Forward Thinking

Fundraisers: Young Jews Donate, But Not To Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

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Leaders of federated Jewish philanthropies agree almost unanimously that younger, under-50 Jewish donors—even those already committed to giving to Jewish causes—have little interested in giving to Israel, reports Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev in a blog post from the General Assembly of Jewish federations, now meeting in Denver.

There is a general unease about giving to Israel, because it’s hard to tell what its needs are these days, said one. The younger donors don’t understand why we need to be giving to Israel, which has its own rich people and which is described, after all, as having one of the healthiest economies in the world, said another. Political disagreements, said yet a third, are increasingly influencing people’s choices on where to direct their money.

The discussion took place during a Monday-morning round-table discussion of the so-called Global Planning Table, a proposed reform in the system by which the Jewish federations allocate donations to Israel and other overseas causes, described earlier today by the Forward’s Nathan Guttman in a blog post from Denver.

What Shalev turned up today is more than another round of bureaucratic in-fighting, though. It’s an important new clue in the still-raging battle that Peter Beinart touched off with his June 2010 article in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

Beinart, you’ll recall, argued that young Jews are turning away from Israel because its policies toward the Palestinians conflict with their liberal values. Steven M. Cohen replied in a ForeignPolicy.com symposium on the topic that the evident distancing of young Jews from Israel was a result of general distancing Judaism and Jewishness, particularly among the intermarried.

Cohen’s argument drew heavily on his own research with Ari Kelman, published in 2007 by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation as “Beyond Distancing.” That was countered in 2008 by another research paper, “American Jewish Attachment to Israel,” by Theodore Sasson, Charles Kadushin and Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Center, which attempted to show that the purported distancing of younger Jews from Israel isn’t so clear-cut.

So, three positions: Beinart says young Jews are growing away from Israel because they’re offended by its policies (and, he adds, the too-defensive Jewish Establishment declines to offer alternative models of attachment to Israel that allow for political and moral criticism). Cohen says the distancing results from deeper cultural processes related to the declining attachment of Jews to Judaism. Saxe and company argue that the distancing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the first place. If you want to look at the debate more deeply, Cohen compiled links to a lot of the main back-and-forth in a single web page.

The next major aftershock was Daniel Gordis’s June 2011 article in Commentary, “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” in which he upped the ante: It’s not just that more marginal Jews are growing away from Israel, whether for cultural or political reasons. Young rabbis—the people who are supposed to be holding the line on community loyalty—are turning away from or even against Israel and finding alternative forms of Jewish attachment that don’t include Israel. That’s sparked a whole new round of back-and-forth, which Gordis has duly collected for your reading pleasure on this blog post.

And now Chemi Shalev has live reports from the field. Like Gordis, his sources are reporting the distancing not just from the marginally attached but from the heart of the establishment—serious Jewish philanthropic donors who want to give to Jewish causes, but don’t see the point in Israel. Is it political, a la Beinart, or sociological, a la Cohen? Too early to tell.


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