014.
6. Daniel Gordis, We Stand Divided, N.Y.: 2019.
7. AJC 2021 Survey of American and Israeli Jewish Opinion.
8. Gordis, 243-4.
9. Shira Hanau, “Nearly One in Three Israeli Jews Will Be Haredi Orthodox by 2050, per Israeli Economic Projections,” JTA, Nov. 23, 2021.