Former participants in Taglit-Birthright trips were more likely to support Israel’s actions in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, according to a study conducted by researchers at Brandeis University.
The survey, carried out by Michelle Shain, Shahar Hecht and Leonard Saxe of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, questioned 1,800 youths who applied to participate in Birthright between 2011 and 2013.
As opposed to young Americans aged 18 to 29, 21 percent of whom blamed Hamas for the conflict in a recent Pew poll, 60% of participants in Birthright assigned responsibility for the violence to the Islamist group.
Half of those who applied for a spot on a Birthright tour but ultimately did not come on the program also viewed Hamas as responsible for the bloodshed.
“Taglit applicants [are] dramatically more likely than all US young adults to blame Hamas,” the report concluded, adding that all of those surveyed, whether they came to Israel on Birthright or not, “were far less likely to blame Israel for the violence compared to all US 18- to 29-year olds.”
Participants in Birthright trips were also significantly more likely to follow news of the conflict “very closely,” the researchers found, at 41%, as opposed to 33% of applicants who did not participate on the trips.
On a similar note, participants in Birthright groups were “dramatically” more likely to support Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip.
While 31% of the general American public polled by Pew deemed Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire about right, 46% of Birthright participants took such a stance.
Birthright applicants who did not come to Israel on trips exhibited only slightly higher support for Israeli actions than the general public.
While a recent Gallup poll showed only a quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 considered Israeli actions justified, 32% of Birthright participants deemed them “completely justified,” and 47% considered them “mostly justified.”
Among nonparticipating Birthright applicants, 29% replied that Israeli actions were completely justified and 38% answered that they were mostly justified.
Birthright participants “overwhelmingly felt support for Israel during the conflict,” the researchers said, although 28% – a “small but significant group” – stated that they felt either very much or somewhat estranged from the Jewish state.
“It has made me very, very sad, in large part because of the tragic deaths, but also because of the complex feelings that I have developed toward Israel in response.
It has made me question a lot,” one participant in the survey, who described herself as somewhat estranged from Israel, was quoted as saying.
The researchers painted the responses to the poll as a positive sign for those worried over reports of American Jewish youth distancing itself from Israel.
According to the Pew Center’s massive 2013 survey of American Jewry, while American Jewry’s overall “emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the past decade,” such sentiments are “markedly stronger” among those who define their identity in religious terms and those belonging to the older generation.
Lessening Jewish identification among the younger generation, rising intermarriage and widespread skepticism over Israel’s willingness to make peace are typical of the younger generation, according to Pew.
Half of American Jews under the age of 35 would not consider the destruction of the State of Israel a personal tragedy, according to a 2007 study by American Jewish sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman.
“Feelings of attachment may well be changing, as warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation,” they said in their report, Beyond Distancing.
“Inevitably, if sufficiently pronounced and widespread, this prospective sea-change in attitudes toward Israel will have profound effects upon American Jews’ relationships with Israel, with direct bearing upon Israel’s security,” they said.
The issue of assimilation was serious enough to warrant security experts to debate the topic as a strategic threat to Israel during a conference of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies this year. The Israeli government recently approved a plan to invest billions of dollars in tax revenue into programs aimed at “bringing Israel to the Diaspora” and stemming assimilation.
According to the authors of the Brandeis study, however, while “there has been substantial discussion about whether or not Jewish young adults are ‘distancing’ themselves from Israel… the present findings make clear that those who have applied to Taglit are not distanced – rather, they are highly engaged, even those who ultimately did not go on a Taglit trip.”
Birthright participants are more likely to consider themselves liberal, and therefore less likely to place the blame for the conflict exclusively on Hamas, than the general population, the authors said.
This “partisan divide makes the views of Taglit applicants – both participants and nonparticipants – all the more unusual: almost two-thirds considered themselves liberal, compared to less than onethird of all US young adults,” they said.
Jewish People Policy Institute fellow Shmuel Rosner was less sanguine regarding the findings.
Writing in The Jewish Journal, the researcher and author said that the poll numbers could also be seen as indicating a half-empty glass scenario.
“Twenty-five percent of Birthright participants think Israel has ‘gone too far’ in its response to the conflict. That is a lot,” he lamented.
“Among nonparticipant applicants to Birthright the number goes up to 38% – ten points higher than the average young American. That is, young Jews are much more critical of Israel than the young non-Jews, unless they go on Birthright… A majority of participants do not feel completely connected to Israel,” he added.
While advocates for Birthright such as Saxe should be satisfied with the numbers, which show a strong correlation between Birthright participation and support for Israel, the way the rest of the Jewish community should feel is not so clear, Rosner asserted.
“We might look at this survey and think that all we need are more programs and more trips and things will turn out well. But we can also look at the 60% of participants (and 45% of nonparticipating applicants) who support Israel ‘very much’ and wonder about the other 40% who do not.”