Support for Israel among Jewish college students is declining dramatically, according to a study commissioned and published last year by the Brand Israel Group. While in 2010, 84 percent of American Jewish college students favored the Israeli position in its conflict with the Palestinians, that percentage plummeted to just 57 in 2016.
The drop in young Jews’ support for Israel escalated during the Obama years, a period of often strained U.S./Israel relations. Those years also saw a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel initiatives on campus that were supported by groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, both proponents of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.
Jewish students who have had little or no education regarding Israel’s history and the politics of the Middle East are finding it difficult to respond to even outrageous claims made by those who oppose Israel, often not able to discern facts from distorted narratives or outright lies.
“When you don’t know your own story, then you let someone else decide how the conversation begins,” noted Ken Stein, professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History, Political Science and Israeli Studies at Emory University. “And when someone else decides how the conversation begins, then you are immediately put on the defensive. I would argue that knowing the story before you go to college, even knowing a small part of it, gives you an ability to play into the thinking game without necessarily always being put on the defensive.”
Addressing the problem of Jewish college students not having the knowledge and confidence to talk about Israel, several Jewish communities across the United States have created initiatives to educate high school students on the complexities of the Jewish state.
Pittsburgh launched its first iteration of such a program earlier this month, a project of the Jewish Life and Learning department of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Called the Israel Engagement Fellowship, the five-session course taught on Tuesday nights by Rabbi Danielle Leshaw at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill, has nine students enrolled — high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
Leshaw, a Reconstructionist rabbi and a senior educator for Hillel International, also serves on the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet for J Street.
While Leshaw stopped short of claiming that the goal of the Fellowship is to create Israel advocates, she is hoping to provide the students with a framework to think about Israel and decide for themselves if and how they want to engage with the topic of Israel once they get to campus.
“My ultimate goal is to provide them with really important information so they can move forward and make strong decisions about how they want to be present on campus and what voice they want to use,” Leshaw said. “And I think that the more information they have in high school, the better they are going to be able to be active participants in their Jewish campus living. If the first time they hear the words ‘boycott divest and sanction’ is when they are freshmen in college, we haven’t prepared them well enough.”
Leshaw intends to teach the teens “about all of the different anti-Israel activities going on and how different Hillels and other Jewish campus organizations have responded, and to begin to ask them the question, ‘How do you imagine responding? What happens if your student government tries to pass BDS resolutions?’”
“We talked about the intersections of different identities and how Linda Sarsour in particular is claiming that people can’t be pro-Israel and feminist,” Leshaw said. “So, we began to unpack the different ways that activity emerges on campus, with faculty or guest speakers or students, trying to tell Jewish students what they can and can’t be. This is the beginning for some of them of recognition or awareness that people might try to tell you that you can’t have multiple ideals or multiple truths at one time.”
The topics that Leshaw plans to cover in the five 90-minute sessions include contemporary history of Israel (pre-World War I through the present day), BDS, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and case studies of recent BDS campaigns on different campuses. She is also presenting guest speakers from national organizations, including StandWithUs and the David Project, via Skype.
That Pittsburgh needed a course to prepare Jewish high school students for campus anti-Israel activity was recognized several years ago by community leaders, and a committee had been formed under the auspices of the now defunct Agency for Jewish Learning to prepare a curriculum for the course. Local attorney Charles Saul was part of that committee.
“One can be very educated with respect to Israel’s issues and still not know how to answer some of the bizarre accusations made by those who are anti-Israel and pro-BDS,” Saul said. “The teens need to know what claims will be made and how to respond to those claims.”
Sometimes those affiliated with pro-BDS groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace “can be very passionate, very articulate and very persuasive,” he continued. “They’ve been brainwashed with false information, so when they speak, they believe that stuff. Jewish students can be sucked into that, and you end up with Jewish kids in these groups.”
While Saul is not involved in the current iteration of the Israel Engagement Fellowship, he is “very glad they are doing it.”
“The Jewish community has been remiss in not better educating our students on Israel,” he said.
While the program is open to all teens in grades 10 to 12, they had to formally apply to participate, said Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Federation. While no student was turned away, the goal was to have a small, intimate group, she said.
Like Leshaw, Bardack also stopped short of saying the Fellowship is intended to create Israel advocates.
“It’s not really about what is your position,” said Bardack, who formerly served on the Rabbinic and Cantorial Advisory Board of J Street. “We’re calling it an Israel Engagement Fellowship because we want these kids to have an understanding, to care about Israel, but we’re not defining what that looks like in terms of their ideology. But we do want them to have an understanding of what anti-Israel activity might look like.”
Leshaw was selected to teach the course because of her deep familiarity with anti-Israel activity on college campuses, according to Bardack.
“It was important that we have somebody who really knows what’s going on today on campuses that could speak authentically and is in conversation about what’s happening with BDS and is in conversation with what college students are currently experiencing,” Bardack explained. “Danielle is one of the professional staff of Hillel International, she works with several college campuses across the country, she’s in all these conference calls about these issues, so she’s really on the ground, and that makes her uniquely qualified.”
Leshaw is approaching the class with the assumption that her students have a foundation of knowledge about the history of Israel.
“I’m treating this not as a beginners’ class,” she said. “This is not intro to Zionism. This isn’t Zionism 101. I went into the class confident that the Jewish community of Pittsburgh has taught our students well, and I’m getting them at a pretty high, sophisticated level already.”
While Leshaw is “not in favor of BDS at all and [hopes] that our students aren’t,” she knows the students ultimately will make their own decisions on the matter.
“As a campus professional, I know that students make their own decisions,” she said. “And as a parent, I can coach and I can teach and I can train, but in the end, everyone is in charge of their own decisions. And I think that’s what we know as adults with our children. I would be very pleased if our Jewish students were not in favor of BDS, but I can’t make that determination for them.”
The Fellowship was modeled, in part, on the Israel Engagement Fellowship in Washington, D.C. That program, which serves several cohorts a year and has already engaged about 200 pre-college teens, runs for eight weeks and has a specific curriculum that includes the history and diversity of Zionism, an introduction to the modern state of Israel through maps reaching back to the 1890s and the Palestinian narrative as told by a Palestinian.
“The program began at the request of a donor,” explained Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, manager of teen engagement and philanthropy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Despite the donor’s children having attended a Jewish day school, and being raised within an “Israel-engaged family,” when they got to college, “they still didn’t know how to respond to criticism and attacks on Israel. Our donor wanted to invest in a program to mitigate this issue.”
The course is co-taught by Vinokor-Meinrath, colleagues from the Israel Action Center of Washington’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Israeli shlichim and a variety of outside speakers and experts.
The success has been anecdotal but noteworthy, said Vinokor-Meinrath, and includes graduates of the program contributing to a wider campus conversation on Israel, as well as just being able to explain aspects of the conflict to a roommate with misinformation.
Maddie Herrup, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice and a graduate of Community Day School, is enrolled in the new Fellowship in Pittsburgh. She is eager to be learning about Israel from a nuanced perspective.
“I want to hear different narratives,” she said. “I support Israel and I would advocate for Israel. But the situation is very complicated. People say they outright support one side or the other side, but I feel it is more complicated than that.
“I think [this course] will help me to stand up for Israel,” she continued. “In this class, we’re going to try to explore both sides. There are strong opinions on both sides. It’s great to talk about Israel from multiple perspectives.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at