June 2, 2019 — New York, NY
Here’s some good news about the vitality of the Jewish people: most Jews in the U.S., Israel, and France—the world’s three largest Jewish communities—say that being Jewish is important in their lives, and that both a thriving Israel and a thriving Diaspora are vital for their long-term Jewish future. Also, most French and U.S. Jews consider caring about Israel an important part of their being Jews, and an even larger percentage of Israeli Jews feel that living in Israel is an important part of their being Jews.
At the same time, there are clear differences both among and within these three Jewish communities about key current issues of Jewish concern and about the challenges they are likely to face in coming years.
These are all delineated in AJC’s first-ever concurrent surveys of Jewish opinion in the three countries, on three continents, that make up the largest Jewish communities and the great majority of world Jewry.
While AJC has charted the shifting opinions of U.S. Jews for decades, and last year also polled Israeli Jews, the 2019 surveys convey a uniquely trifocal view of what Jews think. While some of the questionnaire items pinpointed matters of unique relevance to one or another of the communities, a number of identical questions were asked of all, enabling cross-national comparisons. And in the case of the U.S., AJC’s previous surveys make possible longitudinal analysis.
The 2019 AJC surveys provide a wealth of detail that will be mined by researchers and analysts for quite some time. Key findings are summarized below.
Comparisons and Contrasts
Israeli Jews are far more Jewishly identified than the others. A close look at the data reveals that, although majorities in all three countries consider being Jewish important in their lives, a huge gap emerges over whether being Jewish is very important. Fully eight out of every ten Israeli Jews thinks so, as compared to 41% of the Americans and 33% of the French. While it is hardly surprising that almost all Israeli Jews (91%, as compared to 72% of Americans and 53% of French) think that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, more of them than the Americans believe the same about a thriving Diaspora, 74% to 65%. Majorities across the board agree on the importance of Israel. Yet 50% of the Israelis agree strongly that living in Israel is an important part of their being Jews, while 38% of the Americans and 27% of the French agree strongly that caring about Israel is an important part of their being Jews.
Even though American Jews score higher than French Jews on perceiving caring about Israel as important to their Jewish identity and on the importance of a thriving Israel for the Jewish future, in other respects French Jews appear more connected to Israel. Asked to use the metaphor of a family to describe how they view Israelis, 57% of the French sample viewed them as either siblings or first cousins, while less than half of that figure—28%--of the U.S. sample gave one of those responses. And conversely, 28% of the Americans and just 16% of the French answered “not part of my family.” Another indication of the closer Israel connection of French Jews is that 65% of them say they have visited Israel (21% more than once and 19% at least five times), as compared to 41% of the Americans (15% more than once and 10% at least five times.) Similarly, 48% of the French Jews and just 28% of the Americans report having family in Israel to whom they feel close, and fully one quarter of the French sample owns a residence in Israel (this question was not asked of the Americans).
While 62% of the Israeli sample is optimistic enough about their country’s growing ties with the Muslim/Arab world to envision diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia within ten years, they remain skeptical about peace with the Palestinians: 43% expect the chances for peaceful coexistence with a Palestinian state to decline over the next five years, 37% say they will remain the same, and just 14% think they will improve. Most American Jews—51%--believe they will stay the same and 19% that they will improve, while just 27% expect a decline.
Perhaps the most glaring gap between Israeli and American Jews emerges over U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies. Asked to approve or disapprove of Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, 79% of Israelis approve (48% “strongly”) and just 10% disapprove (4% “strongly”). Only 37% of the Americans approve (22% “strongly”) and 59% disapprove (45% “strongly”). And while 50% of American Jews support the American administration’s recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, that figure is far outstripped by the 88% of Israeli Jews who do. (French Jews were not asked these questions.)
As for feelings about the future of Diaspora ties with Israel, U.S. and French Jews are more pessimistic than Israeli Jews. Those Jews who foresee a weakening of transnational ties over the next five years outnumber those anticipating stronger ties by 24% to 18% in the U.S., and by 32% to 24% in France. Among Israelis, though, 30% expect stronger ties and 23% think they will weaken. (In all three communities, the remainder, in each case constituting a plurality, say relations will remain the same).
