The bad news from a new study of American perceptions of Israel is that there has been a significant falloff of support for the Jewish state over the last six years. Worse is that much of the next generation — including young people, college students, the political left, and minorities — sees Israeli society as ultra-religious, intolerant, and deficient on human rights. Perhaps worst of all, the steepest decline comes from Jewish college students, who increasingly view Israel as lacking in democratic values.
The report was produced by Brand Israel, a non-profit effort to analyze American perceptions of Israel and identify communications strategies to boost Jerusalem’s image. Among its conclusions is that pro-Israel advocacy is largely ineffective. Neither the groups championing political advocacy, which seek to counter charges from Israel’s critics, nor those who focus “beyond the conflict” on the many ways Israeli innovations improve life, have been able to persuade almost three-quarters of Americans that Israel is a beacon of freedom and democracy.
That’s a deeply disturbing reality, and presents a serious challenge to Israel and its supporters here who in recent years have spent increasing energy and resources on Israel advocacy. The relentless efforts by Israel’s enemies to delegitimize the state have taken their toll.
The legacy of bipartisan support for Israel in America is at risk today. The long-held belief that the two democracies share the same core values is changing, the study says, noting: “Without that connection, the future of the alliance is in jeopardy.”
A relatively small but influential number of university campuses have become a breeding ground for anti-Israel activity, with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) efforts to vilify the Jewish state and isolate Zionist students, branding them as insensitive to human rights causes.
How do we respond?
The Brand Israel Group calls for next steps that “put forth a narrative that defines the morality and decency of Israeli society and creates connections to Israelis.” It calls for less focus on politics, the government, and the army, and more on an Israeli society that demonstrates initiative, resilience, and compassion on a daily basis, like quietly providing first-rate medical treatment to thousands of victims of the Syrian civil war.
Fern Oppenheim, co-founder of Brand Israel, says a unified communications strategy is required that emphasizes the vibrancy, complexity, and ethical values of Israeli life. In essence, she said, one could boil the message down to a phrase: “It’s the morality, stupid.”
ADL national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt noted that “the findings of the survey reinforce the view that we need a big-tent, unified approach based on values like justice and fair treatment. It underlines the importance of working in coalition with many groups and the need for an initiative to present Israel as the peace-seeking democracy it is.”
One recommendation from the study is to bring Israel awareness to young Jews “even before they reach college.” NJJN’s parent company, The New York Jewish Week, has been a pioneer in this field, launching Write On For Israel, a unique educational program in modern Zionism for high school juniors and seniors, in 2002. Last week graduation ceremonies were held at Park Avenue Synagogue for the 43 students who completed the two-year program, which now has more than 500 alumni.
Many will be leaders of the next generation of American Jewry. But much more must be done in reaching their peers, and others, to turn the tide and assure that the United States remains Israel’s most loyal and powerful ally.