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Wrong Numbers

Peter Beinart’s argument about Israel and liberal American Jews is built on misread data

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Peter Beinart. (Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Debate about Israel among American Jews has taken a new turn, with Jewish advocacy organizations such as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League increasingly under attack from inside and outside the community. The latest salvo is CUNY journalism professor Peter Beinart’s recent essay in the New York Review of Books. Beinart claims that the Jewish establishment has blindly supported the illiberal policies of the Israeli government and, in so doing, has alienated American Jews, particularly non-Orthodox young adults. The urgent task, he writes, is to save liberal Zionism in the United States, “so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel.”

Our response to Beinart and others who share his view of a profound and growing schism between liberal American Jews and establishment advocacy organizations is not based on political differences. Rather, our concern is that he and others have allowed their own political allegiances to color their interpretation of the views of the broader American Jewish public. In so doing, they give a distorted impression of American Jewish opinion and overlook important developments in the relationship of American Jews to Israel.

No doubt many liberal American Jews, like their Israeli counterparts, recoil at certain policies of the present Israeli government. Among members of the American Jewish public as a whole, however, liberalism is not associated with alienation from Israel. Studies of American Jewish opinion, conducted under various auspices and using different methods, report no relationship between general political views and emotional attachment to Israel. For example, in the study cited by Beinart, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman concluded that “political identity, for the general population, has little bearing upon feelings of warmth toward or alienation from Israel.” Our own analyses of other survey data support the same conclusion.

Perhaps more surprisingly, these studies provide little evidence that as a group young adults are more liberal with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than members of their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. For example, in a 2007 study of the American Jewish Committee’s annual surveys, Bard College professor Joel Perlmann found that respondents under age 40 were less likely than older respondents to support establishment of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. A study we conducted of Boston Jewry under the auspices of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies similarly found that respondents under 40 were less willing to support dismantling settlements.

The evidence is also unkind to the common-sense view that American Jews are more willing than Jewish Israelis to make difficult compromises for peace—a notion that is at least implicit in Beinart’s call to American Jews to save liberal Zionism in Israel. According to a survey conducted in March by Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, 68 percent of Jewish Israelis support establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and 56 percent support dismantling most settlements in the territories as part of a peace settlement. According to a survey conducted during the same month by the AJC, just 48 percent of American Jews support establishment of a Palestinian state. The question regarding dismantling settlements is not directly comparable: Israelis were asked whether they support dismantling “most settlements” whereas American Jews were asked whether they support dismantling “all,” “some,” or “none.” Still, the comparison is instructive: Just 8 percent of American respondents indicated support for dismantling “all settlements” and just 56 percent for dismantling “some settlements.”

Cross-national comparisons of survey data are tricky, and the pattern in other surveys may be somewhat discrepant. But the notion that Israeli Jews are less ready to compromise for peace than American Jews rests on a shaky empirical foundation.

Beinart’s assertion of a large and growing generation gap between younger American Jews and their parents and grandparents on the subject of Israel also rests on a shallow reading of the data. As our colleagues Cohen and Kelman have shown, younger respondents do express less attachment to Israel than older respondents. But, as they explain, this is mostly because the younger age cohort includes a larger number of intermarried respondents, who as a group express a lower level of attachment—and not only to Israel but to all things Jewish. To the extent the younger respondents in the Cohen-Kelman study were less emotionally attached to Israel, it was not because they were more liberal.

Moreover, as we pointed out in our published response to the original Cohen-Kelman report, younger Jews have reported lower levels of attachment to Israel in most surveys going back as far as there are data to analyze. Younger Jews were less attached to Israel in the National Jewish Population Surveys of 2000 and 1990. They were less attached in the AJC surveys going back to the mid-1980s. If, in fact, young Jews are always less attached than older Jews, then the differences in age groups are likely related to lifecycle rather than generation. As Jews age, they become more attached to Israel. In other words, the younger Jews who reported a middling level of attachment to Israel in the mid-1980s grew up to become today’s over 60 group, which reports a high level of attachment.

Looking beyond the evidence from general opinion surveys, Beinart’s claim of young adult indifference to Israel becomes even less persuasive. Since 1999, more than 300,000 young adults from North America have applied to Taglit-Birthright Israel, and nearly 200,000 of these applicants have participated in the 10-day educational trips—the vast majority from the ranks of the non-Orthodox. At the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, we have surveyed this population at frequent intervals over the past decade. Their political views on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are unaffected by the program, and most do not engage in any form of Israel advocacy when they return. But they do feel a strong connection to Israel. In a recent study of participants five to eight years after their trips, 58 percent reported feeling “very much” connected to Israel. Conversely, just 12 percent reported feeling “a little” or “not at all” connected. The program influenced their behavior as well as their sense of connection: 42 percent reported reading Israeli newspapers online, and 40 percent reported having returned for a second visit.

