Between the Lines: Next-Gen Americans pulling away from Israel
New study finds steep decline in support among Jewish college students and others
In 2014, the daughter of Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, was sent to a Tel Aviv hospital for emergency treatment.
The fact that a sworn enemy of Israel knew his child would receive excellent medical care in an Israeli facility, irrespective of his determination to destroy the Jewish state, speaks to the powerful humanitarian impulse of Israeli society.
Moreover, in the last four years, more than 3,000 Syrian civilians have been treated by hospitals in Israel’s north for casualties resulting from the Syrian civil war. And the director-general of the Israeli hospital treating most of the wounded is himself Arab.
These are two examples that shed light on the values of Israelis and reflect the type of narrative Israel needs to communicate to U.S. audiences if it hopes to reverse a disturbing trend that finds support for Israel sinking here over the last six years. So says Fern Oppenheim, co-founder of Brand Israel Group, a nonprofit research and marketing effort that tracks attitudes toward Israel and identifies the communications strategies that can improve Israel’s image in this country.
“Unless we can flip the devastating message that Israelis don’t have the same tolerance and commitment to human rights that Americans do, we lose,” said Oppenheim in an interview before heading to Israel to share her findings this week at the annual Herzliya Conference, a leading global policy forum.
She acknowledged being a bit apprehensive about telling Israelis they may even be in danger of losing the support of the next generation of American Jews.
That’s because the new Brand Israel study of American attitudes toward Israel finds that since 2010 the divide has widened between the small, solid base of core support for Israel and a segment of the population defined as “at-risk groups” — college-aged Americans, Democrats/political left, and minorities. And the at-risk groups now include two key constituencies: independents, “who represent a critical swing vote, and Jewish college students, who represent the next generation,” the study says.
Perhaps most disturbing, it is the Jewish college students who “exhibit the sharpest decline in most measurements of any demographic group,” with support for Israel down 32 percent since 2010, favorability down 14 percent, and caring about Israel down 13 percent.
In addition, the percentage of Jewish college students “leaning toward the Palestinian side” jumped from 2 percent in 2010 to 13 percent last year.
And while “claimed knowledge of Israel has increased 14 percent nationally,” according to the study, favorable views toward Israel are down by 14 percent.
(Brand Israel sampled 3,000 Americans in 2010 and 2,600 in 2016.)
The implication here is that the more that Americans have learned about Israel, the more critical they are of the Jewish state. And while pro-Israel advocacy groups promote the fact that Israel is the leading democracy in the Mideast, the home of a vibrant free press, and a haven for the LGBTQ community, the research continues to show that most Americans think of Israeli society as conflict-driven, intolerant, and made up primarily of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Why the downward trend, and how can it be turned around?
The study points out that since the last Brand Israel study of 2010, there have been “significant strains” in the Washington-Jerusalem relationship, including the battle over the Iran nuclear deal, the contentious relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlements, and increased activities on campus to delegitimize Israel, in addition to the Iran impasse.
“The changes taking place on the campuses are unprecedented,” Oppenheim observed. She said that in addition to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) protests in the last few years, the Jewish community has seen the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement and a new emphasis among minorities on intersectionality, which asserts that forms of racism, oppression, and discrimination are linked. According to this viewpoint, those who support Israel are perceived as oppressing Palestinians and therefore cannot be aligned with feminism, social justice, or other progressive causes, all previously natural allies of Jewish students on college campuses.
One in four Jewish college students who experienced anti-Israel activity on campus said intersectionality prevented them from participating in other student groups and human rights events, said Ellen Merlo, a marketing professional and colleague of Oppenheim at Brand Israel.
She believes the emphasis should be on creating connections by showing the nature and values of Israeli society rather than initiating “head-on” confrontations with Israel’s critics.
The research shows advocacy does not work, Merlo said. “Those who care about the conflict already have their stakes in the ground, and those who don’t care are turned off by the strident debate.”
