The past year has seen a long debate about whether young American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel. This assertion was the central argument in an article and then a book by Peter Beinart, who argued that this is happening. As Beinart announces at his web site, “A dramatic shift is taking place in Israel and America….In the United States, the refusal of major Jewish organizations to defend democracy in the Jewish state is alienating many young liberal Jews from Zionism itself.”
The book made quite a stir, as would be warranted if the facts were right. But now comes a new poll, conducted by the left-of-center group called the Workmen’s Circle and published in the left-of-center Jewish newspaper The Forward. Unfortunately for Mr. Beinart, who has gotten an enormous amount of attention, speaking engagements, and media appearances from his thesis, his thesis is wrong.
“Young Jews are now more attached to Israel than the previous generation,” the Forward article summarizes. Now, it can be anticipated that Beinart and others who take his view would respond that this reflects the attachment to Israel among the most religious young Jews. Not so:
The poll looked only at Jews who are not Orthodox and do not attend Jewish day school, thus reflecting the broader Jewish population and particularly the segment of the population that attends such programs as Birthright. It is these trips to Israel, and not a connection to Jewish life, which are being credited with the recent increase is Israel interest. “It seems that the attachment levels for the entire age cohort are elevated due in large part to the increasing number of people who have visited Israel,” says Sociologist Professor Steven M. Cohen who, along with Professor Samuel Abrams, conducted the survey. A full 34% of the under-35 age group has been to Israel, compared with 22% of 35-44 year olds. The poll dubbed the effect the “Birthright bump” in data. Birthright Israel has sent nearly 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 to 26 to Israel since 2000.
What remains to be explained is why such a flimsy thesis as Mr. Beinart’s received, and receives, so much attention. I would argue that it is because he is saying two things many left-wing American Jews want to hear and want to believe: that the policies of a conservative government in Israel are alienating American Jews from that country, and that the leading American Jewish organizations are derelict in their duty to oppose such policies. The Workmen’s Circle’s new poll demonstrates that this is wishful thinking on their part. To repeat the poll’s punch line again, “Young Jews are now more attached to Israel than the previous generation.” Mr. Beinart should reflect on something my old boss the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan used to say: “You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”