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Only 20% of American Jews Believe Israel is Important Part of Jewish Identity

american jews in israeli flag

Only 20% of American Jews find Israel to be 'important' to their identity

The news from the American Jewish community isn’t good as far as Israel is concerned (that is, if Israel even cares).  The Public Religion Research Institute, whose board chair is Rabbi David Saperstein, has conducted a wide-ranging survey (full report) of attitudes toward Jewish identity and Israel among American Jews.  If you’re a leader of the affiliated community or an Israeli who believes the Diaspora plays an important role related to Israel, then the news will be disturbing.  This poll follows on a ground-breaking one published by the dean of Jewish demographers, Steven Cohen, in 2007, Beyond Distancing.  I’ll be comparing these polls below to determine if there’s been a progression between the results of the earlier survey and the current one.

Most Jewish and Israeli papers are focussing on the generally good news in the poll for Barack Obama and his Israel policies.  But I think that’s merely restating the obvious.  What interests me are the results which speak to American Jews’ attitudes toward themselves, their religious and political values, and Israel.  Keep in mind, that from a review of the board of the Institute, it appears pretty skewed toward a liberal Reform Judaism type approach toward these issues.  The questions also appear to be quite wide open and allow respondents to identify themselves with very broad, almost undefined categories of belief.  Nonetheless, and not to discredit the results, I find them very instructive.

Here are some of the more prominent and interesting findings:

Over 80 % of Jews believe that “pursuing justice” is an “important” value (by value I took them to be referring to Jewish values even though that’s not specified–since the poll at times calls itself a “Jewish Values Survey”) that “informs their political beliefs.  Over 70% believe that “healing the world” (tikun olam) is also an important value.  An important metric regarding Jewish attitudes both toward immigrants and Muslims is that 55% believe that it’s important to see every human being as made in the image of God.  Nearly 90% believe that the Holocaust plays an important role in determining their political values.  70% believe that the Jewish immigrant experience is an important part of their values.

Specifically regarding values that were most important to their Jewish identity, nearly 50% said that social equality was among them.  Only 20% said that Israel was.

* UPDATE: Steven Cohen suggested that I clarify something that was not explicit in the actual report of the survey results.  On the question of values most important to their Jewish identity, respondents were asked to make a single choice among several as to the issue that was most important to them.  I still feel that the fact that 50% chose social justice over the 20% choosing Israel is significant.

Regarding the upcoming election, 50% of Jews said the economy was uppermost in their minds.  About 15% largely reflected the Occupy movement’s assertion that the gap between rich and poor would be most important in determining their vote.  Over 70% believe the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy.  Over 80% said taxes on the wealthy should be raised.  Only 4% respectively said that Israel and national security would be the most important factor in deciding for whom to vote.  These are definitely not good numbers for the Republican Jewish Coalition.

62% said they’d vote for Obama in 2012.  And a similar percentage believe he’s doing a good job as president.  20% of American Jews say they both approve of Obama’s policies toward Israel and the way he’s implementing them, 28% disapprove, while 36% have no opinion on the subject.

Nearly 70% of Jews believe Muslims are an important religious community in the U.S.  76% disagree with the claims of pro-Israel Jewish jihadis that American Muslims are seeking to impose Sharia law on Americans.  Which seems a reassuring number until you see that 22% believe they are.  Nearly 60% agree that if economic sanctions fail that military action is warranted to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

When asked what were Israel’s biggest internal problems, 90% said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and over 80% said Iran.  Over 50% said that ultra-Orthodox control over Israel was a critical problem.  Over 50% of Jews support the creation of a Palestinian state.

Now let’s return to Steven Cohen’s 2007 survey.  One of the most shocking aspects of his results was the declining allegiance among young Jews toward Israel.  Whereas their parents and grandparents felt an unerring sense of destiny intertwining Israel and the Diaspora, their children turned their backs on this notion.  While the questions in both surveys don’t overlap, there are some trends that may be compared.  On questions of loyalty to Israel, Cohen found that young Jews (ages 21-24) tracked consistently lowest in their responses.  So I’ll use their survey numbers since on most questions they track even higher than the numbers of the current survey, which may indicate there’s been a decline during the period between 2007 and 2012 in allegiance to Israel.

Cohen found that around 20% of young Jews were “always proud of”  and “emotionally attached” to Israel.  60% of this group said that “caring about Israel” was an “important part” of being a Jew.  65% identified themselves as “pro-Israel.”  Nearly 80% felt they had a strong or moderate “attachment” to Israel.

* The two numbers which appear most comparable from the two surveys are the 20% of all Jews in the current one, who identified Israel as the most important part of their Jewish identity, while 60% of Cohen’s youngest cohort said caring for Israel was an important part of being Jewish.  Since every survey is different, I won’t say these numbers can be directly correlated.  But I think the apparently declining numbers between five years ago and now is striking and would worry me greatly if I were a Jewish communal professional or Israeli who cared about the Diaspora.

