The New American Zionism. By Theodore Sasson. New York: New York University Press, 2014. x + 219 pp.
How disconnected are American Jews from the State of Israel? Many have engaged with alarm the claims by commentators like Peter Beinart, who point to a waning enthusiasm young American Jews feel toward Israel. But is this an accurate picture? In his groundbreaking study The New American Zionism, Theodore Sasson analyzes several key but neglected indicators of American Jewish attitudes to add greater nuance to this question. Not only does he examine the fundamental problem raised by Beinart and others, he challenges the framework by which much scholarship has engaged with this loaded topic. And his well-documented study offers a surprising revision. Rather than a collective disillusionment and disengagement with Israel, Sasson asserts, "the evidence suggests something perhaps surprisingly closer to the opposite: Across multiple fields, including advocacy, philanthropy and tourism, American Jews have stepped up their level of engagement with Israel" (2).
As Sasson details, the emergence of a largely unified but defensive narrative of the ideal attitude of Jews toward Israel is relatively new. The sense that American Jews must check their individual options at the door for the sake of group survival or ethnic unity is an outgrowth of a unique postwar dynamic. As a diaspora community so successful in its integration to America that its greatest threat came from assimilation, the American Jewish community was traumatized by the horrific fate of European Jewry, only to be energized by the seemingly miraculous creation of the State of Israel. Due to this dynamic, support for the new homeland took on the aspect of an absolute positive and became a near litmus test for good standing in the Jewish community.
For much of post-1948 American Jewish history, this unified engagement was the premier barometer of American Jewish opinion and found expression largely through the bastions of Jewish organization such as the Council of Jewish Federations, the American Jewish Committee, the United Jewish Appeal, and the Anti-Defamation League. But the aggregate of data that assesses the financial mobilization of large-scale Jewish communal institutions has outlived its usefulness as an indicator of American Jewish public opinion. In addition to providing an incomplete picture of what motivates American Jews regarding Israel, it serves as cover for any number of...