Israel and American Jews: A Growing Divide?

The editor’s column in the Nov. 2 edition of the Canadian Jewish News (not online, unfortunately) made an interesting connection between two studies by the American Jewish Committee. One, titled Teaching about American Jewry in Israeli Education, found that only 14 percent of Israeli schools teach anything about American Jewry; the other, titled Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today, found that only one-third of young Jewish American felt that caring about Israel was important to Jewish identity (Israel placed 11th out of 15 markers of Jewish identity).

Taken together, these two facts suggest that the citizens of Israel and the Jewish citizens of the U.S. are drifting apart and prophesy a future where Jewish-Americans feel a much lower level of connection to Israel.

What’s interesting is that the one-third figure is not that different from the level of attachment to Israel among young adults from interfaith families. According to a 2005 study by the Jewish Outreach Institute on identity in children of interfaith families, 27 percent of 22- to 30-year-olds with one Jewish parent said being Jewish involves caring about Israel “a lot.” Critics of intermarriage often point to the weakened Jewish identity of interfaith children as proof that intermarriage is detrimental to the Jewish community, but it appears that a low level of attachment to Israel is a community-wide problem.

Nonetheless, the decreased level of connection between the two countries’ Jewish communities is worrying. It’s also hard to imagine what more the American Jewish community could do to foster connection to Israel; between birthright israel, the massive fundraising by Jewish federations and the indoctrination of the importance of Israel at all levels of Jewish education, the American Jewish community seems to be doing everything it can already. I suspect, however, that being more welcoming to interfaith families might help nudge up the levels of Zionism among children from interfaith backgrounds.

As for Israel, I don’t know enough about their educational system to offer any ideas, but I do know their rules on burial and marriage aren’t very welcoming to children from interfaith families where the mother isn’t Jewish.

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