Protecting the pro-Israel base
David Brog, who has been working with Jewish students on campus for more than a decade, takes the critique a step further. Brog, executive director of the Maccabees Task Force, a group funded by Las Vegas businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Aldelson to combat BDS on campus, believes it’s a priority to focus on the base of pro-Israel supporters, not just the at-risk groups.
“The new anti-Israel narrative is so pervasive,” Brog said, “that it’s even influencing our pro-Israel students,” who hear that Israel is “the real obstacle to peace” and, as a result, “become hesitant in their activism and eager to change the topic.”
He believes the pro-Israel base should not be taken for granted and needs to be taught “enough about Israel” to “recognize the dishonesty of the prevailing Israel narrative and want to challenge it.”
Brand Israel’s research “confirms what we’ve found through our work,” that much of the “Israel beyond the conflict” advocacy work, highlighting Israel’s technological and other advances to society, “is ineffective,” Brog said.
He agrees that “Israel’s morality is the key issue because others are working so hard to call it into question.”
Focusing on Israel’s high tech or food culture “without addressing Israel’s underlying morality” is “ignoring the elephant that others have dragged into the room.” Otherwise, he said, the reaction of many students might be, “Great, I’m glad you’re making a lot of money and living the good life in the land you stole from — and then ethnically cleansed of — Arabs. But what about your original sin?”
In this context, Brog said, “talking about how Israel invented your cell phone misses the point.”
He agrees with Oppenheim that the key target audience for pro-Israel groups should be the 70-80 percent of students who are neutral on Israel, and adds that the biggest effort should be aimed at student leaders rather than students who are unlikely to get involved on campus or beyond.
Losing bipartisan support
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Brand Israel study for pro-Israel activists is the finding that at-risk groups, made up of individuals who “value human rights, diversity, inclusion, and tolerance,” believe Israel “falls short in these areas.”
Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan backing in the United States based on the belief that the two democracies share the same core values. But that is changing, according to the study. “Without that connection, the future of the alliance is in jeopardy,” it asserts.
White, older Americans, evangelicals, and the political right are still firmly in Israel’s camp. But the at-risk group — African-Americans, Hispanics, college students, and Democrats — is made up of the population segments that show the most growth in the United States.
The largest group of Americans in the study — more than 70 percent — have little interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Oppenheim suggests they should be the target of pro-Israel efforts, with an emphasis on narratives that underscore the human side of Israel rather than its politics.
“They aren’t interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they can relate to other areas of Israeli life,” Oppenheim said.
“Talk about the Israeli people, not the Israeli government or army,” she advised, adding that there is “a huge gap between reality and perception” when it comes to Israel’s many humanitarian efforts, like sharing innovations in the use of water, medicine, science, and technology with nations around the world.
Despite the obstacles ahead, Oppenheim asserted that a unified and disciplined strategy, put into practice by the various elements of the pro-Israel community, can bolster Israel’s standing significantly. But that approach requires a concerted communal effort to reflect the broad reality of Israeli life and values rather than a defensive posture that responds to every criticism of Israeli policy.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), acknowledges that the Brand Israel findings underscore that “our challenges run deep.” He and Ethan Felson, executive director of the JFNA’s Israel Action Network, told NJJN their emphasis is on bringing more Americans, from teens to professors, pastors, and other “influencers,” to Israel to see firsthand the society’s “fairness and decency” as well as its complexity. They noted that the study showed visits to Israel, most notably Birthright Israel, continue to have a positive effect on visitors.
When incoming college students arrive on campus, Felson said, they need to know the plight of young mothers in Sderot who, living near the Gaza border, have only about 10 seconds to bring their children to a bomb shelter when a missile is launched by Hamas. And, he said, they need to know the context of the conflict before they hear from Israel’s critics about the plight of the Palestinians.
Silverman said that today’s young people absorb information in a completely different way than young people did even five or six years ago. “They receive information from a multiplicity” of sources, “so to reach them we need to double down in the next decade and provide them with a myriad of experiences, formal and informal, that will enable us to turn the tide.”
That’s a tall order, and the trends are going the other way. But bolstering support for Israel in the country that is its primary ally is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity.