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Two recent studies challenge the customary perception that Jews living in Israel and the United States, which make up 80 percent of the world's Jewry - belong to the same nation.

One study indicates that Israel occupies a marginal place in the younger generation's Jewish identity. The other finds that Israeli pupils' knowledge of American Jewry is negligible. Both studies were conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

The study on Israeli pupils was conducted by the Levinsky College of Education among 150 history and civics teachers. Only 13 percent of them said that the subject of U.S. Jewry had been studied at their school "at least once." More than 60 percent said the subject had not been studied at all and 25 percent could not answer the question.

Rabbi Edward Rettig of AJC, who coordinated the study, said he was not surprised by the findings, which indicate to his mind "educational failure and slipping down the slope of mutual alienation."

Sabotage attempts

Rettig said senior Education Ministry officials had tried to sabotage the study and forbade the researchers' direct access to teachers. The Knesset's Education Committee chair, Rabbi Michael Melchior, initiated the debate held in the Knesset yesterday on the studies' findings. He said Israeli education ministers' promises to expand Jewish studies were mere lip service and that all the study programs on this subject had been ignored.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir promised recently to increase Jewish studies and said it would "contribute significantly to mold the pupils' Jewish identity."

But in yesterday's Knesset debate it transpired that the Education Ministry was not acting to implement new Jewish studies programs, although they had been prepared long ago.

Pending decision

The implementation of a new history study program has recently been postponed by a year, and a civics program is pending the minister's decision whether to expand civics studies from one to two units. An additional ninth grade program on Diaspora Jews has been taught for the past two years as a mere pilot.

The study held in the U.S. summed up the findings of all the studies conducted among 1.5 million American Jews in their twenties and thirties.

They all concluded that the state of Israel was not a central component in the young people's Jewish identity. For example, in a study conducted in 2000, Israel was placed 11th out of 15 identity components presented to the interviewees.

Less sympathy among the young

All the studies found that the younger the interviewees, the less sympathy they felt for Israel. The sense of belonging to the Jewish nation also fell the younger the respondent. For example, a study from 2001 found that less than 30 percent of the young people felt they belonged to "the Jewish nation" compared to 42 percent of the 65 year olds and older people.

Melchior, the only MK to sit throughout the Knesset debate yesterday, asked high school pupils who were there by chance whether they could name any Jewish American figure. Nobody could.

The pupils said they had studied the subject of American Jewry between the world wars in history classes, but said the lessons were not interesting and the material was not included in the matriculation exams.

One pupil, Tamar Moshe, said the program could have been much more interesting and relevant had it included meetings with Jewish Americans of her age group.

'Normal' religion

Dr. Rafi Sheniak, who founded the Jewish Studies center in Levinsky College, said the debate did not deal with fundamental issues in the relations between Israel and the Diaspora, such as "are the Jews still one nation."

Sheniak said that in the U.S. Judaism was becoming a "normal" religion, while in Israel Jews were becoming a "normal nation." American Jewish attitudes to Israel and Hebrew are like those of American Catholics to the Vatican and Latin, he said. In Israel, however, Jewish identity becomes defined as Hebrew language and culture.