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.
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...