Two surveys recently released in early October 2013 looked at the views of American Jews on Israel; one poll looked at the average Jewish Americans position, and the other looks at the position American rabbis take towards Israel. The first survey from Pew Research Center released on Oct. 1, 2013 entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” looked at American Jews’ views of Israel in the section “Connection With and Attitudes Toward Israel” While a second survey conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs entitled “Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis” examined the American rabbis’ views of Israel. Both had similar results. young Jews or rabbis are more liberal in their views on Israel.
One of the aspects the Pew Research Center survey looked at was Americans Jews views on Israel, a major section of the survey it looked at a number of topics, including “attachment to Israel, caring about Israel, travel to Israel, Israel as a G-d given country to the Jews, prospects of a two state solution, skepticism of both Israeli and Palestinian leadership on peace process, impact of continued building of Jewish settlements on Israel’s security, most important problem facing Israel, and U.S. policy toward Israel.”
The survey’s trends show that among the more religious there is a greater attachment and support for Israel. The trends also demonstrated that older Jews are more attached than younger Jews, co-relating with religiosity. Support for Israel in all areas surveyed showed a similar trend, both relating to religiosity and age, with younger Jews more critical and less supportive of Israel, whereas in general Jews of no religion support and attachment was far less.
An overwhelming number of American Jews at 69 percent are “attached” to Israel, broken down the number consists of 30 percent who are “very attached” and 39 percent “somewhat attached.” There is correlation between religion and attachment to Israel, Jews by religion are more attached to Israel than Jews with no religion, 76 percent to 45 percent.
The same trend can be seen by religious denomination, the more religious the denomination, a larger percentage are attached to Israel; Orthodox, 91 percent, Conservative, 88 percent, and Reform, 71 percent, with those without affiliation at 48 percent attached to Israel. Modern Orthodox are the most strongly attached to Israel with 71 percent saying they are very attached to Israel.
More Jews by religion find caring about Israel an essential part of being Jewish, than Jews of no religion who find caring about Israel important but not an essential element. For Jews by religion the results were split; 49 percent found it essential, with 42 percent finding it important, but not essential. On the flip side a minority of Jews of no religion at 23 percent found Israel an essential element of their Jewish identity, where a majority at 52 found it important, but not essential however, a significant 25 percent found Israel not all important to their identity at all. The results are similar when looking at age demographics, with older Jews especially those older than 65 years find caring about Israel more important to their identity than younger Jews.
The survey also concluded that 43 percent of American Jews have visited Israel once with 23 percent having visited multiple times. The number is more than double, with Jews by religion at 49 percent, and Jews without religion at 23 percent having visited Israel. There is a correlation between religiosity and visiting Israel with Orthodox Jews have been to Israel more than any other denomination.
In a reverse trend in this case, younger Jews, those under 30 have visited Israel more than any other age group because of the popularity and mass availability of free Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. Recent reports, however, say that Birthright trips’ popularity are waning down with less registrars for the upcoming winter 2014 trips than any other years before. This could possibly be because of younger Jews growing detachment from Israel filtering into their desire to visit.
As for believing G-d gave Israel as a country to the Jews, that belief is entire divided by religiosity; with 47 percent of Jews by religion believing that to only 26 percent of Jews of no religion. The irony is more Christian Americans believe by 55 percent that Israel is a G-d given country to the Jews, with 82 percent of evangelical Christians, who often consider themselves Christian Zionists believing this.
American Jews political leanings affect their views and opinions of Israel, especially regarding to their opinions on the Israeli government; their actions and the peace process. American Jews are profoundly liberal with 70 percent Democratic Party supporters, and only 22 percent are registered Republicans or conservative leaning, with the majority of conservative being ultra-Orthodox. Republicans Jews in general found Israel more important to them and were in general more supportive of the Israeli government. Liberal Jews are more supportive of the peace process and the American government’s policy towards Israel and in general more critical of the Israeli government. Additionally, younger American Jews are liberals, which could account for their growing detachment.
American Jews believe in a two state solution and in general are optimistic that there can be peace between Israel and the Palestinians, with 61percent believing peace is possible, while only 33 percent do not believe it. Jews of no religion especially are more hopeful that than can be a peaceful co-existence with 72 percent and only 58 of Jews by religion believing it is possible. It diminishes even further by denomination with only 30 percent of Orthodox Jews believing in a peaceful two-state co-existence. In direct co-relation liberal Jews by 70 percent believe peace is possible versus only 35 percent of Republican Jews. American Jews are more optimistic than the rest of Americans or Israeli Jews about peace.
Among the American population in general 50 percent believe peace is possible, while 41 percent do not think so. Among Israelis there is the lowest hope for peace with only 50 percent half believing its possible and the highest amount at 38 percent that do not believe peace is possible. Keep in mind the poll was conducted between February and June 2013, before the announcement of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in July 2013.
When examining skepticism of both Israeli and Palestinian leadership on pursuing the peace process is one place both Jews by religion and Jews of no religion agree upon, 12 percent find that Palestinian leadership is not sincere about pursuing peace. However, their opinions diverge on the Israeli government’s sincerity, with 44 percent of Jews by religion believing the Israeli government is making an effort with the peace process, whereas only 21 percent of Jews of no religion believe the Israeli government is making an effort. In direct correlation the more religious the denomination the more confidence in the Israeli government. There are also the same trends where older American Jews have more confidence, while younger Jews are more skeptical of the Israeli government.
