In recent years, social scientists have claimed that American Jews, in particular in the younger generation, have grown more distant from Israel. This paper draws on evidence from national surveys conducted over two decades to assess the “distancing hypothesis.” The survey data suggest that emotional attachment to Israel has varied within a narrow band, with no consistent pattern of increase or decrease. Predictions of distancing appear to be incorrect and several factors which were presumed to underlie distancing are examined: generational turnover, intermarriage and political alienation. These factors appear to have only small impact on the overall level of American Jewish attachment to Israel. An alternative narrative is suggested and the implications for the future relationship of American Jews to Israel are discussed.
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“Two decades of opinion polls conducted by sociologist Steven Cohen for the AJC highlight the diminishing role of Israel in the American Jewish consciousness” (Rosenthal 2001, p. 171).
Perlmann (2007a) estimates that a broader definition of Jewish that includes both Jews-by-religion and “Jews for any reason” would include a population larger by one-fifth. For a similar discussion, see Saxe et al. (2006). A sample drawn from such an expanded universe would include relatively more respondents with weak attachment to Israel. Insofar as our emphasis is on trends rather than the absolute level of attachment, the exclusion of “Jews by ancestry” should not influence our findings.
Synovate does not publish survey response rates but claims that respondents are “representative of the United States adult Jewish population on a variety of measures” (AJC 2000, p. i). Synovate claims a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, but see note 7, below.
Perlmann’s (2007a) analysis finds that the AJC samples are comparable to those of the NJPS and AJIS for the variables age, gender, region, education, denomination, and feeling close to Israel. Note that NJPS 2000 likely under-represents non-Orthodox Jews (see Saxe et al. 2006). To the extent the AJC samples resemble the NJPS samples they likely feature the same distortion. We present our findings with statistical controls for denomination, or separately for each denominational grouping, so such distortions do not influence our findings.
Surveys in 1989, 1991 and 1993 were conducted by mail; in the years since, surveys were conducted by telephone.
Synovate’s reported margin of error of 3% is misleading. It is based on the assumption that the survey of Jews is a random sample of the Jews on Synovate’s list. In the first place, in some years the sample was stratified and in some years weighted. Both these procedures that are standard to survey research call for special software for analysis and that software generally increases the margin of error. But the data are not available from Synovate to adjust for these procedures so the reported margin of error must stand, and our own analyses also assume a random survey. But the randomness refers to Synovate’s list, which itself is not random and has a low initial cooperation rate. The true margin of error must be higher than 3% but cannot be calculated.
See Perlmann (2007b) for a parallel analysis of the factors associated with attachment to Israel in the AJC data sets.
Dichotomization is necessary because one of the questions is dichotomous and the other has four categories. “How close do you feel to Israel” is dichotomized as close or distant. The correlation between the two variables in the index is 0.53, with “How close…” dichotomized or with its original four categories. Combining the two variables into an index gives the dependent variable greater stability and the dichotomy also makes it easier to interpret.
Given the dichotomous dependent variable, this is the only choice.
Because we have included “How important is being Jewish in your life?”—which is highly related to denomination—not all the denominations are significantly different from “Just Jewish” as might have otherwise been the case. The model was chosen to control for possible sample differences between the 2 years on matters that were related to support for Israel.
Complete data sets for 2006–2008 were unavailable for secondary analysis. The raw data were reported in the AJC Annual Survey reports.
Longitudinal comparisons across all other sets of surveys known to the authors are impossible due to differences in question wording and response categories. For example, NJPS 1990 asks, “How emotionally attached are you to Israel” whereas NJPS 2000 asks, “How close are you to Israel.” Several surveys administered by Steven M. Cohen since the 1980s employ identical questions but disparate response categories.
The possibility that attachment to Israel increases with age but independently of religiosity, Israel trips, and organizational engagement, is underscored by an association between aging and a propensity to agree with the statement, “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.” In 2005, 85% of respondents over 60 tended to agree with the statement, compared to 64% of respondents under 30 (with other age cohorts arrayed in between, in a stepwise fashion).
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The authors gratefully acknowledge colleagues who commented on earlier drafts of this paper, including Steven M. Cohen, Shaul Kelner, Ezra Kopelowitz, David Mittelberg, Joel Perlmann, Benjamin Phillips, as well as this journal’s anonymous reviewers.
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Sasson, T., Kadushin, C. & Saxe, L. Trends in American Jewish Attachment to Israel: An Assessment of the “Distancing” Hypothesis. Cont Jewry 30, 297–319 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-010-9056-1
- American Jewish opinion