American Jewry and Israel: Old Bonds, New Opportunities

by January 2022
A girl at a pro-Israeli demonstration in New York City. Photo credit: REUTERS

The two largest demographic anchors of Jewry today are Israel and the United States, together accounting for 85% of the world Jewish population—in basically equal portions. By successfully integrating into the American social mainstream, Jews have become important intermediaries on the axis of Israel–US relations. Israel, in turn, figures meaningfully within the group identity of American Jews in both the private and the public arenas. The close and long-standing attachment of American Jews to Israel, which some may call a symbiotic relationship, relies on solid strengths alongside complementary concerns that are more fluid and expose the nature and intensity of the ties to various changes.

American Jews, like Jews elsewhere outside of Israel, are a unique diaspora. They have no early personal or familial experience with life in Israel. Most have not visited Israel. Nor do they speak Hebrew, restricting their reading and learning about Israel to non-Hebrew sources. Yet they have a deep affinity for Israel, perceiving it as a historical, religious, or spiritual homeland. Israel and Jerusalem accompany the prayers of American Jews; they are the cradle of historical events, and around them they celebrate the main Jewish festivals. These places embody the sovereignty of the Jewish people. Many American Jews have relatives and acquaintances in Israel and regard the country, consciously or unconsciously, as a protected space. For better or worse, even when they criticize it, Israel is a current component of American Jews’ group identity and of their political and cultural interest.

The strong connection of American Jews to Israel rests, historically and contemporarily, on three main foundations that do not necessarily stand alone but are, in fact, interconnected. The first is the Holocaust, the unimaginable tragedy that occurred only 80 years ago, and the limited ability of American Jews to help Jews in danger—hence demonstrating the importance of an independent Jewish state that has military power and is open to free Jewish immigration. According to the 2020 Pew survey, 95% of American Jews consider remembrance of the Holocaust an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them.

The second foundation is Israel’s centrality as a symbol of ethnic and religious belonging. The land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem are, for instance, the focus of three of the 18 silent prayers recited daily by observant Jews. Israel is an inspiration for a full Jewish life—be it religious or secular—and for the flourishing of Jewish culture and creation, a place where Jewish exiles gather and merge, and a source of Jewish pride for its scientific and technological achievements. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict, which does not seem to be heading toward a solution, as well as the new existential nuclear threat from Iran, raise concern for Israel’s resilience and security. In the latest Pew survey, eight out of ten American Jews indicated that caring about Israel is a key component of being Jewish.

The third foundation is antisemitism. Although American Jews are firmly planted in the US, American society in general exhibits prejudice against Jews. Nine out of ten American Jews think there is “a lot” or “some” antisemitism in their country today. Moreover, 75% of American Jews believe the scope of antisemitism has grown in recent years. While experiencing antisemitism at varying levels characterizes Jewish life in other countries, it is not the case in Israel, which under such circumstances may be viewed as a shelter. Notably, antisemitism reinforces Jewish identification. These three foundations are stable and ongoing, ensuring the robustness of American Jews’ affinity with Israel.

This strong relationship with Israel is also both a cause and a consequence of extensive informal-education activities, especially those involving visits to Israel. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of Jews, mostly from the US, traveled to Israel each year with Taglit (Birthright), Masa, and as part of study-programs in Israel. Others did so under the auspices of youth movements, volunteer organizations, and more. Many of these programs are aimed at young people, who are in the formative stages of the life cycle that shape their group identity. Indeed, studies show that participation in these programs strengthens the long-term relationship with Israel—including follow-up participation in other programs—and Jewish identification more generally, including the tendency to marry within the faith.

American Jews’ familiarity with and understanding of life in Israel is also enhanced by the many Israeli émigrés who increasingly have joined local Jewish communities. According to various estimates, about half a million Israelis and family members live in the US today. Not only has the Israeli establishment tempered its rejectionist approach to citizens who emigrate, American Jewish communities are also more sympathetic and welcoming than before to new Israeli arrivals. These Israelis bring their local Jewish friends into an unmediated relationship with Israel, take part in organized activities—including on university campuses, often the frontier of the debate about Israel’s legitimacy—and strengthen the Israel connection of all members of the Jewish community. This is facilitated by the liberal or moderately conservative worldviews of most Israelis in the US, which coincide with those of the majority of American Jews.

Changes in the general American political and cultural narrative have increasingly legitimized the opportunities for close contact with Israel. American society has moved from an ethos of conformity or melting pot to recognizing the desire of immigrants and religious minorities to demonstrate group particularity: The hyphen (as in “African-American”), once denigrated, has become a source of pride. Post-1965 immigrants from South America, Asia, and Africa maintain ties with their countries of origin (exhibiting transnationalism), which include sending financial remittances; preserving cultural patterns of language and food; consuming news from overseas; and engaging in active political lobbying for their homeland. The importance of individualism in the US bolsters multiculturalism. Under these circumstances, Jews are less concerned than in past generations of being accused of dual loyalty.

