by M J Rosenberg | Israel Policy Forum | 18 March 2005
A new poll on the attitudes of American Jews had some disturbing, if not surprising results. The poll is the work of Professor Steven M. Cohen of the Melton Center at the Hebrew University.*
Cohen is the most distinguished pollster specializing in Jewish attitudes and, accordingly, his polls are always eagerly awaited in the community. Cohen polls affect the programs and policies of Jewish organizations and one can expect his latest findings to resonate for a long time.
Basically Cohen’s survey finds that the attachment of American Jews to Israel has fallen dramatically over the past two years while other measures of Jewish identification – religious observance and organizational affiliation – have remained steady.
For instance, just 57% of Jews think that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish.”
The survey found that only 26% are “very” emotionally attached to Israel. Only 39% talk about Israel frequently with Jewish friends. Only 40% gave to an Israel-related charity over the past 12 months while only 22% attended an event or program about Israel.
On specific issues of Middle East policy, the poll reveals not antipathy to Israel but apathy. For large numbers of Jews, perhaps most, Israel is no longer a source of joy. They don’t go there. They don’t much talk about it. Israel is simply not central to their lives.
This is a terrible pity, not so much for Israel as for those American Jews who do not derive pleasure from Israel’s existence. For me, involved with Israel my whole life, it is impossible to imagine being Jewish without Israel, impossible to imagine that anyone can understand the meaning of Judaism without having experienced the glorious hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv or the serenity of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem on a Friday night. In fact, it is my memories of a thousand different experiences in Israel that enabled me to keep the faith during the past four years. At least, I have the memories of what was, and hopes of what must be.
But the majority of American Jews seem not to have that. And it’s no wonder. The years since the collapse of the Oslo agreement have not exactly been an advertisement for Israel. It is one thing to “support” Israel during times when Israel is under siege. It is another to feel a deep connection to it.
Cohen says that the very methods used to "build support for Israel tend to reduce attachment to it." The image of a nation at seemingly endless war with its neighbors, a nation whose very existence is always under challenge, a state that is always linked to the Holocaust, may be good for drumming up donations. But it is unlikely to cause young Jews in New York or Los Angeles to think of Israel in a positive light. Israel, the place, has been replaced by Israel, the never-ending crisis. Just take a look at those scary fundraising letters from Jewish organizations warning that Israel is on the brink of destruction.
And the scare tactics have failed. So have the efforts to convince Jews that Israel benefits from unquestioning support.
In fact, for many American Jews, the largest impediment to identifying with Israel is that American Jewish discourse on Israel tends to be one-sided, simplistic and monochromatic. You’re either with us or against us.
And that’s a problem, as evidenced by Cohen’s finding that two-thirds of American Jews are at least somtimes “disturbed by Israel’s policies and actions.”
Attempts to channel identification with Israel into knee-jerk support for Israeli policies are alienating American Jews who are committed to the Jewish state but also to a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict i.e. the two-state solution.
I spoke to a young man at an Ivy League college. He explained why he was not involved with Israel on campus. “The pro-Israel group is into supporting Israeli policies, right or wrong. That is not a natural state for kids 18-22. We question things, and questioning is pretty much considered anti-Israel. So you have 75 kids who are all gung-ho for Israel and probably a few thousand Jewish kids who would get involved but are totally turned off by the right-wing activists. That’s true everywhere.”
In an Ha’aretz piece called, “Why Jewish Students Are Really Silent,” Guy Spiegelman diagnosed the failure to sell Israel on campus this way, “Jewish students - inclined, as are all students, to lean towards the left during this period of life - are in a bind. They are torn between the communal message of unquestioning support for the state of Israel and their real concerns about the corrosive effects of occupying another people. There has been no room for a middle ground, one that says: ‘I love and support Israel, our fundamental rights to settle in the land of our forefathers, to live securely, etc. And at the same time I do not and cannot support Israel's continued status as an occupier.’"
”So these Jews remain silent. With no place to feel ‘at home’ ideologically they feel there is no point in confronting their anti-Israel professors” or, in fact, doing much of anything related to Israel.
The bottom line is that Israel cannot be “sold” through Arab-bashing, justifying every Israeli action, or indoctrinating young people in how best to “counter” this or that Palestinian argument. That has never worked, nor should such an essentially negative approach succeed.
What would work? Simply encouraging Jews, young and old, to see for themselves. The truth about Israel is not in an Alan Dershowitz book. It’s on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa (and, sad to say, in the territories too).
The good news is that the free Birthright (www.birthrightisrael.com) trips to Israel are bringing large numbers of kids to a country that still has the ability to sell itself. As Steve Cohen says, these trips can build the “engagement with the culture and people of Israel” that can turn these poll numbers around.
And overall tourism is about to take off again. The Palestinians (including the militants) have agreed to continue the ceasefire for the rest of the year. If it holds, and negotiations resume, we could soon be experiencing a repeat of the years 1997-2000, when the elimination of terrorism through Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation brought tourism to an all-time high.
A revitalized peace process is the best response to the Cohen poll. American Jews can be convinced to love Israel but not the idea of seemingly endless war and violence. This is just one more reason to pray that Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas succeed.
In the meantime, think about going to Israel this summer. As for the kids, send them on a Birthright trip. And make sure they understand that supporting Israel does not require adhering to any “line” handed down by anyone.
* Cohen’s survey was conducted in December and January and included a representative sample of 1,448 Jewish households. It was sponsored by the Zionist Education Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
MJ Rosenberg (email: email@example.com), Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, is a long time Capitol Hill staffer and former editor of AIPAC's Near East Report. If you have colleagues or friends who would appreciate receiving this weekly letter, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.