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Blinded by the Light Unto the Nations

In the last month, the Israeli military has assassinated the two top leaders of Hamas while Prime Minister Sharon has been pushing for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Many of us watching from the American Jewish sidelines have alternated between two feelings: Dreading that worse yet may result from these killings and the retaliatory rage they engender, and hoping that pulling Israelis out of Gaza might, at the very least, be safer than allowing them to remain in such a godforsaken place.

Given the enormous amount of American media attention devoted to Israel, it is worth examining what we know and don’t know about the current state of connections between the largest Diaspora community and the Jewish state. How much do American Jews pay attention to the situation in the Middle East? Where do they stand on the key issues, and what has been the impact of recent events on these elements?

Although there is regular, extensive polling of the American public as a whole, no comparable apparatus exists for American Jews. While Jews are included in public opinion polls, at only 2% of the overall American population too few Jews get interviewed — only 20 to 40 in a typical sample — to provide reliable information about them as a group. Thus the only readily available information comes from two separate sources: the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, completed by United Jewish Communities in August 2001, and the series of annual surveys of American Jewish opinion sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Although each survey has its particular limitations, we can look at their findings in a schematic way to cover some important aspects of the complex relationship between American Jews and Israel: the personal ties and direct experiences, the emotional and spiritual connections Jews feel to the Jewish state, and American Jewish views about Israel’s political situation.

American Jews’ actual ties to Israel have expanded over the past 50 years. During the 1950s few American Jews had visited Israel and or had close friends or relatives living there. By 1990, 30% of the Jewish population indicated they had close friends of family living in Israel, and 29% said they had visited at least once. A decade later the proportion of American Jews with close friends or family in Israel had risen to 45%, although the proportion of visitors increased only slightly, to 35%.

Along with the expansion of American Jews’ personal connections to Israel, what do we know about the place of the Jewish state as an element in people’s sense of Jewishness? Today, nearly three-fifths (58%) of American Jews recognize Israel as the spiritual center of the Jewish people, but at the same time only 30% say they feel a strong emotional attachment to Israel. This is a form of recognition, but with some emotional distancing of Israel from the self.

Moreover, the connections to Israel seem to be weakening from a generational point of view. Older people (who tend to be children of immigrants to America) express stronger feelings of attachment to Israel than younger people (who tend to have deeper American roots). For instance, more than half (54%) of American Jews born before 1935 reported that “caring about Israel” was a very important aspect of their own Jewishness, compared to only one-third of their younger counterparts. In contrast, 81% of the older group said that “remembering the Holocaust” was very important in their Jewishness, compared to 71% of their younger cohorts.

It seems that Israel is no longer the central pillar of American Jewish identity that it once was. For some, the idea that Israel is the underdog has been replaced with a perception that Israel is an occupier. In the post-1967 period Israel took on a central, unifying role in American Jewish self-perception. At this moment in history, the Jewish state has become a polarizing force, while the Holocaust has come to play a unifying role.

Has the place of Israel in the American Jewish imagination eroded over the past decades, in contrast to that of the Holocaust? It seems that the image of Israel as a moral compass for American Jews has been severely tested over the past few years, while the Holocaust has come to remind us of sheer survival against the odds.

Turning at last to the third element for which we have a modicum of data, how have changing events in the world affected the views of American Jews about Israel? Drawing on the AJCommittee annual polls from 2000 to 2003, we learn that American Jewish emotional ties to Israel have held steady: approximately three-quarters have reported that “Caring about Israel is an important part of my being a Jew.”

But these surveys reveal a more acute perception of Israel’s increasingly hostile environment. Whereas in 2000 more than two-thirds (69%) of the AJCommittee sample agreed that “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of the occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel,” by the end of 2003 that percentage had risen to four-fifths (81%), suggesting that perhaps American Jews would find it hard to imagine Israel coming to terms with such perceived extremism.

On the other hand — perhaps paradoxically — that same time span saw a softening of American Jewish views about the possibility of a Palestinian state. In late 2003 more than half (54%) of the sample said, “In the current situation they favored the establishment of a Palestinian state.” (In contrast, in 1982 we could not even include this question in a study without engendering paroxysms of upset). More than two-thirds (69%) of respondents felt that “Israel should be willing to dismantle some or all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.”

Why, we might ask, haven’t we heard more from the American Jewish community in this regard? The answer lies perhaps in the very complexity of attitudes and feelings arising from the current state of affairs.

Many American Jews feel pulled strongly in different directions when confronted with claims that, for instance, Israel has been the victim and also has undertaken harsh actions. Or that Israel is being attacked by suicide bombers and also maintains settlements in occupied territories. These competing elements create a set of cross-pressures that can lead to paralysis. Typically, people pulled strongly in different directions become immobilized and passive, finding it hard to act. Many eventually dissociate from Israel altogether — one of the most dangerous by-products of the ongoing conflict. For all these reasons, may peace come speedily and in our day.

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.

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