Not only is the identification of American Jews with Israel strong, the number of Jews in the US today is larger than ever. Between 1990 and 2020, American Jewry increased from 5.5 million to 7.5 million. There are now 2 million more Jews in America, many of them offspring of mixed parentage, who although often on the fringes of organized Jewish life, may be somewhat attached to Israel, nevertheless. Furthermore, intermarriage is expanding the sympathy for Judaism and Israel among non-Jewish circles in the US. Every Jew who marries a non-Jew draws their spouse toward their Jewish ethnic and religious identity. Their Jewishness then penetrates, in varying levels, to other relatives of the non-Jewish spouse, including parents and siblings, and perhaps to close friends who are invited to celebrate Jewish festivals (sometimes combined with Christian festivals, as with Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter). In this manner, Judaism and Israel are incorporated into the social discourse of millions of Americans who have no Jewish background or connection. This comes on top of the growing population of evangelical Protestants in the US, many of whom consider themselves Christian Zionists who strongly support Israel, the Jewish people, and the return of Jews to their ancestral homeland.

The solidarity with Israel, however, hides serious and growing weaknesses among young Jews as compared to older cohorts. For example, according to the 2020 Pew survey, two-thirds of American Jews aged 65 and over feel very or somewhat attached to Israel while this is true of just under half of Jews aged 18–29. Some of the differences may be explained by the composition of the younger group, which includes numerous offspring of mixed couples who were not raised Jewish, resulting in weak group identification, but who, nevertheless, wish to express their Jewish belonging. Notably, longitudinal studies show that Jewish identification, including attachment to Israel, strengthens with the transition from early to later stages of the life cycle, especially if marriage and child rearing are involved. In addition, structural demographic changes, especially the growing proportions of Orthodox Jews and Israelis in American Jewry, both closely connected to Israel, partly compensate for the growing distance among the young American-born non-Orthodox. As Ira Sheskin found in a study of 37 Jewish communities, the total affinity of American Jews with Israel has not changed.

Still, some young Jews will not touch Israel with a ten-foot pole, for two main reasons. First, many have an overall weak Jewish identity including having abandoned denominational or communal affiliation. Second, Israeli government policies have had a corrosive effect on this identification, whether they are policies toward the Israeli–Arab conflict, the treatment of foreigners, or discrimination against Conservative and Reform Judaism, which represent the majority of synagogue-going Jews in America. Some of these tensions intensified during the overlapping terms in office of President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who adopted policies that clashed with the liberal orientations of the majority of American Jews. Young Jews with weak group identity found this especially abrasive and, in extreme cases, challenged Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state altogether.

The new political leadership in Israel has the potential to address this disaffection among the younger generation of American Jews. This leadership includes a broad-based government that includes left and right-wing parties and an Israeli Arab party for the first time. President Yitzhak Herzog and his younger brother Michael, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, share an intimate understanding of American Jewish dynamics. With the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties greatly reduced, and with the presence of Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, who served for years as the Jewish Federations representative in Israel, the concerns of the diaspora may now have a stronger presence at the governing table in Israel. The COVID-19 pandemic, while severely disrupting travel to and from Israel, has opened new opportunities for virtual connections that can enrich and diversify the acquaintance of American Jews with Israel and its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. These developments can help Israelis present their country not only in terms of regional conflicts and internal tensions, about which Americans are already familiar, but also about Israel as a successful democracy with a robust economy, advanced industry, scientific excellence, and a rich and diverse culture.

Selected Indicators of American Jews’ Connection to Israel, 2020 (Percentages)

Source: Pew Research Center, Jewish Americans in 2020 (2021).
Source: Pew Research Center, Jewish Americans in 2020 (2021).

The underlying basis for a more positive view of Israel among the American Jewish public already exists, and the question is whether Israelis will succeed in tapping into it. The statistics in this graph attest that nearly 60% of American Jews are continuously connected to Israel by having shared feelings of commonality with Jews in Israel, an emotional attachment to Israel, and following news about Israel, while more than 80% care about Israel as an essential or important part of their Jewishness. Thus, the overwhelming majority of American Jews echo what Elie Wiesel once wrote: “The fact that I do not live in Jerusalem is secondary; Jerusalem lives within me. Forever inherent in my Jewishness, it is at the center of my commitments and my dreams” (New York Times, January 24, 2001).

Prof. Uzi Rebhun
Prof. Uzi Rebhun is the Shlomo Argov Chair of Israel-Diaspora Relations and Head of the Division of Jewish Demography at the Avraham Harman Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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