Eight-in-ten U.S. Jews say caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. Nearly six-in-ten say they personally feel an emotional attachment to Israel, and a similar share say they follow news about the Jewish state at least somewhat closely.
…More broadly, young U.S. Jews are less emotionally attached to Israel than older ones. As of 2020, half of Jewish adults under age 30 describe themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel (48%), compared with two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older.
In addition, among Jews ages 50 and older, 51% say that caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them, and an additional 37% say it is important but not essential; just 10% say that caring about Israel is not important to them. By contrast, among Jewish adults under 30, one-third say that caring about Israel is essential (35%), and one-quarter (27%) say it’s not important to what being Jewish means to them.
The same pattern – lower levels of attachment to Israel among younger Jewish adults than among older ones – also was present in the 2013 survey. Because the 2013 survey was conducted by live interviewers over the telephone and the 2020 survey was self-administered by respondents online or on a paper questionnaire, the results on some questions are not directly comparable. This includes measures of attachment to Israel, and consequently it is difficult to know whether overall levels of attachment to Israel among Jewish Americans have changed over that seven-year period.
This Pew result is out of kilter with similar surveys of American Jewry which show much lower levels of attachment to Israel.
In his book The Israel Lobby (co-authored with Stephen Walt), John J. Mearsheimer wrote:
Yet the Israel lobby is not synonymous with American Jewry, and “Jewish lobby” is not an appropriate term for describing the various individuals and groups that work to foster U.S. support for Israel. For one thing, there is significant variation among American Jews in their depth of commitment to Israel. Roughly a third of them, in fact, do not identify Israel as a particularly salient issue. In 2004, for example, a well-regarded survey found that 36 percent of Jewish Americans were either “not very” or “not at all” emotionally attached to Israel. 6 Furthermore, many American Jews who care a lot about Israel do not support the policies endorsed endorsed by the dominant organizations in the lobby, just as many gun owners do not support every policy that the NRA advocates and not all retirees favor every position endorsed by the AARP. For example, American Jews were less enthusiastic about going to war in Iraq than the population as a whole, even though key organizations in the lobby supported the war, and they are more opposed to the war today. Finally, some of the individuals and groups that are especially vocal on Israel’s behalf, such as the Christian Zionists, are not Jewish. So while American Jews are the lobby’s predominant constituency, it is more accurate to refer to this loose coalition as the Israel lobby. It is the specific political agenda that defines the lobby, not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it.
The attachment that many American Jews feel for Israel is not difficult to understand, and as noted in the Introduction, it resembles the attitudes of other ethnic groups that retain an affinity for other countries or peoples with similar backgrounds in foreign lands. 7 Although many Jews in the United States were ambivalent about Zionism during the movement’s early years, support grew significantly after Hitler came to power in 1933 and especially after the horrors inflicted on the Jews during World War II became widely known. 8
Relatively few Jews chose to leave the United States and move to Israel after its founding in 1948, a pattern that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders initially criticized. Nevertheless, a strong commitment to Israel soon became an important element of identity for many American Jews. 9 The establishment of a Jewish state in historic Palestine seemed miraculous in itself, especially in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust. Israel’s achievements in “making the desert bloom” were an obvious source of pride, and a close identification with Israel provided a new basis for community for a population that was rapidly assimilating into American society and becoming increasingly secular at the same time. As Rosenthal notes:
To equate Israel with Judaism was a comforting way to avoid the encumbrances of religion by focusing one’s Jewishness on a secular state 8,000 miles from home … Synagogues, the new mainstay of American Jewish life in the postwar era, became Israel-centered. A new class of Jewish professionals … arose in the suburbs. They soon discovered that Israel was the most effective means to counter the growing religious indifference of their constituencies. Primarily in response to Israel’s overwhelming need for financial and political support, new institutions … arose, and fundraising and lobbying increasingly defined American Jews’ relationship to Israel.
Footnote 6. Steven M. Cohen, The 2004 National Survey of American Jews , sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Department of Jewish-Zionist Education, February 24, 2005. Also see 2006 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion , conducted September 25-October 16, 2006, American Jewish Committee, October 18, 2006; Steven M. Cohen, “Poll: Attachment of U.S. Jews to Israel Falls in Past 2 Years,” Forward , March 4, 2005; and M. J. Rosenberg, “Letting Israel Sell Itself,” Weekly Opinion Column, Issue #218, Israel Policy Forum, Washington, DC, March 18, 2005. A recent report prepared for the American Jewish Committee notes that “there is a consensus among several studies that Israel is not central to young people’s Jewish identity.” Jacob B. Ukeles et al., “Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today,” American Jewish Committee, September 2006, 34. Also see Amiram Barkat, “Young American Jews Are More Ambivalent Toward Israel, Study Shows,” Ha’aretz , March 7, 2005.