The attachment of American Jews to Israel has weakened measurably in the last two years, a recent survey demonstrates, continuing a long-term trend visible during the past decade and a half.
The weakening is apparent in almost every measure of Jewish connection to Israel except for interest in travel to Israel, which showed a slight uptick, and a handful of others that were unchanged. Respondents were less likely than in comparable earlier surveys to say they care about Israel, talk about Israel with others or engage in a range of pro-Israel activities.
Strikingly, there was no parallel decline in other measures of Jewish identification, including religious observance and communal affiliation.
The survey found 26% who said they were “very” emotionally attached to Israel, compared with 31% who said so in a similar survey conducted in 2002. Some two-thirds, 65%, said they follow the news about Israel closely, down from 74% in 2002, while 39% said they talk about Israel frequently with Jewish friends, down from 53% in 2002. Those who talk about Israel frequently with non-Jewish friends dropped to 23% this year from 33% in 2002.
Those who had donated to an Israel-related charity during the previous 12 months dropped to 40% in the current survey from 49% in 2002. Attendance at an Israel-related program dropped to 22% from 27%.
Israel also declined as a component in the respondents’ personal Jewish identity. When offered a selection of factors, including religion, community and social justice, as well as “caring about Israel,” and asked, “For you personally, how much does being Jewish involve each?” 48% said Israel mattered “a lot,” compared with 58% in 2002.
Just 57% affirmed that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish,” compared with 73% in a similar survey in 1989.
The drop from 1989 appears consistent with a widely noted, long-term generational decline in attachment to Israel. However, generational change is unlikely to explain the dramatic shift during the last two years, which appears to reflect responses to current events in the Middle East.
Tellingly, as many as 37% agreed that they were “often disturbed by Israel’s policies and actions,” while another 30% were not sure. Just 33% said they disagreed, 4% of them “strongly.”
The survey was conducted between December 14, 2004, and January 15, 2005, and included a representative national sample of 1,448 American Jewish households. It was sponsored by the Jewish-Zionist Education Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Nearly all respondents were 25 or older and identified as Jewish by religion. The sample’s demographic and Jewish identity characteristics closely resembled those of respondents identified as Jewish by religion in the United Jewish Communities’ 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. Seventy percent said they attend a Passover Seder, 42% claimed synagogue membership, and 20% said they keep separate dishes at home for meat and dairy. Questioned on denomination, 9% identified themselves as Orthodox, 36% as Conservative and 40% as Reform.
While most expressions of emotional attachment declined from 2002, some travel-related indicators edged upward. There was a slight climb in respondents who said they planned to visit Israel in the next three years, from 12% to 15%, just outside the margin of error. A larger jump emerged in the number claiming to having encouraged someone to visit Israel, from 19% to 24%.
Some indicators of pro-Israel identification were virtually unchanged from the earlier survey. These include the proportions that made an effort to buy Israeli-made products (30%), and those who write to someone in Israel (19%).
The findings reflect an apparent reversal of a trend noted two years ago, when Palestinian terrorism reached a peak in 2002. At the time, many Israelis complained that although American Jews expressed heightened concern for Israel because of the violence, they were less inclined to visit. Now, it seems, concern has dropped, while readiness to visit Israel has increased.
American Jews traditionally profess a high degree of attachment to Israel. The intensity of that attachment varies considerably, however, ranging from warmth to deep passion, while a small group professes indifference or outright discomfort.
When asked how often they feel proud of Israel, the sample showed considerable range, with 28% answering “always,” 38% “often,” 29% “sometimes” and 5% “never.” Half said they are often or always “excited” by Israel, and 12% said they are never excited by Israel. Slightly more than one-third said they are often or always “engaged” by Israel, while 47% said they are sometimes engaged and just 18% said they are never engaged.
At the same time, a sizable proportion expressed at least some negative feelings toward Israel. More than two-thirds said they are at least sometimes “disturbed” by Israel’s policies or actions, and nearly as many said they are “confused.” Almost half said they are at least sometimes “ashamed,” and fully 39% said they are at least sometimes “alienated” by Israel.
