Taglit Birthright via Facebook.
This past November, the student newspaper at McGill University in Montreal responded to accusations that it had been providing a platform for anti-Semitism. While denying the specific charge, the editors emphatically reasserted their core position—namely, that the student paper “maintains an editorial line of not publishing pieces which promote a Zionist worldview, or any other ideology which we consider oppressive.”
This blunt statement is a reminder that hatred of the Jewish state is rapidly becoming the default position on many college campuses. Meanwhile, Israel’s friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are left to ask what, if anything, can be done to stem the rising tide of anti-Israel venom.
In more than five years of involvement in advocacy for Israel, both as a college student and in a professional capacity, I’ve spoken at hundreds of events, worked with dozens of organizations, designed campus programs and social-media campaigns, and advised members of Congress, donors, and even Israeli government officials on how best to advance the cause of the Jewish state. As a member of the “millennial” generation, I have also been privy to the frustrations and complaints of my activist, pro-Israel peers whose own enchantment with the Jewish state is a driving force in their lives and who believe that too much institutional support is going to forms of advocacy that have outlived their usefulness.
Partially in response to these frustrations, I conducted a year-long study of how pro-Israel groups engage millennials. What works? What doesn’t? How to improve? In addressing those questions, I compared the available survey data about the attitudes of young Americans toward the Jewish state with what pro-Israel groups are currently doing to reach them, and conducted hundreds of interviews with students, professors, essayists, and professional activists.
The conclusion I eventually arrived at, presented below in severely boiled-down form, is that some kinds of Israel advocacy are at best of limited effectiveness and at worst can do more harm than good. Yet I also found some approaches that promise significantly greater success.
Let’s start by looking quickly at current attitudes among all Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty. According to several polls taken in the past few decades, most members of this age cohort, while nominally pro-Israel, are largely indifferent to the Jewish state or have no interest at all in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If asked whether they are more sympathetic to Israel or to the Palestinians, a great many will answer “Israel”—according to a Gallup poll conducted last February. Americans in this age range favor Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of 54 to 18 percent—but, when, pressed they make clear their lack of much knowledge about, or devotion to, either side. Evidence suggests, moreover, that this neutral group is the fastest-growing sector of the youth population. Indeed, a survey of California university campuses found that 75 to 95 percent of students fall in this “soft middle.”
These ranks of the unaffiliated and ambivalent are unlikely to be engaged by traditional methods of advocacy; they won’t come to hear a pro-Israel speaker or read a pamphlet about how the peace process is being held back by Palestinian, not Israeli, leaders, or about Hamas’s hate-filled intentions and ideology. Indeed, there’s reason to believe that, among those not already interested in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, discussion of it tends less to inspire curiosity than to induce apathy. To these onlookers, the situation appears too messy and too complicated to lend itself to any obvious solution; the good guys and bad guys aren’t easily identifiable; and meanwhile the rhetoric of partisans on both sides seems angry, obsessive, and overheated.
Not even the most carefully crafted and well-articulated pro-Israel arguments can dispel these impressions. Indeed, among young Jews in particular, the sociologist Theodore Sasson has observed that, when it comes to Israel, they tend to be positively turned off by the compulsive fixation on “the conflict” displayed by most American Jewish institutions.
And yet herein, precisely, lies the challenge: how to encourage support for Israel among those who may tell pollsters they are already pro-Israel but are generally apathetic, and among those who are entirely without an opinion. How to reach them? What, in particular,have Israel-advocacy groups been doing in this regard? Is any of it effective?
For purposes of this brief essay, I’ve divided these pro-Israel groups into two types—builders and defenders—and I’ll cite two or three exemplars of each type.
Birthright, founded in 1999 to “strengthen Jewish identity” and create “solidarity with Israel,” primarily by sending Jews aged eighteen to twenty-six on three-week trips to the Jewish state, is a paradigmatic builder. Its purpose is to foster a sense of affection for Israel, both as an end in itself and, even more, as a means of forging a stronger commitment to Judaism and the Jewish community.
Another builder, of more recent vintage, is the Hasbara Fellowship, which differs from Birthright in recruiting both Jews and non-Jews. Its recent activities, all conceived by students and young professionals, include bringing Israeli technology fairs to campuses where companies can showcase their work and encourage students to apply for jobs and internships. Beyond merely highlighting Israeli technical and entrepreneurial ingenuity, this approach offers something of palpable value to students.
