Vast Numbers of Progressive California Jews Are Disengaging From Israel, Survey Finds

Only a minority of young Jews in San Francisco’s Bay Area believe a Jewish state is important and only a third sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians

File photo: Pro-Israel student advocates at UC Berkeley.
Judy Maltz

If it remains true that as California goes, so goes the nation, Israeli leaders ought to start worrying.

A first-of-its-kind demographic study has found that a significant share of Northern California Jews – one of the most progressive and affluent Jewish communities in the United States – feels no attachment to Israel, with the trend even more pronounced among millennials.

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The survey polled the Jewish population in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Its findings, published Monday, are in line with a recent Pew study that found support for Israel shrinking dramatically among Democrats, particularly younger members of the party.

The Bay Area is home to the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States (behind New York, South Florida and Los Angeles). The study, titled “A Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” was based on responses from 3,516 interviewees, 75 percent of whom identified as “Jews by religion.”

The study found that the Bay Area is home to some 148,000 Jewish households. About 350,000 of the residents identify as Jewish (including 281,000 adults), while a further 123,000 call themselves “non-Jewish.”

Among the respondents, only 21 percent described themselves as “very attached” to Israel and almost as many – 20 percent – described themselves as “not attached at all.” Another 32 percent said they were “somewhat attached,” while 27 percent said they were “not very attached.”

In this November 25, 2014 file photo, a group of people on rental bicycles ride past Crissy Field toward the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg/AP

Asked how much importance they attributed to the existence of a Jewish state in the world, just over half (54 percent) said it was “very important.” Another 25 percent said it was “somewhat important.” The rest said that either it wasn’t important or they weren’t sure.

The respondents were also asked whether they sympathized more with Israelis or Palestinians. While far more (43 percent) said they sympathized with Israelis than those citing the Palestinians (8 percent), almost half said they either sympathized with both sides, neither or were not sure.

Leading the study were Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, and Jack Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates, Inc., which specializes in Jewish community population studies.

Cohen is a world-renowned expert on Jewish demographics, and said the findings point to a new trend regarding Jewish-American attitudes toward Israel.

“We automatically think of people as either pro-Israel or anti-Israel,” he told Haaretz by phone. “In these findings, we see there are a growing number who are ‘Israel disengaged.’ And if you look at younger people versus older people, younger people are indeed moving away from being ‘pro-Israel engaged’ in much larger numbers. They haven’t moved to a position of condemning Israel or taking the other side, so to speak, but they’re moving into a position of neutrality,” Cohen noted.

The findings show that among 18-to-34-year-olds, only 11 percent described themselves as very attached to Israel, 37 percent said they felt the existence of a Jewish state was very important, 40 percent said they were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state, and 30 percent said they sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians.

Cohen suggested that one of the reasons younger Jews were less engaged with Israel than their parents or grandparents was “weaker Jewish connections.”

Not surprisingly, the survey also found that conservatives tend to be far more attached to Israel than liberals. “Just as Americans as a whole have become more politically divided about Israel, so have the Bay Area Jews – not to mention American Jews in general,” he said.

Among conservatives, 32 percent described themselves as very attached to Israel, as compared with only 18 percent of liberals.

Intermarried and unaffiliated Jews also tended to be disengaged from Israel, the survey found.

The survey also found that Jews in the Bay Area tend to be far less religiously observant than their counterparts in other parts of the country. For example, only 50 percent of Bay Area Jews said they attended a Passover seder, compared with 73 percent in the country as a whole. And only 40 percent said they fasted at least part of the day on Yom Kippur, compared with 55 percent in the country as a whole.

Among the respondents, 37 percent identified as Reform Jews and 41 percent said they were not affiliated with any denomination. Only 3 percent identified as Orthodox.