The leading sociologist of American Jewish attitudes reports that “serious donors” to Jewish organizations have lately begun balking at giving money to Israel. The change in attitude is fostered by the rising rate of intermarriage and being “deeply offended” by Israeli policies, he said.
Steven M. Cohen, a professor at the Hebrew Union College who works on Pew surveys, spoke at a conservative synagogue in Westchester County, NY, last night. The donors’ shift came up when he described how divisive the Israel issue has become inside the Jewish community. He cited his work with Jewish Federations, the largest Jewish charity organizations:
The issue of Israel is and will be a continued major source of polarization and friction. Both… the right wing on Israel, the left wing on Israel have pretty dastardly images of the other side. The right thinks the left is disloyal and endangering the future of Israel. The left thinks the right is undemocratic and racist, often, and endangering the future of Israel.
I know this to be true. My evidence for this is I’m involved with a couple of federations, doing consulting work, research, and the directors of both federations… I was having questions– what pulls our communities apart? Is it orthodox, secular, Reform, haredim? And they said, yeah, that’s the number two issue. What’s number one? “Number one is Israel! And recently, we’re getting a lot of tension on Israel, we really have a hard time managing the Israel conversation. It’s like, Our donors are telling me, I’ll give you money as I have before– I’m talking about serious donors– but not if you’re going to give to Israel.” Really! Did you tell them that our money goes to the Arab sector, that weighs in on the side of Conservative, Reform Jews in Israel, basically does good things, education, health? “Yeah yeah, yeah. It doesn’t work.”
Driving the change in the American Jewish relationship to Israel are young Jews. Cohen listed three causes for why the young distance themselves from Israel.
Younger people are less attached to Israel largely because of intermarriage. If we didn’t have intermarriage, probably the level of attachment would be the same. The issue of intermarriage is associated with and provokes distancing from all things Jewish.
Cohen pointed out that the non-Jewish spouse has religious counterparts to everything in the Jewish spouse’s experience, from holidays to God to a house of worship–
The one thing that doesn’t make sense to them is Israel. There’s no analog to Israel. Also what gets hit by intermarriage a lot is the ethnic side, the social relationships with other Jews. So intermarriage is a major force in shrinking the number of Israel-engaged Jews.
2, Israeli policies.
Until 2012 I thought it wasn’t politics, that politics didn’t matter. And then either I changed my mind or the data changed. But the data certainly changed by 2013. We saw that liberals who were deeply offended and annoyed by Israeli policies didn’t simply say “I don’t like Israeli policies but I love Israel,” which I would have wanted them to do [he notes that he is on the board of a liberal Zionist organization, Ameinu]. But their annoyance at Israeli policies overflowed into attachment to Israel.
A few months ago, I came to realize… [based on his work for the Pew study on religious attitudes] that every move left on the political dimension is associated with declining attachment to the Jewish people, to things Jewish…. In the Pew data, I looked at every single measure of Jewish anything that they had. I found on measure after measure, liberals are less Jewishly-committed– by the way especially on Israel… and also on religiosity, less so if they have Jewish friends.
Throw all this together and you have a recipe for increasing detachment of Jews from Israel. The only thing holding them back is increased travel by young people to Israel, and for that we actually can credit Birthright, an intervention that made a difference. But Birthright is swimming up against the downstream effect of everything else.
Intermarriage is actually increasing the numbers of liberal American Jews in the near term; but Cohen said that ultimately the grandchildren of intermarried Jews will have little Jewish identification.
Just remember: of Jews in their 20’s, 60 percent have one non-Jewish parent– most young Jews have a non-Jewish parent. And it’s hard for them to maintain a philosophy that looks like it’s exclusive, privileged… or that denies the ability of Americans to make choices that they want…
These Jews are “Jews by feeling.” They say, “Yeah I’m Jewish, nothing more.”
So while 95 percent of Jews in the older generation are non-Orthodox, the Orthodox percentage rises to 27 percent of Jews under 18, and 35 percent of Jews under 5. Meaning: intermarriage has produced an attenuated Jewish identity. And the Jewish community will become more conservative politically in years to come.
Cohen said he expects Jews to vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton because of the Jewish tradition of liberalism and the association of liberalism with the highly-educated. Clinton’s top five donors are Jewish, he noted.
He also said that Jews are the most “prestigious” of American groups, per one important study, and have the second highest level of education (to Hindus) and face very little discrimination. “We’re definitely in. No problem, we’re widely accepted.” Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Muslims have far greater obstacles in making their way in American life. He said he believed that the anti-Semitism we have seen during the presidential campaign was “the expression of kooky anti-Semites… In terms of the images [American] people have of various groups, we are in great shape.”
P.S. I have one comment on the above. Stopping giving money to something you have previously supported is called Boycott. There is a great tradition of Jews putting their money where their mouth is in boycotting countries and companies whose choices they object to. So we see these big donors undertaking a form of BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions– a campaign that their religious organizations and favorite politicians are simultaneously demonizing. The demonization won’t last. BDS.