Other builders could be named, but the general profile is essentially the same.
In contrast to that profile, the activity of defenders is mainly focused on producing explicitly pro-Israel materials, planning pro-Israel events, and fighting against anti-Israel propaganda and BDS resolutions. Thus, without naming names, the mission statement of one quintessential defender cites its resolve “to fight against the delegitimization campaign and inspire others to join us.” Another characterizes one of its principal aims as providing “assistance to students to . . . address propagandistic assaults on Israel.” The materials of a third are likewise designed to respond to calumnies perpetrated by detractors and anti-Israel groups. In short, the agenda of such organizations is defined to a significant extent by their enemies, and they appeal mainly to the small number of students who are already invested in the fight.
This is hardly to deny the value of defenders. Disinformation and boycott campaigns must be countered. Even if few people will actually be persuaded to change their minds about Israel, defenders play an important role in providing encouragement and backbone for pro-Israel activists facing a sea of animosity. Moreover, there is added value in preaching to the choir: the defenders’ activities reinforce a base of pro-Israel students whose example can stir more timid souls and, when a specific battle is won, provide enlivening confirmation of aggression countered and beaten back. Indeed, the success of the builders depends in a certain measure on the success of the defenders.
Still, given the lay of the land I described above, I conclude that builders can accomplish more. On the whole, their programming is shaped not by the libels of enemies but by the perspectives and interests of their target audience, and their primary mandate is to generate affinity and enthusiasm for the Jewish state. Undermining anti-Israel campaigns is a byproduct of this activity, if certainly a welcome one. Indeed, in reframing the conversation—not about why Israel isn’t guilty but about why Israel is great — builders can even, to some degree, recapture the initiative from the likes of Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street. They do so by approaching the issues of terrorism, the Palestinians, and European anti-Semitism from a different and healthier perspective—a perspective no longer defined by the perverse image of the Jewish state as a brutal colonial occupier or an altogether illegitimate entity.
That, at least, is the ideal. But how, exactly, are builders to go about reaching it? How can college students and recent graduates who are indifferent to Israel be made to care about it—especially if they are unlikely even to participate in a program like Birthright? Reorienting Israel advocacy requires a change in thinking. To reach millennials, it is not enough to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, or a beacon of freedom in a sea of oppression. These descriptions, too, ultimately focus on what Israel is not—that is, a repressive dictatorship like its neighbors. To reach millennials, Israel advocacy has to focus on what Israel is, on its human face: the face of a small country whose people dream big, and who can inspire others—that is, millennials themselves—to dream big.
This, in turn, requires rhetoric that reflects the cultural and humanitarian values to which Israel gives expression. And that rhetoric needs to be couched in millennials’ own language and conveyed largely through electronic communication, specifically social media. Successful outreach thus requires a familiarity with the latest interests, perspectives, fashions, and trends of popular culture, and (without being superficial or shallow) must reflect the everyday, non-political experiences and interactions of twenty-year-olds in both Israel and America.
By looking beyond the Israel-Palestinian conflict—to the way that Israel’s youthful society is shaped by its food, music, arts, literature, traditions, film, and other cultural expressions—both Jews and non-Jews might begin to see in Israel’s extraordinary successes lessons that can be applied elsewhere, whether to California’s water problems or to the plight of the Kurds. This has added value: by highlighting what Israel has to give and does freely give the world, it enables outreach to other campus groups, especially minority groups, thus forming important connections that can help inoculate against BDS, a movement that has itself conspicuously furthered its agenda through partnerships with unrelated organizations.
But beyond this, for Jews and non-Jews alike, Israel’s history contains within it compelling human messages: the sum and substance of peoplehood, the “dignity of difference”—to use Jonathan Sacks’s felicitous phrase—that is reflected in Jewish national aspirations, the challenging exercise of self-rule and its accompanying excitements, the vibrant renaissance of collective and personal purpose.
Indeed, by creating an association between Israeli society and the limitless possibilities of human fulfillment, pro-Israel advocates can even help provide an answer to the inner cravings of this generation. My generation is one that, in however self-absorbed a fashion, is desperate for meaning and purpose—for, in a word, enchantment. And as I and many others can testify, few human collectives are as packed with meaning and purpose, or are as outright enchanting, as is the Jewish collective in its national home in the land of Israel.