To be sure, those who apply to Taglit do not represent their entire age cohort. Their number, though, is huge. During 2010, Taglit will send about 32,000 American Jewish young adults to Israel (and turn away thousands more). Another 8,000 will participate in long-term study and volunteer programs under the auspices of the Jewish Agency’s MASA program. These young adults have sisters, brothers, parents, and friends; their impact on an entire generation’s ties to Israel has yet to be fully measured, but is by no means slight.

As a result of these initiatives, for the first time, in some studies a larger share of young adults report having been to Israel than older adults. For these young adults, Israel is a central part of their identities in a way that was simply untrue for the vast majority of their parents’ generation. They have more direct ties to Israel including Israelis they met during their trips. They are more likely to return to study, volunteer, or work. And they are more likely to connect to Israel in the United States, through film, music, food, and via the web. Israel advocacy—of either the AIPAC or J Street variety—is just a part of the broader repertoire of connections that young adults increasingly maintain with Israel.

Although Beinart may not be a reliable guide to American Jewish opinion in the past or present, he may yet prove to be a bellwether. When he writes that under the Netanyahu government lines are being crossed and Zionism increasingly seems at odds with liberalism, he expresses the sentiments of an influential segment of the American Jewish intelligentsia. The tension between American Jewish liberalism and the policies of the current Israeli government is real, and the prospect of substantial alienation in the future cannot be dismissed. It should be remembered, however, that American Jews have had plenty of experience with U.S. administrations they did not support politically. For the foreseeable future, diverse personal connections, alongside a basic belief in the need for a Jewish state, will help the next generation of American Jews remain committed to Israel even in the face of distressing political developments.

Theodore Sasson is senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and an associate professor of international studies at Middlebury College. Leonard Saxe is professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

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It helps the liberal cause to be able to read into any sociological data what they want. Of course, the same can be said for conservatives as well. I truly think though that this article is more akin to the reality of the Jewish-American community than anyhing Beinart has alluded to. Remember too that Beinart did not grow up in the US but South Africa and does not understand the dynamics of American society as a young person either. Having been and done that myself and having raised my children in the US also, I can attest to the fact that even the most unaffiliated offspring of intermarried couples find their way back to Israel. I have such a nephew who is on Taglit right now and know of many more who went before him.
What Beinart also doesn’t understand is that critism of Israeli policies in the Jewish-American community does not mean disaffection but quite the opposite. But you knwo when the Moselm Student Associations with the help of left-wing professors attack and try to harm your children on campus for the reason that they are Jews, your childen tend to learn really quick that hatred of Israel is pure unadulterated anti-semitism. Thinking persons learn that Israel is hated because it is Jewish not Jews hated because of Israeli policies. The two are not mutually exclusive but Beinart would know that if he didn’t have as a hero Slovo, a supporter of Stalinist genocide and anti-semitism.

J. Arnon says:

I too have been critical of Beinart’s numbers or lack of supportive data.

However, I would like IP to prove his assertion that “Beinart… has “as a hero Slovo, a supporter of Stalinist genocide and anti-semitism.”

What is your proof that this is the case, IP?

“Perhaps more surprisingly, these studies provide little evidence that as a group young adults are more liberal with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than members of their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.”

Yes, but only because the Orthodox comprise a much larger portion of younger Jews than of older Jews.

J. Arnon says:

case, IP?

Steven I. Weiss says: “Yes, but only because the Orthodox comprise a much larger portion of younger Jews than of older Jews.”

Does this mean that one should view Orthodox Jews as untermentchen. Are they not fully human? Do they not get to vote?

I am not Orthodox and I see the issue differently. Young Jewish world wide have historically been more liberal than their elders. With experience, though, comes understanding of what it means to be Jewish and as a consequence they temper their liberalism with a dose of reality.

Bryna Weiss says:

The Orthodox “comprise a much larger portion of younger Jews than of older Jews”? That’s absurd and would be disturbing if true. I think this article is excellent and certainly more in line with the feelings of most liberal Jews in America. We love Israel, support it’s self-defense- and resent the Ultra Orthodox Settlers and their demands. It’s a problem Israel is going to have to deal with- but with the love and support of it’s Diaspora.

Marc R says:

Why would it be disturbing that Orthodox Jews comprise a larger portion of younger Jews? Do you see them as less equal or less Jewish than you? How would you feel if they felt the same way about you?

