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Jewish Liberals and Attachment to Israel

By Mira Sucharov and Rhonda Spivak, September 29, 2010

Hi  Mira, 

Did you see  Shmuel Rosner’s criticism’s of Peter  Beinart’s  widely talked about article in Beinart’s NYRB piece  or were too busy dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashana and building  a sukkah ? 

In case you missed it,  in Rosner’s post “It might be Beinart’s story, but is it the Jewish story,” Rosner points out the  “ many flaws” of Beinart’s analysis of how  American Jews are becoming more alienated from Israel, by  relying on left and far-left commentators, and not  quoting  any right-of-center commentators
Rosner says “ Even more problematic: He fails to mention the reasons for which Israelis became more hawkish. It was not their distaste for human rights, or their desire to control more territory. It was the terror campaign of Palestinians after the failure of the Camp David summit, and the rise of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon..).  

Jewish American liberals might not like the result, or feel embarrassed by the actions Israel had taken, or displeased with the reluctance of Israelis to be enthralled by the rise of Barak Obama's policy of "change" - but Israelis in general feel that they have better knowledge and better judgment when it comes to their own security.”

But the real problem with Beinart's article, according to Rosner is even more basic, Beinart's thesis is twofold: That Jews in American don't care as much about Israel as they did, and that Israeli political behavior is the reason for alienation.  “But the data he quotes does not support the thesis,” Rosner says.
Beinart quotes the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that  “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,' with many professing ‘a near-total absence of positive feelings.'"

As Rosner says:

 "It is an interesting study - not universally accepted as reflective of Jewish trends - but let's assume it is. Did Beinart read it all - or just the paragraphs supporting his thesis? Here's what Cohen and Kelman argue on page number 13 of their study:  Political identity, for the general population, has little bearing upon feelings of warmth toward or alienation from Israel. Whatever conclusion one may draw from the actions of political elites, or the writing of intellectual figures, left-of-center political identity (seeing oneself as liberal and a Democrat) in the general population exerts seemingly little influence on the level of attachment to Israel.

"Not yet convinced? Here's what the two scholars told me [Rosner] in an interview: Israel's political stances are not particularly the reason for alienation. The right says that left-wing Jewish organizations are doing Israel a disservice by being too critical of Israel. The left says that Israel's policies are disturbing liberal-minded American Jews to the extent that they are diminishing their attachment. In broad strokes, neither argument is supported by our evidence.

"And adding to this clear statement, Cohen also participated this last weekend in the quick-response survey organized by Foreign Policy and repeated this point: "attachment to Israel is unrelated to political identity" (Cohen believes the problem for Israel-attachment is intermarriage). 

"Additionally,  Kadushin, Sasson and Saxe wrote in their study of "American Jewish Attachment to Israel", a study quite critical of Cohen and Kalman's study:
What then is the relationship between political views and attachment to Israel?... respondents' general political orientation on a continuum from "extremely liberal" to "extremely conservative" is not related to attachment to Israel. All things being equal, liberals and conservatives do not differ in their level of attachment to Israel... The respondents' views on whether to trade land for peace are unrelated to their levels of attachment to Israel... For most American Jews, however, opinions regarding Israel's conflict with the Palestinians are independent of feelings of attachment to the Jewish state.

Mira-What do you think of Rosner’s criticism’s of Beinart’s article?


Dear Rhonda,

Indeed, I have been busy dipping apples into honey, as well as plunging my fork into my husband’spomegranate jewel cake. But between bites, I have been following the conversation around Beinart’s essay with great interest.

As I see it, the larger point is whether Israeli policies are in sync with the broad vision of how Americans -- and especially younger Americans -- want their “imagined homeland” of the State of Israel to be. As Beinart put it in a follow-up interview,  “the struggle for a third option, to revive a liberal Zionism, is the great challenge of this generation.”

As a professor on a mid-sized Canadian campus, I see this first hand. Jewish students who wish to engage with Israel during the heady years of university seem to have only two options available to them: down-the-line support of Israel’s policies or absolute distancing from the Jewish state. The first is a Zionism that is reflexive and not reflective; the second is an involvement that does not allow for a thoughtful investment in Israel’s future or for much connection to the mainstream Diaspora Jewish community.

The U.S. fares slightly better, with the rise of J Street. Unfortunately, Beinart neglects to mention this relatively new, more liberal, Israel lobby in his piece. But the idea is there.

As to the numbers debate that is playing out in the Jewish and Israeli press, Beinart has issued his own rebuttle to the Brandeis study that Rosner cites: “On the question, for example, of whether the United States is too supportive of Israel, 19% of those younger than 30 agreed, compared with 5% of those older than 60.”

And “the respondents were asked about the flotilla incident that had just taken place, in which an Israeli raid on a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian goods to Gaza ended with nine dead pro-Palestinian activists. Presented with Turkish and Israeli versions of the events, 40% of those younger than 30 said that their view was halfway between the two versions, while only 23% of those older than 60 held that opinion. Even more damning, Beinart said, was the fact that 16% of those younger than 30 found themselves either “much less” or “somewhat” less attached to Israel after the incident, while only 5% of those older than 60 felt that way.”


Dear Mira:

I think that there is some merit in Cohen’s view that attachment to Israel is linked to  inter-marriage and assimilation.  As fewer younger Jews go to synagogue for High Holidays or  Fast on Yom Kippur or celebrate Sukkot , keep kosher, observe or  partially observe the sabbath , is it really surprising if they feel less attached to Israel than previous generations? And conversely, if  Israel withdrew to the 1967 green line, would our synagogues be filled, and kashrut observance go up. Not likely.

As for your university students, there are ample of dovish organizations such as the New Israel fund and Peace Now that they are welcome to join.  And on Canadian universities I  would say it certainly isn’t difficult to find  left of centre Jewish  and non-Jewish professors teaching about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would love to respond further to your thoughts but right now I am trying to make your  pomegranate jewel cake, so I have to go.

Shana Tovah to you and yours. Happy Simchat Torah!


Dear Rhonda,

While you’re right that Jewish affiliation in the Diaspora is often measured by institutional involvement like synagogue membership, what modern Zionim did for Jews worldwide is actually give them a way to feel Jewish without the baggage of formal religious practice. Many Jews now saw their national longings fulfilled through a mostly secular Israeli state which tapped into the regenerative values of pioneering and nationbuilding. Now that the experiement in Jewish nationalism seems to know no borders (witness this week’s crisis about whether Netanyahu will extend the settlement freeze), many liberal Jews feel the dream has lost its lustre.

Speaking of that pomegranate jewel cake, it seems that Netanyahu is trying to have his cake and eat it too. If you have any left over, consider sending the Israeli prime minister a piece (and some “peace” while you’re at it). That way, he can indulge his expanionist urges by focusing on his own waistline rather than expanding that of his country!

Until next time,



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