For a number of years it has been an article of faith in Jewish communal circles that young non-Orthodox Jews are drifting away from Israel. Sociologists blamed interfaith marriage and assimilation; traditionalists blamed liberal Judaism; Peter Beinart blamed mainstream pro-Israel groups.
But a study by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams for the Workmen’s Circle is threatening to turn conventional wisdom on its head. It found that levels of emotional attachment to Israel are actually higher among a non-Orthodox cohort 18-34 than they are for those ages 35-44 (they rise again for those 45 and up). What’s more, this expressed attachment correlates with travel to Israel: Among those young adults under 35, 34 percent have been to Israel as compared with just 22 percent of those 35-44. This led Cohen to speculate about a “Birthright Bump” — that is, the cumulative impact of the free trips to Israel that have been offered to nearly 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 to 26 since 2000.
This attachment to Israel among younger people, however, is matched by their ambivalence toward Israel’s current policies. Among those under 35, 40 percent oppose settlement construction, while only 22 percent support it. According to the study, 45 percent say that Israel is not acting as if it wants peace with the Palestinians. (Such responses mirror Israel’s own internal conflicts: In the same week that a panel appointed by the Israeli government determined that settlement construction is legal under international law, the country’s president, Shimon Peres, declared that settling Jews “in territories densely populated with Arabs” threatens the demographic integrity of the Jewish state.)
The study, if confirmed by others, offers a wealth of implications for planners. It hints that social networks are a powerful force for shaping attitudes. It reiterates the need to follow up with alumni of Birthright trips. And it suggests that courses in advocacy should recognize the ideological diversity of young Jews, and not assume that criticism of Israel indicates detachment.
Most of all, it sounds like great news for the Jewish Agency, private donors, and Jewish federations, justifying their support for Birthright and making the case for its survival and expansion.