As for Beinart’s designation of Joe Slovo as his hero, you can read about it here and in the links contained within:

Marnie Heyn says:

How would I feel? As Orthodox Jews, particularly Israeli Orthodox Jews, deny my Jewishness, I feel alienated — in fact, I feel more and more alienated as the decades roll. As a young woman, I felt sure that eventually be included, but I’m about done with that hope.

nrglaw says:

Thank you for writing this piece. I have posted several places on the web that I thought Beinart was wrong level of differences among American Jews about the settlements in general and Jerusalem in particular. Thank you doing the numbers and showing these problems with Beinart’s piece.

Israeli/Ramat-Gan says:

The moment Beinert mentioned Avram Burg in his article was the moment I understand he is clueless about Israel and Israeli politics. Burg is one of the must hypocrite personalities ever in Israel public life.
A person who lived must of his life on public money and did only to himself.
Anyone who want to know more about him can search Google for: “pri hagalil burg” and “ashot ashkelon burg”

My suggesting to Beinert and his ilk is that if you want to know what the average Israeli thinks stop reading “Haaretz”, as someone told him several days ago(I think it was Eli Lake) : they only got 3 mandates in the last election.
With it anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiments this newspaper isn’t representing the vast majority of Jews in Israel.

Judith Kass says:

None of the respondents has replied to Beinart’s underlying cri de coeur: where are and will be significant American Jewish communal organizations that will press Israel to uphold the visions of social justice and human rights that have been an integral part of Zionism, as well as an integal part of Judaism per se? Such groups exist, the New Israel Fund, for example, which he mentions only in the context of its persecution by right wing Israeli groups. Perhaps JStreet may become a force in the United States that will attract the kind of people Beinart and I admire.

batami says:

J Arnon:

Slovo, the hero, appears in Beinart’s dialogue with Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic.
We see similar fudging of poll data by J Street in the polls conducted by their in-house pollster.

Professors Sasson and Saxe are, I believe, correct in their assessment that the degree to which any American Jew feels connected to Israel is not determined by their own personal political orientation, be it liberal or conservative. Their assertion that the depth and kind of connection that American Jews feel is more likely to be associated with age, personal experiences in Israel and general knowledge about the situation, certainly rings true for me. As the editor of the New Vilna Review, an online journal dedicated to exploring modern Jewish identity, I have often written in general about the relationship between American Jewry and Israel, as well as more specifically in response to the piece by Mr. Beinart in the New York Review of books. In my work as a writer, editor and publisher in the Jewish world, I have had occasion to have many conversations with other Jews, both Israelis and Americans, about their own relationship to Israel. While I have found that their sense of connection to the Jewish State may vary widely in terms of form and motivation, I do think that there are many more Jewish young adults out there who do have a connection to Israel than Mr. Beinart suggested in his piece. I am also inclined to agree with Professors Sasson and Saxe that intermarriage plays a role both in terms of general Jewish identity and a sense of connection to Israel. They are correct, I would argue, that intermarried Jews often do not seem to have a strong sense of Jewish identity (although there are notable exceptions), and therefore I think it is logical that they would not necessarily have a strong connection to Israel. One thing I do question, though, is whether their assertion that there exists a basic assumption, across the board, about the need for a Jewish State. I say this because while I do believe that the majority of involved American Jews do have a sense of connection to the state of Israel (whish manifests in myriad forms) , there is a very vocal far left segment of the American Jewish young adult community which I believe does not subscribe to this tenet. Fortunately, I do believe they are in the minority, and on balance, I think that there are many more young American Jews who are willing to stand up for Israel to varying degrees, but I also think that we should not ignore the danger posed by the far left which seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the existence of the Jewish State.

Stan Nadel says:

Joe Slovo may have been a Communist and even a Stalinist, but he chose to risk his life and devote himself to the defeat of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa–just like the Stalinist Communists who fought against the Nazis. In both cases those who fought were heroes and the right wing McCarthyites who obfuscate this and condemn those who recognize Slovo’s heroism in order to discredit them should be ashamed. No doubt some of these McCarthyites would be glad to use the same tactics to condemn those who honor the Communist anti-Nazis as well, and that makes it clear what political company they prefer. Feh!!!

zbird says:

I think the point Steve Weiss was getting at is simply that the more young people opposed a Palestinian State and the dismantling of settlements (both very right wing views) because a larger % of young people are Orthodox.

The point is not that the orthodox don’t count, but simply that the data supports rather than refutes Beinardt’s thesis, which is that non-orthodox young Jews have a weaker connection to Israel.

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Wrong Numbers

Peter Beinart’s argument about Israel and liberal American Jews is built on misread data

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