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The American Jewish community is rightly concerned about Israel’s standing among college students, especially among college students who identify as Jews. Community leaders reason that the attitudes towards Israel that develop among college students today will shape the way America and the American Jewish community relate to Israel tomorrow.
Contradictory or confusing messages regarding how American students view Israel compete for the attention of community leaders.
Peter Beinart uses anecdotes and interviews to claim that many Jewish students are alienated by Israel’s policies and societal values and at risk to being lost to the Jewish community.
Others, like Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Adams, authors of a recent Workmen’s Circle survey, rely on polling data and survey responses to claim that attachment to Israel is stronger among current Jewish students and recent graduates than among their older compatriots, even as support for particular policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be falling.
Mitchell Bard of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) uses a 2011 study by Public Opinion Strategies to claim that 66% of current Jewish college students feel close to Israel, nearly equaling the 68% of all American Jews who report feeling that way.
The challenge confronting those who determine how Jewish community funds are expended and create strategies for facilitating the Israel conversation on campus is to make sense of these apparently conflicting claims and direct the Jewish community’s response accordingly.
A closer look at these claims may help clear the confusion. Cohen and Adam’s findings — that current students and recent graduates feel attached to Israel while objecting to Israel’s policies — support a less dramatic reading of Beinart’s interviews and anecdotes. They also confirm the findings of a 2011 study by Fern Oppenheim of Applied Marketing Innovations that while 85% of the younger generation either supports Israel (20%) or are open to support of Israel (65%), the underlying image of Israel is that it represents a society that does not reflect the values of this generation of Americans.
This interpretation of the studies’ findings resonates for many of us who work with college students as educators for the Jewish community. It is also a cause for concern: The attachment to Israel that is dominant among Jewish college students is not deep and does not necessarily represent a personal identification with the Jewish state.
Personal identification that comes from the core of one’s being would be more resilient than the “attachment” reported in the studies cited above. It will develop when Israel is perceived as reflecting students’ deeply held values, is connected with their personal Jewish identity, or is a natural extension of their affiliation with a global Jewish people. Lacking such personal identification with Israel, students’ current “attachment” is subject to the corrosive power of anti-Israel rhetoric and of the publicity given to Israeli policies that are deemed objectionable by many of their generation.
Two strategies are available to create a more permanent personal identification with Israel and Israeli society. Oppenheim articulates one of these. “The best way to connect Americans to Israel,” she writes, “is by introducing the human face of the Israeli people – their fairness and decency, indomitable spirit, creativity, morality, diversity of opinion, etc. …we need to talk more about Israelis/Israeli society and less about the State of Israel.”
This understanding has led in Philadelphia to “Israel Encounters,” a strategy of Mifgash in which American college students share experiences with Israelis of different walks of life and have the opportunity to put a personal face on Israeli society. It also shaped Hillel’s programmatic response to the BDS Conference organized at the University of Pennsylvania last winter.
The second strategy is to use students’ Israel experiences to tell the “Jewish” story as well as the “Israel” story and to showcase Israel in the context of Jewish peoplehood. With minor adjustments, Birthright Israel becomes a journey of Jewish exploration as well as an exploration of Israel; Israel cultural programs on campus allow students to experience the excitement of belonging to a global Jewish community as well as the richness of Israeli life. By connecting Jewish students’ experience of Israel with a deepening of their personal Jewish experience and with their sense of being part of a historical and global Jewish people, a deeper, more permanent identification with Israel as the Jewish homeland may be established.