Israel vs. America: What Jewish Millennials Think About God and the Occupation

Despite programs like Birthright, which aim to create bridges between the two groups, young American and Israeli Jews remain worlds apart, study shows.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Israeli women pose for a selfie in front of the memorial in honor of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, November 11, 2016.
Israeli women pose for a selfie in front of the memorial in honor of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, November 11, 2016.Credit: Sivan Lifshitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Ben Gladstone has a lot going on in his life outside of the classroom. Aside from running three organizations on his campus – the Brown University Coalition for Syria, Students for Responsible Policies in Yemen and Brown Students for Israel – the 20-year-old Bostonian is the founder and editor of a student publication that highlights underrepresented voices on Southwest Asian issues.

Gladstone’s great passion for social justice has helped shape his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Like many of my Jewish-American peers, I feel a great love and attachment to Israel, but also, great frustration with certain Israeli policies,” he says.

Ben GladstoneCredit: Courtesy

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Citing the occupation in the West Bank by way of example, he notes: “Israel does lots of things that don’t match up with the way I’d like the Jewish state to act with its neighbors.”

Noam Riback, who hails from the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, is barely a year younger than Gladstone, though at a very different station in life and with diametrically opposing views. While Gladstone has little more than a year to go before graduating from university, Riback has yet to apply. Like most Israelis his age, he will have to complete his military service before starting to study toward a degree. Riback is currently attending a pre-military gap year program in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

When he says he favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Riback has something entirely different in mind from Gladstone, who supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. “My idea of a two-state solution,” says Riback, “is one state in Israel and another in Jordan.”

A soon-to-be-published study comparing Jewish millennials under 30 in the United States and Israel suggests that Gladstone and Riback are quite typical of their generation in each country. Despite the growing investments in programs like Birthright, which aim to create bridges between young American and Israeli Jews, it shows that a great rift divides them.

>> Read more: What is the 'Jewish Resistance'? Behind the movement of millennial Jews rallying against Trump | American Jewish millennials aren't disengaged from Israel, we're angry / Opinion | Not all Jewish millennials are angry with Israel. Some of us are proud / Opinion >>

In their study, Professor Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University, a leading international authority on Jewish demography, and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College, analyzed data found in two landmark surveys Pew Research Center – one on American Jews in 2013 and the other on Israelis in 2015. The key findings were presented at a recent academic conference in California.

Jewish-Israeli millennials, according to these findings, tend to align themselves with the political right and are less likely to engage in causes that promote justice and equality outside their own community than their American counterparts.

Jewish millennials in Israel vs. in America.Credit: Haaretz

DellaPergola and Keysar's assessment is based on responses provided by close to 600 Jewish millennials aged 18-29 in America and Israel, divided into three subcategories by age group (18-21, 22-25 and 26-29). The study also looked at the responses of more than 5,500 American and Israeli Jews over 30 for comparison purposes.

To gauge attitudes on Israeli settlements and the prospects of a two-state solution, DellaPergola and Kayser looked at whether respondents agreed with the following three statements: 1. Settlements help Israel’s security; 2. God gave the land of Israel to the Jews; and 3. I do not think a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully.

Thirty-five percent of Jewish Israelis between the ages of 18 and 21 said they agreed with these statements. Among Jewish Americans in the same age group, only 7 percent did.

Most Israelis serve in the military between the ages of 18 and 21, while their American counterparts tend to spend these years studying. According to DellaPergola, this could explain the polarity in views. “Because of their very different life experiences, Israeli and American millennials tend to evolve at very different paces,” he said.

Professor Steven Cohen, a leading authority on American Jewry, is more inclined to attribute the divergent views to demographic factors, in particular the higher proportion of Orthodox Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern and North African heritage and immigrants from the former Soviet Union among the Israelis.

“These Jewish groups are more particularist than those from Central and Eastern Europe, who are non-Orthodox with higher education,” he says.

The fact that Jewish Americans are raised in a less hostile environment with more exposure to other communities could also explain their greater openness, according to Cohen. “Non-Jews in America love the Jews, while in Israel, Jews think their local non-Jews hate them,” he says.

