November 20, 2019

New York Jews: Are they distancing from Israel?

As I promised two days ago, the new New York Jewish Community study will be discussed here for quite some time. The most surprising findings according to the principal authors of the study are presented here, and now it’s time for a little bit of debate.

The authors of the study claim that:

[T]he putative paucity of Israel travel among the young cannot serve as the primary reason for their diminished attachment to Israel.

Meanwhile, Ted Sasson, writing on the Cohen Center blog, delved into the numbers related to “distancing” from Israel and came up with conclusions that are somewhat different:

– Attachment to Israel is up in the youngest age group. This finding is cropping up now in a number of studies and should be regarded as a strong exception to the claim that emotional attachment tends to decline from the oldest to the youngest cohorts.

– Although the available evidence cannot demonstrate the claim definitively, the higher-than-expected level of Israel attachment in the youngest 18-34 group is likely a result of increased travel to Israel.

– There is no evidence of a “drop” in emotional attachment to Israel among non-Orthodox Jews.

– The modest and inconsistent correlation between age and emotional attachment to Israel reflects a much broader pattern of age-related differences in Jewish identity and engagement.

If you want to understand how Sasson came to these conclusions, and are not afraid of data analysis, you should read his post.

Another important component of the “distancing” chapter in the study – the one that I would like to highlight – deals with the question of “political” motivation for distancing. The authors have not asked respondents specific questions related to Israeli policies, but they did try to measure political alienation from Israel by using an original question. Their conclusion is similar to conclusions made by numerous studies:

[T]he survey asked respondents whether they thought that Jewish organizations were too quick to defend Israel, designed as an indicator of generalized unhappiness about Israeli policies. About a quarter of Jews under 50 agreed, but their number was not that much more than among older Jews, and certainly inadequate to explain the diminished attachment to Israel among Jews under 50.

So – there’s a broad agreement that the politics of Israel do not explain the distancing of the young. The debate now focuses on interfaith marriages.

According to the NY study:

In short, a major reason for the drop in Israel attachment among the young is that so many more of them are intermarried and, in addition, younger intermarried Jews are more distant from Israel than their older counterparts. Even more than in the past, intermarriage today is associated with a decreased attachment to Israel.

According to Sasson:

The report claims that a rising rate of intermarriage is “a major reason for the drop in Israel attachment” among the non-Orthodox young (p. 148). Note, though, that the study does not show a “drop” in Israel attachment among the young.  Rather, it shows a modest, inconsistent correlation between age and emotional attachment to Israel.

In other words, if there’s no “drop,” there’s no reason to find “reason” for something that does not exist. But is there no drop? The study contends to find the drop, or the “gap”, in the fine details of differences between the in-married and the intermarried:

The gap in Israel attachment between the in-married and intermarried is growing even larger than it was before. For example, in comparing Israel-attachment rates for the non-Orthodox, we find a spread of 55% for the in-married versus 23% for the intermarried among those ages 50 to 64; in contrast, for their counterparts under 35, the gap grows to 48% versus 7%.

I know, at this point the numbers make this debate tiring to follow. The authors essentially say that a gap that always existed between the in-married and the intermarried (on Israel) is now wider. But don’t even dream this will be the end of it – the new data will provide new ammunition for all camps in the distancing discussion. Get ready for a party.