For decades, the organized Jewish community has attempted to make Israel the linchpin of American Jews’ Jewish identity, while downplaying the emotional, but sure to fade, role of the Holocaust.
That community received a jolt this week: American Jews 18 to 39 still consider the Holocaust more crucial to their Jewish identity than Israel.
According to a study, prepared by Ukeles Associates and released Wednesday by the American Jewish Committee, nearly three-quarters of Jews in the relevant age group said remembrance of the Shoah and contemporary anti-Semitism play a major role in their Jewish identity, while barely 50 percent (outside of Orthodox respondents) called themselves "very emotionally attached" to Israel.
"There is an element of surprise" in these findings, said David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director. Sixty years after the end of World War II, "the Holocaust continues to play a central role in American Jewish consciousness." He cites new books, movies and other cultural offerings with Holocaust themes. "Young American Jews are consumers of American culture."
At the same time, many young American Jews were raised in homes that stressed the primacy of American identity, Harris said. They did not inherit the spiritual closeness to a Jewish homeland that previous generations felt.
Such programs as birthright israel, which offers a free Israeli trip to college-age Jews, have increased the country’s importance to young American Jews, he said. "We’re not wasting our money" on these efforts.
Harris also singled out another finding of the study, which shows a growing Orthodox affiliation among young American Jews, as significant. He added that in the future major Jewish organizations will need to pay greater attention to Orthodox views on social issues.