Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz is a sociologist specializing in Jewish education and a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education. He is the CEO of Research Success Technologies, which conducts research for Jewish organizations around the world. Here he discusses the recent study on Israel advocacy among young Jews, "Next Generation Advocacy", which he co-authored.
In a nutshell, what is the study about? And why did you conduct it?
Israel advocacy is an activity in which many American Jewish teens and young adults engage. Until this study, we knew little about the motivations of these young Jews to participate in Israel advocacy and the factors that lead them to remain active over time. The research provides data, which will enable informed policy discussion and decision making by the Israel advocacy organizations, supportive Jewish educational organizations and philanthropists.
The study gathered the views of almost 4,000 young Israel advocates in an effort to gain a better understanding of what compels teens and young adults to become involved in Israel advocacy, to become leaders in this area and to maintain their involvement during high school, college and beyond. The research explored: 1) the factors that lead teens and young adults to engage in Israel advocacy, 2) the role that organizations play in their involvement, and 3) the influence of mentors in supporting advocates’ commitment over time.
So why do young people become involved in Israel advocacy?
Young Jews become involved with Israel advocacy as an expression of their Jewish identity, which plays out in one or two ways.
Three quarters of the Israel advocates grew up highly affiliated with the Jewish community, receiving a relatively intensive Jewish education and traveling to Israel with their families, schools, camps and youth movements. For these young Jews, Israel advocacy is a means to continue the connection to Israel they developed in childhood.
- In contrast, about a quarter come to Israel advocacy through Birthright. They grew up with relatively little Jewish education and Israel travel. Birthright sparked their interest and Israel advocacy provides a platform to intensify their Jewish journey and connection to Israel.
Israel advocacy is not the domain of ideologically zealous, religious and right wing Jews. For almost all Israel advocates, strong or zealous ideology is not the primary motivation for advocacy. The teens and young adults who answered our survey and whom we interviewed are into Israel advocacy because it is important to them to support Israel and is personally meaningful for them as Jews. They are not coming to Israel advocacy out of the desire to mould Israeli society or American Jewry in a particular direction. Most are in the political center and very few are on the far left or right. For example, 87% believe there should be room for multiple perspectives about Israel and just 10% express strong ideological views about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, either on the right or left of the political spectrum. The study also found that advocates come from a broad spectrum of religious and American political orientations.
What percentage of young American Jews are we talking about?
The research was not a comprehensive study of the field but rather a representative sampling of participants involved with a number of the leading organizations in the field. Thus the study provides a good understanding of the highly committed Israel advocates, but does not provide a basis to provide numbers vis-à-vis the larger American Jewish population.
Is Israel advocacy even effective? Does anyone listen to Israel advocates anymore?
The political outcomes of Israel advocacy were not the focus of the study. The report does show that Israel advocacy is an important platform for building and strengthening Jewish identity of the Israel advocates.
Your study found that there is a strong apolitical ethos running through those groups engaged in Israel advocacy - how do you explain that, given that there is such a diverse range of American Jewish opinion on Israeli policies?
The report did not report “an apolitical ethos”, but rather reported that the primary motivation for engaging in Israel advocacy is driven by a sense of personal connection to and caring for Israel. The personal dimension is the main motivating force. Most Israel advocates have political opinions, but they are not the primary factor that gets them active. Rather the political opinions will channel the direction they express their Israel advocacy and the types of organizations they associate with.
Given a strong presence of young American Jews in Israel advocacy, do you believe that members of this demographic are distancing from Israel, as has been recently hypothesized? Can Israel advocacy keep them connected?
Much of the current debate, in particular Peter Beinhart’s arguments, needs reframing. The situation is not one of “disconnection” vs. “connection,” “distance” vs. “closeness,” or “those that are distant and critical” and “those who are close and uncritical.” That discourse divides the world up into two camps, which does not enable us to grapple with shades of gray, where most American Jews are located. The Israel advocates themselves represent a very diverse group. For example, there are among Israel advocates those who are on the left and right and very critical of Israeli government policy, yet all consider themselves Israel advocates.
The correct way to approach the question of distancing is to start with the fact that most American Jews, whatever their ideological or religious orientation, feel some connection to Israel, even if that connection is weak. Research conducted by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University shows that young American Jews today actually feel a stronger connection to Israel than their parents. The question of interest, is what are the factors which move individuals along the spectrum from lesser to greater connection with Israel. The research, including our Israel advocacy research points to the impact of Birthright and the increasing strength of Jewish educational institutions on the current generation. The growth of Israel advocacy as a widespread option for young American Jews to get involved is part of that broader phenomenon.
When we view Israel advocacy as a major platform for young Jews to connect to and strengthen their connection to Israel, then the question becomes what types of practices should the Israel advocacy organizations institute to best connect young Jews to Israel. In this context, a significant finding of the research is that many of the Israel advocates and those who are potential Israel advocates desire greater knowledge about Israel. Our recommendation is to increase opportunities for learning about Israel as a means to recruit Israel advocates and to retain them as activists.
We also learned that despite the Israel advocates’ motivation to support Israel, many leader advocates are falling through the cracks during key life transitions from high school to college and college to community, which requires greater coordination between the Jewish education and Israel advocacy organizations to keep in touch with young Jews at these critical points in their lives.