Another clear finding in the 2012 poll, is that RJC campaign ads which trumpet the “betrayal” by Democrats of Israel simply don’t resonate among Jews since Israel as a campaign issue is almost non-existent.  Even more important, broad swaths of American Jews have been driven away by Israel’s betrayal of what many of see as core Jewish values of social and economic justice and religious tolerance.  Israel is now a place in which religious hate is dominant, where a ruling élite controls vast amounts of the nation’s wealth, and where Occupation has been the prevailing norm for many decades.  This is a burden Israel can no longer sustain among American Jews.  It’s simply becoming more and more a losing proposition.

It is critical that Israel regain its former role among Diaspora Jews.  Critical both for Israel and the Diaspora since it will be extremely difficult for one to thrive without the other.  But the only way for Israel to once again resonate for American Jews is for it to become a “normal” nation at peace with its neighbors.  If this does not happen, Israel runs the risk of not just having American Jews turn away, but having the wider American public do so as well.  It’s not clear that an Israel without its key ally can sustain the level of defiance it’s managed against Palestinian demands for justice and the international community’s increasing alignment with this view.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Elisabeth April 4, 2012, 3:33 AM

    You write: “It is critical that Israel regain its former role among Diaspora Jews. Critical both for Israel and the Diaspora since it will be extremely difficult for one to thrive without the other. ”

    But has not Judaism in its long history thrived in many places, without Israel? Does the Diaspora need Israel?

    • yankel April 4, 2012, 10:12 AM

      Moreover. Through millennia, Judaism has evolved into being a diaspora-religion by definition. With more and more Jews emerging from the religious fold, it further evolved into a diaspora-culture. This culture bore the socio-liberal-humanist values many Jews — religious and atheists — traditionally associated with their religious-cultural heritage.

      Zionism, by its own definition, was a revolt against this self-perception. The Zionists’ New-Jews were to be “liberated” from their Diaspora-Mentality. Judaism in Israel has thus regressed into a National-Religion where nationalism and religion beat each other’s war drums. Mainstream Judaism in the diaspora aligned itself accordingly, with only the far margins maintaining the “old” Diaspora-Judaism: the super-ultra-orthodox Neturey-Karta adhere to the diaspora-religion while the non-Zionist liberals stand by the diaspora-culture values.

    • Richard Silverstein April 5, 2012, 3:16 AM

      Certainly Jews may survive without Israel as they have for millenia. But I believe that they are each better off with the other as long as one doesn’t demean or deny the value of the other.

  • delia ruhe April 4, 2012, 4:19 PM

    The 80/20 split is not a real surprise; the surprise is in the other details.

    It’s the 20 percent that make all the noise, but it’s the 80 percent — the silent majority — that I wonder most about. It’s probably these whom Peter Beinart wonders about too.

    How many of them care a fair amount about Israel but don’t want to get involved in the brutal politics of it?

    How many couldn’t care less?

    Or, to put it another way, how big is Beinart’s target audience? Maybe none of them give a damn.

    • dickerson3870 April 4, 2012, 7:48 PM

      RE: It’s the 20 percent that make all the noise, but it’s the 80 percent — the silent majority — that I wonder most about… How many of them care a fair amount about Israel but don’t want to get involved in the brutal politics of it? ~ delia ruhe

      AN ISRAELI’S TAKE: Dear liberal American Jews: Please don’t betray Israel, by Dahlia Scheindlin, +972 Magazine, 2/14/12:

      (excerpts). . . After two weeks in America visiting family and friends, two observations struck me powerfully. First, the understanding that Israel is committing terrible deeds that are destroying itself and its neighbors, has penetrated among you. . .
      . . . On this trip, I was stunned to learn that now you don’t even really want to visit Israel because you can’t face what you’re increasingly coming to see as a brutal occupying entity flirting with fascist notions. . .
      . . . My second observation is that because of your fear – not of the goyim or the anti-Semites, but of yourselves! – you are keeping a low public profile. On this trip, I suddenly realized how naïve it was to imagine that J Street had sufficiently opened the door for anyone who cares critically for Israel to speak out. I underestimated how deep and terrible the intimidation has become and that one political lobby group is far from enough.
      I do understand: those of you who still call the Jewish community home, are afraid of the onslaught that you will receive from your (our) very own people.
      I hold no illusions about how vicious the attacks might be. We Jews, not the goyim, will call you the most painful names, will threaten in various ways to label you as beyond the pale of your people, should you voice your critique.
      You might be chastised in your professional community. You will be hit not only by shadowy bloggers but by the very cherished and established groups you have loyally, even automatically, supported over the years. The anger might come from your friends and it might even come from your family. . .
      . . . Here’s how that made me feel: abandoned, by the liberal Jews of America. You were swept away by Ruth Wisse’s thesis that liberals betrayed the Jewish cause by believing too much in rational universalism [e.g. universal human rights] and failing to acknowledge the unique, everlasting threat of anti-Semitism…

      ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to 972mag.com

  • Bob Mann April 6, 2012, 10:26 AM

    How would you have answered that survey question with respect to Israel being an important part of your Jewish identity?

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