A number of questionnaire items directed specifically to the French sample elicited responses that shed considerable light on that community. Half of the French Jews say they feel less secure since a year ago, 58% have personally experienced anti-Semitism, 56% do not think that France is effectively combating that scourge, and 55% have considered emigrating over the past year—21% for economic reasons, 17% fearing for the community’s future, 12% worried about France’s future, and 5% for religious or cultural attractions elsewhere. In light of this high level of anxiety, it appears somewhat paradoxical that 60% believe they have a future in France as Jews and just 29% believe that French Jews should leave now.
American Jews appear even more worried about their security than French Jews, 65% of them stating they feel less secure than a year ago—a ten-point rise since 2018—and 57% indicating that the climate on college campuses has become more hostile toward pro-Israel students, a rise of four points.
Subgroups and Variables
In all three surveys, higher levels of religious identification tend to go together with stronger Jewish feelings and connection to the Jewish people and Israel.
In France, looking at the survey subgroups, Jewish identity appears far stronger among those identifying as “of Jewish faith” than among those “of Jewish culture.” While 80% of the former consider being Jewish “important” in their lives, just 57% of the latter do. A similar gap exists with respect to the importance of caring about Israel—72% of those professing Jewish faith think it important, as compared to 52% of cultural Jews. And it is surely of interest that when those French Jews seriously considering emigration were asked where they would prefer to settle, 44% of those of Jewish faith selected Israel. Only 13% of those of Jewish culture wanted to go to Israel; a plurality of 33% chose the U.S. and the next most popular destination was Canada at 25%.
Among the Israelis, those denoting themselves Orthodox or traditional generally consider their Jewishness and living in Israel more important than do their secular counterparts, view American Jews as closer relatives, and are considerably less enthusiastic about a two-state solution and unwilling to dismantle settlements. Yet on some matters secular Israelis hardly differ from the religious: asked, for example, whether a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, over 73% of secular Israelis answered yes, almost exactly the national average, and on whether a thriving State of Israel was vital, over 93% of the seculars responded in the affirmative, slightly higher than the average.
As in past surveys, this year’s U.S. results generally show a religion-based gradation of responses about Jewish identity and Israel. For instance, in response to the question about the importance of being Jewish in one’s life, 100% of Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), 84% of Modern Orthodox, 63% of Conservative, 35% of Reform, and 15% of secular Jews said “very important.”
What appears new in this year’s U.S. survey is an overall slippage in warmth toward Israel, which may indicate a decline in the strength of the Orthodox and the growing voice of secular Jews. Indeed, a look at the subgroup figures indicates that secular Jews made up 21% of the sample this year, up from 16% in 2018. (The Orthodox were the only other religious group to show an increase, up from 10% in 2018 to 11% in 2019).
In May 2018, 70% of American Jews agreed that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” That dropped to 62% this year, with the percentage strongly disagreeing rising from 9% to 15%. Also, the percentage of U.S. Jews considering a thriving State of Israel vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people dropped since last year from 79% to 72%, and the proportion expecting ties between U.S. and Israeli Jews to weaken in the next five years rose from 15% to 24%. Growing displeasure with Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians was also evident, as the percentage believing that “Israel should be willing to dismantle all the settlements” as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians jumped from 15% to 25% from 2018 to 2019.
On question after question, the secular Jews demonstrate weaker ties with Israel, a trend also evident in the responses of the youngest age cohort—those 18 to 29 years old, 32% of whom identify as secular. Thus, for example, while 62% of the total U.S. sample consider caring about Israel to be an important part of being a Jew, the figure is 44% for the 18-29-year-olds and 42% for the seculars.
This shift in the composition of the American Jewish community, as large numbers of those young people not committed to Orthodoxy move in a secular direction, is a trend that warrants careful consideration by communal leaders.