Review of Theodore Sasson’s “The New American Zionism”

tags: book review, Theodore Sasson, The New American Zionism

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is director of the Politics & Values Program.

Are Americans Jews drifting away from Israel? The conventional wisdom is that they are. In a 2007 report Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman argued that “We are in the midst of a massive shift of attitudes toward Israel…” They attribute the change to the replacement of an older generation with sentimental ties to Israel by a new cohort whose affinity is much weaker.

A 2013 Pew poll supports this claim. It found that while 77% of American Jews over 50 describe themselves as very or somewhat attached to Israel, only 61% under 50 do so. Young Jews are especially skeptical that Israel is acting in good faith in regard to the Palestinians. The same survey found that only 26% of Jews between 18 and 29 believe that the “Israeli government is making a sincere effort” toward a peace settlement.

In The New American Zionism, Theodore Sasson, Professor of International and Global studies at Middlebury College and Senior Research Scientists at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, offers a counterintuitive spin on these numbers, which have been lamented by major players in organized Jewish life. He contends that the appearance of a major change in American Jews’ relation to Israel is partly illusory. According to Sasson, differences in attitudes have historically been correlated with stage of life rather than generation.

In other words, Sasson argues that it is not the case that American Jews under fifty or so are less attached to Israel than their parents or grandparents were. Instead, younger Americans Jews have always tended to be less interested in Israel, but developed stronger attachments as they grew older. If this pattern holds, there is reason to think that today’s skeptics may be Israel’s passionate supporters of tomorrow.

That does not mean Sasson thinks nothing has changed. The book’s central claim is that the mass mobilization that characterized American Jews relations with Israel until the 1980s has been replaced by an “engagement” approach. For Sasson, there has been no overall decline in the intensity of American Jewish support for Israel. But there has been a turn away from support based on ideological consensus and channeled through large organizations in favor of direct connections with a broad array of movements and institutions in Israel.

In one sense, this leads toward uncharted territory for American Jewry, which has been characterized for decades by a striking degree of vertical integration. But it also reflects a return to normality, both in an historical sense and in comparison to other diasporas. Before 1948, American Jews were much more diverse in their relations with the “yishuv”—the pre-Israel Jewish community in Palestine—and the Zionist movement than they were in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

Political and institutional pluralism is also common among diaspora groups, who tend “to support competing political objectives and rival homeland parties.” They carry over political allegiances and institutional affiliations from their original homes to their new countries of residence. One justification for the establishment of the State of Israel was to give the Jews a homeland comparable to the ones enjoyed by other people. An ironic consequence may have been to remake the distinctive “Galut”—Jews living outside of Israel and Palestine-- on a pattern comparable to far-flung communities of South Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans.

The New American Zionism is primarily descriptive. In addition to analyses of survey data and institutional arrangements, the book includes information from focus groups that gave participants the opportunity to explain their views in more detail than polls allow. These results are consistent with Sasson’s claim about changing styles of support. Rather than expressing unambiguous approval or disapproval for Israel, participants tended to distinguish between causes or areas of Israeli society they endorses and those that troubled them. The “engagement” model allows them to direct their support accordingly.

The explanatory argument is less developed. Sasson noted that the mobilization approach was based on a highly idealized image of Israel. Because few American Jews traveled there or had access to firsthand information about Israel, it was relatively easy to build consensus around support for the inspiring underdog evoked so vividly in Exodus. The increasing ease of travel and fluidity of information, as well as burgeoning family connections between the countries, have given Americans a much better understanding of Israeli society. Sasson proposes that “[t]he more American Jews know about Israel—and the more Israelis they know personally—the more likely they are to exercise individual judgment in the domains of political advocacy and philanthropy.” He also observes that the Internet renders the kind of mediating organizations that once dominated Americans’ relations with Israel much less useful. You don’t have to donate to the United Jewish Appeal when you can easily work directly with your favored causes.

This is certainly a plausible hypothesis. But Sasson does not provide enough information to judge whether it is true. One disadvantage of the descriptive approach applied here is that it can make it difficult to distinguish long-term shifts from merely temporary changes.

This is not just an academic consideration. The question that looms over The New American Zionism is whether the tendency of American Jews to identify with Israel more strongly as they age will continue in the future. If its causes included lack of information and opportunity for contact with Israeli people and institutions, then we should not expect the same pattern to hold under current conditions.

Some American Jews, then, may remain involved with Israel—perhaps even more actively than members of previous generations. But others are likely to drift toward the passive expression of opinions, or even outright indifference. As Sasson acknowledges, this tendency is likely to be especially pronounced among the children of intermarriage. We cannot discuss the intensity of support for Israel among American Jews without taking into account the relative shrinking of this group.

On the level of anecdote, that’s the pattern I’ve observed in my own generation (I’m 35). People who strongly identify as Jewish care about Israel a lot—although this concern is often expressed in the form of criticism. But not everyone of Jewish descent sees this as central to their identity. And those who don’t also don’t care much about Israel one way or the other. Sasson provides considerable evidence that American Jews are not turning against Israel, as some analysts have claimed. But his account is compatible with intensifying and increasingly partisan commitment among a dwindling population—a situation that should concern American friends of Israel.

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