Beyond Distancing: Lessons About Our Success at Teaching Israel

In honor of Israel’s 60th birthday (and the upcoming publication of Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter) we’re going to be taking some space in the TAPBB to talk about some real Israel issues. This is the fifth in a series of essays about how Israel fits into the school curriculum.

by Joel Lurie Grishaver
(cross posted to The Gris Mill)

Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel is a new study by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman (you can find it by clicking here). The study looks at the connection 21-35 year olds have to Israel.

I read the study a few weeks ago, and have since spoken to both authors. I’m now convinced more than ever that their findings have important implications for Jewish education. We need to rethink the way we teach about Israel.

According to the study, connection to Israel is much lower than we would like, ambivalence towards Israel is high, and anger towards Israel not very high. The survey shows that most young Jews just don’t care. Israel is not a category of their concern. In other words, the kind of teaching we have been doing about Israel for twenty or more years hasn’t worked. The study finds that two things make a difference and lead towards higher connections (and in my conversation with Dr. Cohen I learned about a third).

First, Cohen and Kelman come to a simple conclusion about Israel education, one that the Birthright funders figured out a while ago, but that doesn’t always trickle into supplementary school classrooms. Trips matter. More trips are better than fewer, and trips of longer duration have more impact than those with shorter duration. The study shows that 19 percent of young Jews who have never been to Israel exhibit a “high” level of attachment, the number jumps to 34 percent after a first trip and 52 percent after two or more visits. On the other hand, 42 percent of young Jews who have never been to Israel report a “low” level of attachment. That number drops to 17 percent after just one trip.

So what does all this mean for teaching Israel? It is actually simple. Though we may encourage visits to Israel, our classroom teaching has tended to be for Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) where it actually needs to be Bikkur Yisrael (visiting Israel). While we have used a “tour” of Israel as a standard teaching format, we haven’t pushed the edge and say, “go.”

We need to be saying, “GO!”

One of the lessons of this study is that members of the current generation of young adults — in a marked departure from their Boomer parents — have an immense ability to not feel. There is a numbness that comes with the over-stimulation of new technology. They have a great ability to resist influence, or at least a lot of classic formulae of influence, so that an overstated “GO!” will not be heard. What needs to be built is a consistent connection to Israel and an on-going fantasy of going to Israel.

In other words, saying “You should go visit Israel,” isn’t enough, even if we say it emphatically, frequently, and persistently. What we really need to be doing is helping our students understand that visiting Israel is as important as b’nai mitzvah or eating latkes. And we need to start sending this message early, before the empathy kicks in.

Simply put, we need to start preparing our fifth graders for Birthright.

The level of connection to Israel does not mean that young American Jews are less “Jewish.” A whole bunch of recent studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate great cultural and religious creativity and vitality among young Jews. Israel is just not as much a part of that picture. The second factor that seems to make a difference seems to be that in-married Jews seem to reflect a stronger connection to Israel than out-married Jews.

The not-in-the-report side note I got from Dr. Cohen is that Canadians also seem to have a greater connection to Israel (and I don’t believe that is dependent on a greater proximity to moose). The key factor that has both to do with Jewish creativity and growth, and with a lessening of Israel identification is the downward spiral of ethnicity and the spike in the creation of original and alternative Jewish settings. It is the collapse of ethnicity and the rise in perception of Judaism as a religion.

There seems to be a relationship between Jewish ethnicity and automatic identification with Israel — and the basic truth is that we are in a post-ethnic era. Counting Jewish nobel prize winners just doesn’t count anymore. Ethnicity is really hard for a school to teach, especially today. So our solution is doing what we can to get our students to Israel. That specifically, is the focus of Artzeinu, our new Israel text.

The other important part of the lesson is that politics don’t seem to affect this new generational ambivalence. It is not that the extreme left is convincing large numbers of Jews to be anti-Israel. It is not that their ethics has favored a better solution for Palestinians. It is simply that Israel is not a category that has made impact on far too many of the students we turn out. When I talked to Ari Kelman, his final words were “Get kids to Israel.” When I talked to Steven M. Cohen, his final words were, “Teach them that it is possible to love Israel and disagree with some of their actions.” Our job is not to ignore the political situation, but to transcend it. We need to move past love and to desire. We need to do everything possible to make travel to Israel an expectation for far more of our students and their families.