Pianko on Sasson, 'The New American Zionism'

Theodore Sasson. The New American Zionism. New York: New York University Press, 2015. x + 218 pp. $39.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-6086-4; $24.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4798-0611-9.

Reviewed by Noam Pianko (University of Washington)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus

American Jews Remain Connected to Israel

Over the last several years, scholarly observers of the American Jewish community have noted a significant “distancing” between American Jews and the State of Israel. An increasing number of American Jews, this narrative argues, do not share the passionate commitment and connection with Israel that characterized the relationship of their parents with the Jewish state. These findings have raised alarm bells within the American Jewish establishment and sparked various studies, programs, and initiatives to understand and reverse this trend. 

Theodore Sasson’s book, The New American Zionism, offers an important challenge to the widely accepted belief that the relationship between American Jews and Israel has entered a time of crisis. Indeed, Sasson makes precisely the opposite claim. American Jews remain passionately connected to Israel. However, the modes of engaging with Israel have changed dramatically over the past two decades.

Sasson argues that during the period from 1967 until the Oslo Accords of 1993, American Jews related to Israel through a paradigm of “mobilization.” This model came to dominate American Zionism by establishing Zionist centralized organizations dedicated to seeking consensus around support for a highly idealized portrayal of the State of Israel. Following the Oslo Accords, a new paradigm of “direct engagement” emerged. According to Sasson, three core characteristics of Israel engagement characterize this new model: “personalization,” “organizational diversification,” and “polarization” (p. 5). In contrast to previous generations, American Jews today engage with Israel through highly individual experiences often unmediated by centralized communal or state institutions. They tend to support single purpose organizations designed to meet the needs of highly specific initiatives in Israel. As a result, a diversified landscape now exists and pits partisan forces against one another in presenting competing definitions of how to support Israel. These changes in the relationship generate equal, and perhaps even higher, levels of engagement with Israel than have historically existed, Sasson argues. 

Sasson maps out the impact of the direct engagement paradigm on American Zionism by exploring the changing relationship toward Israel in several key areas—advocacy and activism, fundraising and philanthropy, tourism and immigration, and attitudes and attachment. Dedicating a chapter to each theme, Sasson presents a thorough picture of the evolving landscape of American Zionism. His analysis cuts through the increasingly polemical debates within the ecosystem of American Jewish support for Israel to provide a dispassionate picture of the field over the last two decades. By doing so, Sasson illuminates the growing number of advocacy organizations, the changing nature of Jewish philanthropy, the tremendous impact of tourism programs such as Birthright Israel, and shifting perceptions of Israel among individuals grappling with the challenging realities of the country rather than a simplistic idealized country. This study offers great benefit for scholars, lay audiences, and students seeking a clear overview of contemporary American Jewish life and politics vis-à-vis Israel.

Sasson’s corrective to recent scholarship on distancing from Israel helps to explain the enduring centrality that Israel holds in American Jewish life across generational cohorts. Yet one question that emerges from his exploration of a shift from mobilization to direct engagement is how broadly his data can be applied toward challenging the distancing hypothesis. The evidence presented in the study certainly demonstrates that there is a diversifying and growing network of institutional and philanthropic organizations and programs dedicated to supporting Israel. Less clear from the perspectives analyzed in the book is whether the new diversity and growing size of these organizations reflect a broad engagement with Israel or the increased investment of a shrinking group of more vocal supporters.

Aware of this potential challenge, Sasson buttresses his argument that the phenomenon he traces has had an impact on a broad range of American Jewish attitudes by turning to individual attitudinal claims in the penultimate chapter. Sasson integrates the opinions of a Boston-based focus group to offer compelling evidence that American Jews marry a deep, emotional connection to Israel to complex attitudes about the country. But can this small sample support broader claims about American Jewish attitudes toward Israel? How dramatically do attitudes change as American Jews shift away from traditional Jewish centers like Boston? Perhaps Sasson’s conclusions would have been different if he had included data from other Jewish communities that now make up an increasingly large percentage of American Jewish life.

Another important question raised by Sasson’s research: Does the shift away from the institutional actors historically responsible for shaping the relationship between American Jews and Israel reflect the complete decline of centralization and consensus that characterized the mobilization model? Or does the shift toward far more diverse, fragmented, and pluralistic channels for engaging with Israel represent a less dramatic change? Advocacy groups, charitable organizations, and tourist options notwithstanding, many of the traditional channels continue to dominate the majority of the American Jewish landscape. For example, the State of Israel’s role in tourism has been replaced by a small group of mega-philanthropists who work closely with the state to shape the American Jewish relationship with Israel through programs like Birthright. Even in a moment of direct engagement, there remains a significant level of coordinated, and ideologically linked, organizations responsible for shaping the bulk of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.

Thanks to this study, the distancing hypothesis now has an alternate interpretation of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Whether the direct engagement model will engender a sustainable and more robust relationship between American Jews and Israel is a question that will remain at the center of American Jewish life as new challenges to the Israel-Diaspora relationship continue to emerge. 

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=42100

Citation: Noam Pianko. Review of Sasson, Theodore, The New American Zionism. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. February, 2015.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42100

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