Only 13% said they are “sometimes uncomfortable identifying as a supporter of Israel,” with an additional 14% “not sure.”
About two-thirds of American Jews view “many” or “most” Israelis in positive terms as “peace-loving,” “democratic” and “heroic.” But more than 40% see many Israelis as “chauvinist” and “militarist.”
When offered sharply critical characterizations of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, more respondents disagreed than agreed. However, substantial numbers were unsure. Thus, by 60% to 11% the sample rejected the assertion that “Israel persecutes a minority population,” with 29% not sure. Similarly, by a 65% to 13% margin, they rejected the notion that “Israel occupies lands that belong to another people,” with 22% not sure. A narrower margin, 43% to 20% (with 37% unsure), rejected the proposition, “When dealing with Palestinian civilians, Israeli soldiers often engage in unnecessary brutality.”
While disagreement with the criticism outnumbered agreement in every instance, the percentage that “strongly” disagreed was lower in each case than the percentage that simply disagreed. Moreover, when agreement with the criticism was combined with “unsure,” it emerged that those who rejected the criticism outnumbered those who did not reject it by a narrower 3-2 majority, and one criticism — army brutality — was rejected only by a plurality. The patterns point to a rejection of critical views of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but they hardly amount to consensus, let alone unanimity.
Amid good feeling toward Israel, Israelis and Israeli policies, then, there are signs of doubt, hesitation and qualification. All might inhibit or restrain passionate feelings and expressions of support for Israel.
If the results point to a softening of attachment to Israel, they also point to a major inhibition to travel to Israel, which is commonly seen as an important antidote to detachment. The survey asked respondents, “If you were to travel to Israel, how concerned would you be about your safety?” Almost half, or 46%, were “very concerned,” and an additional 42% were “somewhat concerned.” Just 10% said they were “not concerned,” and 2% were not sure.
Safety concerns might be the single most powerful inhibitor of Israel travel. Of those who were very concerned, only 5% were planning a trip to Israel in three years. When concerns diminished to “somewhat,” the trip planners quadrupled to 22%, and among those with no concerns, travel plans peaked at 37%.
In part, safety concerns are themselves a function of prior trips to Israel. Most of those who had never been to Israel said they were “very concerned,” compared with one-fourth of those who had been there for a short period, and just 7% of those who had been to Israel for stays of three months or longer. Safety concerns were far lower among those with greater attachment to Israel, more knowledge of Israel and the highest involvement in Jewish life.
Thus, fears for one’s safety joins a substantial measure of discomfort with Israel as major challenges to advocates of Israel engagement. Yet another, equally daunting, challenge is the diminished interest in Israel among younger American Jews — another key finding to emerge from this survey, about which we will learn more next week.
Steven M. Cohen is a professor at the Melton Center for Jewish Education of the Hebrew University.
The 2004-5 National Survey of American Jews, directed by Prof. Steven M. Cohen and sponsored by the Jewish-Zionist Education Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was fielded between December 14, 2004, and January 15, 2005. The Washington office of Synovate, a marketing research company, conducted the fieldwork, drawing a random sample of households from its Consumer Opinion Panel. The panel is a national database of 450,000 households, reachable by mail, who have agreed to participate in surveys on a variety of topics. Panel members complete a screening questionnaire asking a variety of questions including religion.
Eligible households for this study were those in which at least one household member had identified himself or herself as being Jewish by religion. Questionnaires were mailed December 14, 2004, with a follow-up postcard one week later.
In total, 2,200 households were sent questionnaires. The total number of useable questionnaires received was 1,483. Of the 2,200 questionnaires, 26 were not deliverable. The total useable response rate was 68.22%. An additional 77 questionnaires were received, but were not useable. Of the 1,483 usable questionnaires, 48 were returned by members of the household who did not indicate they were Jewish, leaving a total of 1,435 cases for analysis.
These cases were subsequently weighted in accord with target characteristics as found in the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey of the United Jewish Communities, using a sub-sample of those who are Jewish by religion and age 25 and older.
Sampling error is under 3%, although other sources of error might contribute to sample bias and variability.