They are in their 20s, were raised in families with only one Jewish parent, do not associate themselves with any Jewish denomination and are likely to hold liberal political views.
This is the profile of one in five young American Jews and, according to a new analysis of data collected by the Pew Research Center in its 2013 survey of American Jews, they feel deeply alienated from Israel.
The analysis, prepared for the Forward by Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, provides the factual foundation for a widespread notion among Jewish scholars and communal activists that many young American Jews do not share their parents’ sympathy toward Israel and, in many cases, feel alienated by the Jewish state. Intermarriage has emerged in the study as a key indicator of second-generation alienation from Israel.
But while the numbers are clear, the conclusions they point to are anything but obvious. For Cohen, who says he is “pessimistic” and sees the numbers as “bad news,” the data paint an alarming picture of a growing problem that eventually could imperil ties between American Jewry and Israel. But others see this problem as a snapshot of a reality that is already changing, and for the better.
“We are a very far cry from the discourse on distancing from Israel we had two to three years ago,” Theodore Sasson of Brandeis University said. He argued that connection to Israel is, according to many indexes, trending upward.
Cohen, a leading sociologist who researches the American Jewish community, has defined in his analysis a new category that combines detachment from Israel and opposition to the country’s policies. “When it reaches 20% of Jews under the age of 30, this is huge,” he said. “There is a real leap in various forms of alienation from Israel.”
The category of “Israel-alienated” includes members of the Jewish community who both indicate having low attachment to Israel and think the United States is too supportive of it. Combining these two aspects, Cohen explained, provides a look at those in the community who are not only critical of Israel, as are many Jews who do not agree with the positions of the government in Jerusalem, but also reached this position without having any attachment to the Jewish state.
The analysis found that a fifth of non-Orthodox young Jews could be categorized as “Israel-alienated.” In general, younger Jews tend to be less attached to Israel and less supportive of Israel in the context of its conflict with the Palestinians.
The portrait of Israel-alienated American Jews that emerges from the data analysis includes several main characteristics: They are young (18.8% of Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 feel alienated from Israel) and they are more likely to be unaffiliated with any denomination within Judaism (14.9%), liberal in their politics (21.6% describe themselves as very liberal) and have grown up with only one Jewish parent. Of those raised in interfaith families, 19.4% have low attachment to Israel and think America is too supportive of it. Only 4.4% of American Jews raised with two Jewish parents share these sentiments.
Danny Hirschel-Burns, who was raised in an interfaith family in East Lansing, Mich., typifies the Israel-alienated demographic Cohen has distilled from the Pew data. “I never had a strong pro-Israel voice in my life,” the 22-year-old Swarthmore College senior told the Forward. He did not attend synagogue or any sort of Jewish school. Judaism was discussed mainly through stories told by his grandparents, he said, but Israel was not part of this discussion.
Hirschel-Burns began to take interest in Israel only in college, where he joined Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, a group devoted to advocacy for Palestinians. Had he been exposed to Judaism and Israel growing up, he said, it might have given him a different initial perspective on Israel, “but I don’t think my views today would be different.”