Last summer, our routine evaluation of Taglit-Birthright Israel became a serendipitous natural experiment allowing us to assess the feelings and beliefs of 18 to 26-year-old American Jews about Israel before and after the Israel-Hamas war. The research gives us an unparalleled chance to assess whether or not Israel’s conduct in the war alienated or promoted support for Israel. Applicants to Birthright are a large and fairly representative group of young adult Jews.
In April 2014 we surveyed over 40,000 eligible applicants for the summer trips, and received more than 12,000 responses. The survey collected information about applicants’ Jewish backgrounds and their feelings and opinions about Israel—the latter to serve as a baseline. Applicants were also asked how frequently they sought news about Israel and about their general political orientation.
In late August, following the summer travel season, we again surveyed both trip participants and those who applied but did not go. Because the Israel-Hamas war had dominated the summer headlines—including much speculation about its impact on American Jewry—we included several sets of questions about the war.
One of the questions asked of the applicants was: “How connected are you to Israel?” Unsurprisingly, Birthright trip participants felt much more connected to Israel at the end of the summer, after their trips. This increase in feelings of connection among trip participants is similar to what we’ve seen in previous program evaluations.
As a group, the non-participants also felt more connected to Israel at the end of the summer (39 percent, compared to 33 percent in April). In previous studies, we have not seen substantial change between pre-and post-trip surveys in the non-participant group. For this group, the critical intervening event between the two surveys was the Israel-Hamas war.
Because we surveyed the same population twice, we can analyze changes at the level of individual respondents. Among liberals, 41 percent became more connected to Israel between the two surveys; 49 percent maintained the same level of connection and just 10 percent became less connected.
How can we explain these findings? Responses to questions we asked in the August survey on attitudes about the conflict suggest an explanation.
Responses to a question on whether Israeli actions in the war were justified indicate that a vast majority—90 percent of participants and 81 percent of non-participants—felt that Israeli actions were mostly or completely justified.
Seventy percent of participants and 61 percent of non-participants very much felt support for Israel during the conflict; just 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, felt no support at all. Similarly, just 4 percent of participants and 7 percent of non-participants very much felt estranged from Israel during the conflict.
Thus, the overall increase in feelings of connection to Israel in the context of last summer’s war reflected general approval—including among liberals—of Israel’s wartime conduct and broad solidarity with the Jewish state.
This study is the first that directly examines what happens among American Jews when Israel is engaged in a controversial war. Our findings counter much of the conventional wisdom about American Jews and Israel. The hypothesis that the war alienated liberal American Jews is not supported. In fact, the war seems to have narrowed the gap between liberals and conservatives and generated broad solidarity with Israel, across the political spectrum.
The present study joins a growing body of evidence utterly incompatible with a conventional wisdom that portrays American Jews as alienated from Israel. This body of evidence includes the 2013 Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” which reported no evidence of declining attachment since the last comprehensive survey conducted in 2001. It also includes our own analyses of surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee and of community studies conducted at 10-year intervals.
In the context of heightening tension between the Israeli and American governments over Iran, and increased division and conflict in the American Jewish community over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the findings remind us that American Jews’ connections to Israel run deep and will not be easily dislodged.
Read the entire article at Tablet.