The New Amer­i­can Zionism

Theodore Sas­son
  • Review
By – June 12, 2014

Like many baby boomers, my ear­ly image of the new State of Israel was shaped by Leon Uris’s best­selling book Exo­dus. Pub­lished in 1958, fol­lowed by the film ver­sion two years lat­er, Uris’s clas­sic por­trays a hero­ic, uni­fied nation cre­at­ed in the after­math of the Holo­caust. This film, and the vic­to­ries of the 1956 and 1967 Israeli-Arab wars, uni­fied dias­po­ra Jew­ry — char­ac­ter­ized as Israelolotry” by polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Daniel Elazar. 

Fast for­ward to the present: view­ing Israel as the Land of Milk and Hon­ey is more dif­fi­cult. Israel is a post-Indus­tri­al soci­ety effec­tive­ly com­pet­ing in a glob­al econ­o­my with its incu­ba­tors and thriv­ing high tech and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sec­tors. Kib­butz­im, so icon­ic in the ear­ly years, are a small share of the Israeli econ­o­my. It has become more reli­gious­ly po­larized with cul­ture wars between the rapid­ly grow­ing Hare­di pop­u­la­tion and an increas­ing­ly post-Zion­ist sec­u­lar pop­u­la­tion. The con­flict with sur­round­ing Arab nations has become more com­plex after years of ter­ror­ism, the ced­ing of Sinai and Gaza, Israeli gov­er­nance of Arab towns and vil­lages, and inter­na­tion­al crit­i­cism most appar­ent in the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment and scat­tered aca­d­e­m­ic boycotts. 

At the same time, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­munity has changed, with the sharp growth of a small but vibrant Ortho­dox pop­u­la­tion and grow­ing assim­i­la­tion and alarm­ing rates of inter­mar­riage among the less observant. 

In this con­text, Sas­son has pro­duced a slim but com­pre­hen­sive vol­ume that cov­ers an impres­sive array of data to answer the book’s cen­tral ques­tion: Are Amer­i­can Jews dis­tanc­ing them­selves from Israel? Sas­son points out that Amer­i­can sup­port of Israel is strong but that the struc­ture of that com­mit­ment has shift­ed. Many Amer­i­can Jews con­tin­ue to sup­port Israel both polit­i­cal­ly and phil­an­throp­i­cal­ly. The num­ber of advo­ca­cy groups has increased and par­tic­i­pa­tion in major orga­ni­za­tions like J Street and AIPAC is robust and grow­ing. At the same time, people’s con­nec­tion with Israel is more direct: more peo­ple vis­it, com­mu­ni­cate with indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions, and donate mon­ey to Israeli orga­ni­za­tions rather than through inter­me­di­aries. They are also more will­ing to voice their opin­ions about inter­nal Israeli policies. 

Based on the con­sid­er­able evi­dence Sas­son reviews, he con­cludes that Over the past quar­ter cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­can Jews have increas­ingly swapped their ide­al­is­tic con­cep­tions for more real­is­tic and crit­i­cal per­spec­tives on many aspects of Israeli soci­ety and pub­lic pol­i­cy… they have also retained their char­acteristic lev­el of emo­tion­al attach­ment.” Look­ing toward the future, he presents a nov­el assess­ment of the appar­ent decline in com­mitment. Stud­ies have doc­u­ment­ed weak­er ties among the young for sev­er­al decades, sug­gest­ing a trend toward declin­ing inter­est. Sas­son offers a dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion: that as Amer­i­can Jews grow old­er, their attach­ment to Israel increas­es. This life­cy­cle effect sug­gests con­tin­ued sup­port. These are heart­en­ing con­clu­sions at a time when Amer­i­can sup­port for Israel con­tin­ues to be critical.

Relat­ed Content:

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions