Are Jews Less Attached to Israel? Maybe Not

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 05, 2008, issue of March 14, 2008.
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A new study is challenging the notion that American Jews are growing less attached to Israel.

According to a study released by three researchers at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, a prominent demographic research center at Brandeis University, an analysis of survey data going back more than a decade suggests that American Jewish attachment to Israel has remained consistently strong.

“Things seem to be pretty stable,” said Leonard Saxe, who is the institute’s director and one of the authors of the study.

Written by Saxe, Theodore Sasson and Charles Kadushin, the study comes in the wake of recent publications — including a survey conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen — arguing that American Jewish attachment to Israel is decreasing. More broadly, it is the latest in a long series of demographic studies and articles that have vacillated between optimism and pessimism over Jewish population size, attachment to Israel, Jewish affiliation among the children of intermarried couples and a whole host of other issues concerning the future of the Jewish community.

The Steinhardt Institute was founded in 2005 to settle precisely these kinds of contentious demographic issues; however, the institute, with Saxe as its director, has instead emerged as the consistently more optimistic pole in these debates.

The recent boom of interest in Jewish demographics can be traced to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which found that 52% of Jews who were marrying took non-Jewish spouses. This number induced panic about the future of Jews in America, though several critics — Cohen included — argued that the number was inflated.

Then, the 2000-01 NJPS, co-authored by Cohen, found that the number of Jews in America had dropped to 5.2 million from 5.5 million in 1990. This number, too, was challenged: Not long ago, Saxe and Kadushin argued in a recent study that the number was likely more than 6 million and possibly as high as 8 million, depending on how one defined “Jewish.”

As of late, Saxe and Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, have clashed over the significance of intermarriage, with Cohen arguing that intermarriage leads to an erosion of Jewish identity and Saxe countering that it is Jewish background, not intermarriage, that is the truer measure of whether Jews stay Jewishly involved.

The tiff over attachment to Israel is the latest clash between the two. In 2007, Cohen and Ari Kelman, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, published a study showing that attachment to Israel was lower and lower among younger and younger non-Orthodox Jews. From this, Cohen and Kelman concluded that as the younger, less-attached group aged, Jews overall would become less attached.

Now, Saxe, Sasson and Kadushin are challenging that finding. Their study, which looks at telephone surveys commissioned by the American Jewish Committee going back to 1994, found that levels of attachment to Israel among American Jews had consistently remained high through the years, with those saying they felt “close” to Israel remaining well over 65%.

They also find that the so-called “age cohort” differences between younger and older Jews have been consistent through the years, suggesting that as Jews age, their attachment to Israel grows.

Cohen, however, refused to concede that Israel attachment is stable, saying that the AJCommittee’s surveys weren’t an accurate reflection of American Jews at large and that the study didn’t show the long-term effects of intermarriage. He defended his demographic pessimism, saying, “I think I’m in a bit better touch with the reality.”

Saxe, on the other hand, defended himself as a “tough-minded empiricist” and said that with the rise of new technology, easier travel to Israel and the huge numbers of young adults traveling to Israel through the Birthright Israel program, which began in 2000, the elements were in place for attachments to grow much stronger.

“We think something fundamental is changing,” he said.

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