August 13, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Strong, close relations between American Jews and Israel are critical to ensuring the vitality and well-being of the two largest Jewish communities in the world. That premise has long been a cornerstone of their co-dependency, reinforcing their shared mission of strengthening Jewish security and continuity.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that all Israeli and American Jews agree on every issue, nor do they necessarily understand one another as much as they should. The divide over religious pluralism issues and over approaches to the peace process are among the more serious chasms for some. A panoply of programs created by US Jewish organizations and the Israeli government over the years aimed at building deeper understanding by American Jews of Israel and vice versa have made some inroads, but they haven’t overcome the fact that the majority of Israelis and US Jews do not actively interact and know each other.
The majority, 59%, of American Jews have never visited Israel, 16% have made the trip only once, and 15% did between two and five times, according to the latest annual American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey of US Jews. Ten percent have visited at least five times, nearly half of them from the Orthodox community.
The need to step up efforts to strengthen relations between American and Israeli Jews, to deepen mutual understanding when so much is in flux, is becoming more urgent. The AJC poll, released in June, found that the number agreeing that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” dropped in one year from 70% in 2018 to 62% in 2019. The percentage strongly disagreeing rose from 9% to 15%.
The younger the respondents, the less inclined they are to agree on the importance of Israel to one’s Jewish identity. Thus, while 72% of those 65 and over, and 77% of those 50-64 years old agree, only 53% of those in the 30-49 years old group do. By contrast, among the 18-29 age group, only 44% concur, a dramatic drop from a year ago, when 68% had agreed and only 32% disagreed.
The percentage of US Jews considering a thriving State of Israel vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people also dropped from 79% in 2018 to 72% in 2019.
Again, the most significant decline was in the youngest cohort, 18-29 years old, where only 40% agreed, a dramatic drop from 62% a year ago. Consistency from year-to-year prevailed in every other cohort, with 70% of the 30-49 years old, 86% of those 50-64, and 87% of the 65 and over demographic agreeing. In 2018, 72% of the 30-49, 89% of the 50-64 and 87% of the 65 and over groups agreed that a thriving state of Israel is vital to the future of the Jewish people.
On certain policy issues, the split by age also is pronounced. Asked if Israel should be willing to dismantle all settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, 40% of those 18-29 said yes, while only 27% of the 30-49, 22% of the 50-64 and 13% of the 65 and over cohorts agreed.
On American recognition of the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory, 38% of 18-29 years old support the move, compared with 48% of the 30-49 cohort, 55% of those 50-64, and 59% of the 65 and over group.
Overall, the proportion of US Jews expecting ties between them and Israel Jews to weaken over the next five years rose from 14% in 2017 to 24% in 2019, and those who expect the ties to become stronger by 2024 declined from 25% in 2017 to 18% today.
Younger Jews are more pessimistic, with only 11% of the 18-29 cohort thinking ties will be stronger and 35% saying they will be weaker. Among those 30-49 years old 14% say stronger and 31% weaker, in the 50-64 cohort 27% say stronger and 16% weaker, and for those 65 and over 19% say stronger and 14% weaker.
On whether a thriving Diaspora, meaning American Jewish community, is vital to the future of the Jewish people, there is little discrepancy among the age cohorts. In 2019, 65% said a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, compared to 69% a year ago.
And, on this question there is notable convergence with the views of Israeli Jews. AJC’s companion survey of Israeli Jews found that 74% agree, and 20% disagree, that a thriving Diaspora is vital to future of Jewish people.
Findings in the AJC survey should boost concern about where younger American Jews are trending when it comes to Israel. It is one of the issues AJC’s Task Force on Israel-Diaspora Relations is addressing as it assesses differences between the two communities over religion, politics and identity, and seeks ways to help address these threats to unity between the two communities.
Arresting and reversing the indifference to, or detachment from, Israel among young American Jews must be a priority.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.