Young Israelis, Young American Jews

The Macro Center for Political Economic Research has just published a remarkable study, conducted in association with the polling agency Dahaf, and leading political consultant Dahlia Scheindlin, about attitudes among young Israelis. As Haaretz noted in its disquieting page one story about the study, Israeli Jewish youth "put defining Israel as a Jewish state as a number one goal, while fewer youths recognize the importance of Israel identity as a democratic country." 

Along with the polling numbers, Macro is publishing a number of explanatory essays. The study's leaders shared the preliminary data with me and asked me to reflect on the differences between Israeli Jewish and American Jewish youth. Here is the result.

FOR VIRTUALLY ANY young American Jew, what would jump out from the data tracking attitudes of young Israelis is the divergence between Jews and Arabs regarding co-existence, acceptance of “the other”—call it “social integration.” Up to 80% of Israeli Arabs express positive attitudes toward integration (a willingness to have Jewish friend, and so forth), but just under 50% of Jews. 

This mirrors almost exactly the split Jews expect in America, except that over there, it is the Jews who exhibit the most positive ideas about integration (revealingly, about 80% voted for Obama in 2008), while the non-Jewish, white, Christian majority-in-decline tends to be about evenly split between liberals and people with more reactionary views. (The latter gains in clout during hard economic times.)

America is a much larger and more complex country, of course, but the data are intriguing nevertheless. For they imply what common sense suggests, that although the liberalism of American Jews regarding integration may have something to do with Jewish values, the protections that favor integration in America also happen to be in the interest of Jews, who have always been a minority seeking social advancement. As Philip Roth put it, this was a community growing up valorizing Roosevelt, LaGuardia and Justice Brandeis. 

The very high proportion of liberalism among educated Jews was, and is, very much like the high proportion of liberalism among educated Israeli Arabs, who have become something like America’s Jews in this ironic respect. It reminds one of John Maynard Keynes’s famous adage—or at least the negative version of it—that it is hard to get people not to believe in a principle when their living depends on their believing it.

A related point: Approximately 40% of young Israeli Jews believe (about a third, strongly) that the state should not offer civil marriage. One may infer that this very substantial group considers it natural, or at least defensible, that the state make intermarriage very difficult, or that halachic law governing personal status be the law of the land, or that rabbinic authority be a part of state authority, or all three; that this negative attitude toward civil marriage is a proxy for skepticism toward the rights of citizens in civil society more generally, and reflects the proportion of Israeli Jewish youth that one can characterize as religiously Orthodox to some significant degree. Not coincidentally, this 40% turns out to be roughly the proportion that has little or no faith in the Israeli judiciary, which is widely considered to be the country’s most consistent defender of secular rights.

Again, American Jewish youth, much like their parents, would tend to look at responses of this kind with suspicion and disdain, though many might moderate their criticism of Israel in public. Indeed, the theocratic tinge to certain Israeli laws, the prominence of political parties seeking to extend halachic privilege, the national Orthodox caste of the settlers, the fierce determination of Greater Israel supporters—all of these things—cannot be irrelevant to the growing alienation from Israel that American Jewish college students profess. And the fact that some “pro-Israel” activists on campuses overlook discrimination against Arabs in Israel, demand equality for Jews in America—and invoke the “war on terror,” or “the new anti-Semitism,” when caught in the contradiction—only deepens the alienation.

Consider the growing chasm. About half of American Jewish young people marry non-Jews; all Jews take civil marriage completely for granted. One searches in vain for any recent poll that bothers to ask whether young Jews favor the separation of religion and state in America. The response would be near 100%. Nor do Jews tend to feel comfortable with American counterparts of Israeli theocrats. According to a recent Gerstein Agne poll, American Jews oppose, by nearly 80-20%, forming even tactical alliances (to support Israel diplomatically, say) with evangelical Christian groups. I mean rightist American groups whose attitudes toward religion and state roughly mirror those of the 40% of young Israelis who oppose civil marriage.

Yes, some young American Jews, like young evangelicals, for that matter, make allowances for Israel—the “Jewish state”—and overlook violations of the very secular principles they rely on in America. But the steady rise of national and “ultra” orthodoxy in Israel, along with its association with settlements and occupation, almost certainly explain why more than half of American Jews under 35 said that they “would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.” Only 54% profess to be “comfortable” with the idea of a Jewish state at all.

NO DOUBT, ALL of this begs the question of whether Israeli Jews and American Jews mean the same thing when they speak about “Jews” in the first place. In fact, they do not. During WWII, of course, many grew to believe what classical political Zionism suggested, that Jews around the world constituted a single people, even an incipient nation, rooted in shared (if attenuated) religious practices or memories of the Eastern European hinterland. If this were still true, then the data regarding attitudes of young Israeli Jews might well be contrasted with attitudes of young Jews in the United States, something like the way those of New York Jews might be contrasted with Quebec Jews, or, indeed, attitudes of Israeli Jews might be contrasted with Israeli Arabs.

In fact, however, the ways young people in Israel experience Jewish identity diverge so fundamentally from the ways of American Jews do, it is hard to see what comparisons prove. For most secular (including traditional but non-Orthodox) Israelis, about 60% of young people, Jewishness is more or less coterminous with Israeliness, though Israeli nationality is not even recognized in the Registry of Populations.

A young secular Israeli speaks the Hebrew language, which implicitly resonates with verses of Torah, or the poetics of traditional liturgy, or the lyrics of traditional music, or the precepts of Jewish law; one lives in the ancient land and considers oneself privileged to share in popular Hebrew culture, from television to the stage; one serves in the army, builds a business, or builds a home, which—given the terrible events of the 20th. century—feels the positive culmination of modern Jewish history. One celebrates in one’s family, and as public holidays, the traditional festivals of Judaism’s calendar.

One lives, in short, in a modern, globalized national home, and being a Jew mostly means being a free citizen of the Jewish nation. (One is Jewish in the sense that one is home, with all the myths, frustrations, ambitions, and sentimental attachments this implies. Ordinary life gives “identity” the way trees give apples.)

In America, however, Jewish identity is quite different for young people with secular values and no particular connection to Orthodox Judaism. It may be any one, or combination, of responses to quite different perceptions, and its requires a positive act of, well, identification. There are young people who, because of a strong connection to a parent or grandparent, embrace the pathos of the immigrant Jewish experience; think of writers like, and readers of, Michael Chabon.

There are young people who consider it a particular privilege to have “Americanized” by overturning American orthodoxies and taboos with Jewish iconoclasm; think of Philip Roth a generation ago, or Jon Stewart today. Again, there are young secular Jews who think of themselves as the quintessential American minority, the ontological victim of Western civilization, and take their Jewishness as a way of defying bigotry and valorizing constitutional liberties and civil rights. Correspondingly, there are young secular Jews whose organizing historical fact is the Holocaust.

In a famous poll published in 1999 by the American Jewish Committee, 98 per cent of American Jews said they consider the Holocaust to be an important or very important part of their identity. But only 15-20 per cent said that they observe Jewish religious obligations and traditions—the sands around which secular Israelis make their pearls.

  Read the whole essay...