Cohen points out that as many as 60 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish millennials in the United States have a non-Jewish parent, the majority have mostly non-Jewish close friends, about three-quarters are expected to marry non-Jews, and almost all have been intimate with non-Jews. “The situation is very different in Israel,” he notes, “where most non-Orthodox Jews have spent at least three years of their lives with the mission of defending the country, their families and friends from attack by non-Jews, foreign and quasi-domestic.”

The “Index of Jewish Nationalism” created by DellaPergola and Kaysar, which tries to gauge attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on responses to these three statements, shows that as Israeli millennials get older, they tend to soften politically. Among 22- to 25-year-old Jewish Israelis, a much smaller share – only 23 percent – expressed what would be considered pro-settlement views, and among 26- to 29-year-olds, only 21 percent did. In the over-30 crowd, 23 identified with positions typical of the Israeli right wing.

Among Jewish Americans, a much smaller share held such views, though the trend over time was not as linear. The 22-25 age group tended to disagree most with the three statements, with only 2 percent embracing pro-settlement positions. Among 26- to 29-year-olds, 9 percent did, and in the above 30 category, 7 percent.

Shirah Kraus (left); Avigayil WuvuCredit: Courtesy

DellaPergola and Kaysar created another index to determine how the two groups view responsibility for the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The “Index of Political Distancing” measures the difference between the percentage of respondents who believe Israel is more sincere in its peacemaking efforts and those who believe the Palestinians are. The findings show that young Israelis are much more likely to embrace the Israeli government's narrative, which holds the Palestinians responsible for the impasse, while young Americans are more inclined to lay the blame equally.

Among 18- to 21-year-old Jewish Israelis, 51 percent more believe that Israel is the more sincere party, while among their Jewish-American peers, only 10 percent more do.

The findings show, however, that older Jewish millennials tend to shift their allegiances and that after age 21, Jewish Israelis begin to show more sympathy for the Palestinians, while Jewish Americans show less. Among 22- to 25-year-old Jewish Israelis, Israel’s advantage drops to 47 percent, and among 26- to 29-year-old Jewish Israelis, to 39 percent.

Among Jewish Americans between the ages of 22 and 25, 17 percent more believe that Israel is the more sincere party, and among 26- to 29-year-olds, Israel’s advantage rises to 22 percent.

The study also points to key differences in how the groups perceive their Jewish identity. Around 50 percent of Jewish-American millennials in all the age groups said that working for justice and equality was essential to their Jewish identity. Among Jewish Israelis, barely 30 percent did.

In some ways, Shirah Kraus, a student at Bryn Mawr College, is a typical Jewish-American millennial. A social activist, she is critical of Israeli settlement policies and an active member of J Street, the pro-Israel anti-occupation group. In fact, Kraus, who grew up in Cincinnati and is spending her junior year in Israel, founded and runs the J Street chapter on her campus.

It’s a sore subject, though, as she attests, with some of her Israeli peers. “Cincinnati and Netanya are sister cities, and when I was growing up, we hosted a girl from Netanya in our home,” she recounts. “I recently visited her, and it was clear that we see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very differently. Let’s just say she’s not a big fan of J Street.”

Reflecting on these differences, Kraus says: “We’ve had very different life experiences – I’m in college and she just finished the army.”

But Kraus doesn’t believe she’s all that typical of her generation. For starters, most of her Jewish-American peers, as she has discovered, are much less knowledgeable about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I actually had someone ask me recently what the occupation was,” she volunteers.

Neither have most of them had as much exposure to Judaism growing up as she did. “I think I’m quite unique in that both my parents are Reform rabbis,” she notes.

As an Orthodox woman, 26-year-old Avigayil Wuvu doesn’t entirely fit the Jewish-Israeli millennial mold either. After all, most Israelis of her generation are not religious.

But she would seem to speak for many when she describes her views on the conflict. “I would definitely define myself as right-wing, though not to the extreme,” says Wuvu, who works as a project coordinator for Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. “My belief is that the entire land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”

Wuvu thinks she understands why many of her millennial cohorts in the United States have reached other conclusions. “There’s a big difference between living here and experiencing firsthand what goes on,” she says, “and living outside the country where most of the information you get comes filtered through the media, which tends to be very one-sided.”

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