American Jews political leanings may also affect American Jews opinion on Israel’s building in the West Bank settlements. A majority of American Jews are against the settlements with 44 percent believing the West Bank settlements “hurt Israel’s security,” with only 17 percent being supportive believing the settlements “help Israel’s security” and a larger number of 29 percent believing the settlements “do not make a difference” either way. As with the other areas within the survey about Israel, Orthodox Jews are most supportive of the settlements than other more liberal and less religious denominations, and Republicans Jews support the settlements at 33 percent, whereas an overwhelming amount of liberal Jews at 56 percent oppose the settlements.
The last section about American Jewish views of Israel looked at U.S. policy toward Israel, President Barack Obama and his administration’s support of Israel, where American Jews were divided politically more than any other factor, with 66 percent of Republican Jews saying it is not supportive enough, while Democrats and Independents supporting the administration in general think at 62 and 52 percent that the support it “about right.”
In general, Jews by religion and Jews of no religion tend to be on the same page at 56 and 50 percent respectively saying that the administration’s support is “about right.” However, a larger number of Jews by religion at 35 percent find it “not supportive enough,” while 27 percent of Jews of no religion find the government too supportive. There are also disparities in the views by denomination with again Orthodox at 53 percent finding the government “not supportive enough,” while at the opposite only 30 percent of Reform Jews think the government is “not supportive enough.”
Academics and American Jewish institutional and communal leaders see the correlations between age and declining support for Israel, but are not very concerned. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who was also an adviser to the Pew survey analyzed; “Every Israel number is much lower among young people than their grandparents.”
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman dismissed the findings of the Pew survey, stating; “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care. This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care. I think it’s interesting, we need to be aware. But I’m not going to follow this.”
According to Steve Bayme, who is the director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee, the growing detachment of young Jews from Israel, has less to do with Israel, and more to do with their growing distance from the religion in general. Bayme analyzed; “The distancing from Israel…among the younger generation is less a reflection of harsh criticism of Israeli policy than it is a distancing from Jewish matters generally. Therefore, Jewish organizations do need to be concerned about this, but they need to be concerned primarily about continuity and assimilation.”
While Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs believes that there is still hope that young Americans Jews will get more engaged in Israel as they get older; “What will happen, more than likely, is that many of these younger people will become more attached.”
A second survey conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs examined the American rabbis’ views of Israel, the first survey to quantify their views. The survey found similar trends in political views, denomination affiliation, and age, correlating to views on Israel as in the Pew survey. However, the survey determined that a third of rabbis are afraid to speak their mind about Israel and the peace process. According to the survey the rabbis “testified to restraint, reluctance or repression of their true views.”
Younger rabbis from Conservative and Reform denominations are more liberal politically than Orthodox rabbis, with 18 percent describing themselves as more “dovish” in their views about Israel than they express. On the opposite side, only 12 percent claim their real views are more “hawkish.” In general the younger rabbis, like younger Americans Jews in the liberal denominations are more detached from Israel and critical of the Israeli government, in the opposite side the older rabbis in these denominations are more conservative.
The rabbis views on settlement building is also similar to Pew’s finding; an overwhelming majority at 62 percent believe to “great extent”, while 18 percent believe to “some extent” that there should be a building freeze. Politically they are liberals and like the majority of Americans Jews that are Democrats, the rabbis agree by 85 percent with President Obama’s position on Israel.
Unlike the Pew survey however, these Conservative and Reform rabbis are overwhelmingly attached to Israel, as the poll states; “As many as 93 percent say they are very attached to Israel, a figure about double that found in many studies of rank-and-file American Jews.” Additionally 88 percent of the rabbis surveyed have visited Israel more than four times.
The JCPA survey was skewed in the demographic they covered; the organization has closer ties to Conservative and Reform rabbis than Orthodox ones, and since the 552 rabbis chosen for the online survey conducted this past spring came from their mailing list, the rabbis represented are mostly from Conservative and Reform denominations.
Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who was also a co-author, explained; “We have an emerging picture of younger, more dovish, more politically liberal rabbis, as well as counterparts on the right who are expressing concerns that they could suffer repercussions. And so they have changed the way they speak about Israel.”
Rabbi Gutow concluded; “The diversity of views among American Jews and the increasingly tenuous position of congregational rabbis in a period of demographic decline among non-Orthodox Jews point to new levels of insecurity among rabbis in presenting their true views of Israel. Younger people are both more distant from Israel and more critical of its current leadership’s policies; the political economies of Conservative and Reform congregations are shaky; and younger rabbis, while still deeply committed to Israel, are even more dovish on Israel than their older colleagues.”
Both surveys showed that there is a growing detachment, and criticism towards Israel, its government and the peace process and it is directly related to both Americans Jews political views and age. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal that affects their religiosity, and views on Israel, younger Jews tend to be even be more liberal, which is the reason for the enlarging gap towards attachment to Israel. If nothing is done to reverse the two factors and trends younger Jews will keep on getting more detached from both the religion and Israel, two elements that are important to truly maintain a Jewish identity. The religion and closeness to Israel bonds Jews; those are the important elements in being a Jew, not some of the social cultural elements the Pew poll discovered. Without the glue keeping them together, American Jews risk fading away in future generations.
- Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Pew Research Center. A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, Oct. 1, 2013
- Steven M. Cohen, Jason Gitlin, Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis, Oct. 8, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.