Divided…Not Distant

Ted Sasson

Ted Sasson, Senior Research Scientist

A few weeks ago I testified, together with Len, before the Knesset Subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations chaired by Einat Wilf.

Drawing on our recent research, I challenged the notion that American Jews are “distancing” from Israel. I noted that despite the popularity of the “distancing hypothesis” in the public discourse, there is actually little evidence for it. Rather than distanced, I described American Jews as increasingly divided among competing visions of Israel – of what Israel ought to be like, of what threatens Israel, and of how American Jews ought to relate to Israel.  In other words, what many frequently misinterpret as evidence of distancing often reflects an interest in and deep caring for Israel.

Previewing our latest research, I discussed four segments of American Jews’ relationship to Israel: philanthropy, tourism, public opinion, and advocacy. In each of these domains, the American Jewish connection to Israel seems to be robust and thriving. With respect to philanthropy, although the type of giving has changed (moving from a federation model to more direct gifts), philanthropic giving increased substantially right up until the 2008 economic crisis. With respect to tourism, American Jewish visits to Israel increased in the 2000s and participation in educational tourism (especially Taglit) skyrocketed. At the current rate, more than half of American Jewish children will have an educational experience in Israel before adulthood. In terms of public opinion, our evidence challenges the notion that emotional attachment is declining across the generations. In recent decades, as young adults have matured they became more attached to Israel.  Finally regarding advocacy, participation seems to be increasing with ever larger numbers participating in AIPAC and J Street and a proliferation of campus groups. What distinguishes current realities from the period before the Oslo process is the increase in independent lobbying on the right and the left.

To my mind, the distancing debate, as it has developed, injects the issue of loyalty to Israel into what should be regarded as fundamentally a political debate.  We would be better off setting aside the “discourse on distancing” and instead recognize that the political divisions in the Diaspora mirror divisions in Israeli society. We must confront these divisions directly as part of a broader conversation about how to maintain solidarity and civil discourse in a community that is politically divided.

U.S. Jews’ donations to Israel double in past 20 years, study shows, Haaretz
Peter Beinart’s False Prophecy, Tablet
Diaspora Divided, Jewish Review of Books

View video of hearing

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