Flat new world
Reconsidering the ‘distance’ between Israel and the Diaspora
No longer as securely on the sidelines of the Middle East conflict, Diaspora Jews' attitudes are shifting about identity, safety and their relationship with Israel.
“My heart is in the East, and I am on the edge of the West.” Judah Halevi’s famous words from 900 years ago have been referenced frequently this month as Jews around the world try to absorb the significance of Hamas’ terrible pogrom in southern Israel.
As resonant as Halevi’s words are, these sentiments don’t fully capture what we personally observed over the last few weeks. Rosov Consulting, our research and evaluation firm with offices in Berkeley, Calif., and Jerusalem, just completed a survey of a sample of 20- to 30-year-old Jews around the world. While Halevi gave voice to the challenge of distance and the emotional attempt to bridge it, our lived experience and our data testify to the deep intertwining of Jewish life wherever Jews find themselves in the world today. East and West are no longer so far apart.
To provide some context: Over the last 15 years, our team at Rosov Consulting has evaluated the impact of programs in Israel and on campuses around the world designed to engage, inform and inspire young Jews. At the time of their participation in the programs, we surveyed these young Jews about their relationships to Israel; their Jewish practices and behaviors; and, occasionally, about their sense of personal security.
At the behest of Israel’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism, we reached back out to many of these young people over the course of last week. We and the ministry wanted to explore the extent to which their relationships to Israel had shifted since Oct. 7, and how, if at all, recent events in Israel and in their own countries impacted their readiness to publicly identify as Jews.
This is what researchers call an opportunity sample. We could easily reach these people, we already had information about their demographic profiles and we had data about their previously expressed attitudes and behaviors. Of the 2,734 individuals invited to take this survey, 337 responded, a 12% response rate. The extent to which they can be said to represent their program peers who opted not to take this survey, or other young adults who have not participated in such programs, is not known. However, the sample is diverse in several important ways. Geographically, a little over half of the respondents live in North America; the remainder live elsewhere including Western and Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine and Australia. Religiously, a quarter of the sample is Orthodox, just under a half identify with a liberal (non-Orthodox) movement, and the balance are secular or something else. Their responses are revealing.
Before the present conflict, these young people — most of whom are graduates of Israel-experience programs — felt a close relationship to Israel. Today, that relationship is closer still. For example, previously, 67% agreed or strongly agreed that they “feel a sense of responsibility to Israel and Israelis”; today, 84% do so. Previously, 76% agreed or strongly agreed that “caring about Israel is a very important part of who I am as a Jew”; today, 86% do so. Previously, 77% of respondents said they feel a strong sense of connection to Israel; today, 88% feel that way. Similarly, 61% report feeling more strongly connected to Israel since the start of the war while just 7% feel less strongly connected. The remainder have not experienced a change.
So far, so Judah Halevi. In light of recent events, these young people are more emotionally connected to what is happening in Israel no matter where they are located. Their hearts have been drawn to the East.
But the survey data show that something else has changed, too. The responses indicate a large decrease in the willingness of respondents to publicly display their Jewishness. Previously, 65% indicated that they were comfortable wearing Jewish imagery such as a Star of David necklace or clothing with Hebrew writing. Now, just 27% of the same respondents are comfortable with doing this. For the total sample, 84% report being more concerned now about antisemitism than two weeks ago. None are less concerned. In another question, 52% express concern about experiencing antisemitism where they currently live. Those concerns are higher in Australia and Western Europe than in North America, although they’re still shared by 46% of respondents there.
While geographically Israel is far away, the ripple effects of events in Israel have reached the colleges, workplaces and neighborhoods of our respondents. A generation that was barely troubled by antisemitism must now come to terms with what that phenomenon means for how they conduct their lives and who they might view as allies. In the West, they are no longer distant observers of events in the East. The Middle East has seeped off their screens and onto their streets.
To shift focus for a moment, as we mentioned, our team is based in Israel and in the United States — the heart of the Middle East and about as far West as you can go. Yet, we’ve been struck by how much our experiences have overlapped during the last few weeks. Most of our U.S.-based staff have family and friends in Israel. One of us in the U.S. has children serving in the IDF. Another lost a close family member during the first day of the war. Israeli members of the U.S. team are worried for their families; they wish they were in Israel, but they’re also relieved that they aren’t in Israel. In turn, our Jerusalem team is made up of olim (emigrants to Israel from the United States, the U.K., and Russia). Their partners and children are currently on the front lines. They’re trying to serve our clients around the world while they, their children and their grandchildren are continually alert to warnings of incoming rockets. Meantime, those clients flood their inboxes with expressions of support. Our worlds seem hardly one degree apart.
What’s happening? Twenty years of social scientific research highlighted the expanding emotional distance of Diaspora Jews from Israel, but perhaps that research overlooked the extent to which Jewish lives in Israel and across the world have become personally and functionally intertwined. We already have data that shows as much but perhaps we didn’t pay enough attention. In 2021, the American Jewish Committee reported that 47% of American Jews have family living in Israel. This year, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that in the U.K. that number is 71%.
This is a “flat world,” although perhaps not in the way New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman optimistically imagined it. The distance between here and there no longer matters much. This is an era when Judah Halevi’s view of the world is less relevant than the view of a more contemporary Jewish philosopher, Joseph Soloveitchik. To paraphrase Rav Soloveitchik from his book On Repentance, Jews who are committed to Knesset Israel (Jewish community) hurt with the pain of other Jews, rejoice in their victories, fight their wars, suffer in their defeats and celebrate their victories. These sentiments encapsulate what we’ve experienced and observed these past few weeks.
These are difficult times, but these sociological facts and our shared psychological trauma point to a tremendous opportunity for those committed to building vital Jewish communities for our times. We are not as distant as we thought a few weeks ago. When the war’s behind us, that will be a useful platform on which to build a future.
Wendy Rosov is the founder and a principal of Rosov Consulting, a multinational, mission-driven company dedicated to informing and improving Jewish education, philanthropy and practice. Alex Pomson is a principal and managing director of Rosov Consulting.