Legitimizing Israel on US campuses
Jewish Agency programs are helping to create a generation of young Jews who are more robustly involved in Jewish life.
US students on a Masa trip to Israel Photo: Courtesy of JAFI
In the coming days, thousands of people will descend on Washington, DC, for the
2012 AIPAC Policy Conference, where they will spend three days celebrating and
strengthening the US-Israel relationship.
Accompanying the hundreds of
student participants will be no fewer than 20 of our 50 Israel Fellows, who are
posted on campuses across North America in a wonderful partnership with Hillel:
The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in order to offer Jewish students a
personal connection to Israel and Jewish life. And just hours after addressing
the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors in Jerusalem, Minister of Public
Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein will board a plane along with
dozens of young Israelis from all walks of life, who will be hosted by many of
these same Israel Fellows in order to help counter the odious “Israel Apartheid
Week” on campus.
I remember when I first talked about expanding the
Israel Fellows program during my first months as chairman of the Jewish Agency I
found that I was often asked whether I viewed the Jewish Agency as a political
The answer, of course, is no, but it is an interesting
question and it bears addressing.
The heart of the debate on college
campuses in North America is increasingly not between Left and Right – whether
or not certain policies are acceptable, certain negotiating positions
legitimate, or certain concessions justified.
The debate on North
American campuses is about the very legitimacy of Israel – whether the Jewish
state has the very right to exist, and whether Israel is something to which
Jewish young people ought to be connected.
When respected institutions of
higher learning play host to radical gatherings aimed at undermining Israel’s
existence and when Jewish students find themselves swimming in a sea of
falsehoods and disinformation, many are left wondering whether Israel is a place
with which they wish to have a relationship or perhaps it is better – and
certainly easier – for them to disconnect.
And it is in light of that
assault and the questions it raises that the Jewish Agency’s mission has become
ever more vital.
The heart of our strategic plan is connection –
connection to one’s Jewish identity, to the Jewish people, and to Israel.
Taglit-Birthright Israel – a remarkable project in which we are proud and
prominent partners – has provided hundreds of thousands of Jewish young people
with an initial connection to Israel and, in many cases, to Jewish
Masa Israel Journey, a partnership between the Jewish Agency and
the government of Israel, seeks to build upon and enhance that connection by
bringing young Jews – including many Birthright alumni – to Israel for extended
periods of time.
Our new Onward Israel program will offer Jewish young
people the chance to spend a few months in Israel over the summer, further
cementing the connection and providing participants with opportunities for
growth and personal development.
Project TEN – which we look forward to
launching later this year – will bring together young Jews from Israel and
around the world to engage in meaningful service-learning experiences and
develop closer connections to one another and to their Jewish identity. And all
this is made possible by the aforementioned Israel Fellows, whose number we have
tripled in just two short years.
Our strong investment in these programs
and initiatives is based on remarkable data and proven results. According to the
Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, Birthright
participants are 46 percent more likely to feel “very much” connected to Israel
than non-participants, 51% more likely to marry Jewish spouses, and 35% more
likely to view raising their children as Jewish as “very important.”
study by Prof. Steven A. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz found even more
impressive levels of Jewish engagement among Masa participants, 91% of whom
marry Jewish spouses and 50% of whom participate in political activity
surrounding Israel. As Cohen and Kopelowitz noted, “the apparent impact of Masa
Israel is profound in ALL areas of Israel-related and Jewish engagement”
(emphasis in the original).
The study also found that shorter-term
experiences in Israel – such as Onward Israel – have the capacity to impact
Birthright alumni’s Jewish attachments in highly significant ways – individuals
who return to Israel for a short stay are twice as likely to feel attached to
Israel, engage in political activity surrounding Israel, and view dating and
marrying Jews as important as those who have not returned.
And when it
comes to aliya, the best guarantor of Israel’s future, the data is conclusive –
one fifth of Masa alumni choose to make Israel their home, and that number is
significantly higher among participants from such countries as Russia and
France. The numbers speak for themselves.
But it is not only about
numbers. Just last Shabbat, I had the pleasure of hosting two young students who
are participating in a Masa program on one of the country’s
During the course of our conversation, they shared with me
that they had grappled with the seeming contradiction between their commitments
to progressive values and to Israel.
Experiencing life in Israel
firsthand, they told me, enabled them to reconcile the two and discover how
their liberal sensibilities could be realized through their Zionism.
could only have happened through the sort of long-term experience that Masa is
making possible for 10,000 Jewish young people this year alone.
programs are helping to create a generation of Jewish young people who are more
robustly involved in Jewish life, more strongly attached to the Jewish people
and more assertively connecting themselves to Israel than we had ever thought
possible. And that is why our strategic plan is the best Jewish answer, the best
Zionist answer and the best Israeli answer to the challenges facing Israel and
the Jewish people.
The writer is chairman of the Jewish Agency for