Are all progressive college students anti-Israel?

Half actually think positively about Israel, just 9% are anti-Israel – what about the rest?

Alums for Campus Fairness stands up for Israel on campuses across North America (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alums for Campus Fairness stands up for Israel on campuses across North America
(photo credit: Courtesy)

A new in-depth study in three different US cities shows that young progressive college students were a lot more positive toward Israel than had been assumed. When an Israeli non-profit targeted these students, with a modest sum of $30,000, they found that within a month’s time, the support for Israel rose substantially.

“In March 2022, we deployed a survey to discover how progressive Black & Latina Gen Z college students feel about Israel,” Vibe Israel founder & CEO Joanna Landau told The Jerusalem Post in an interview.

“Our target audience was minority, progressive college students: They are future decision-makers," she said. "Soon they will dominate public opinion, write policy and lead movements. They are the most connected and culturally diverse generation ever. Are their opinions still able to be informed? Can we get them on our side? Do loud negative voices represent overall opinions?”

They hired a firm that surveyed a sample of 900 Black and Latino college-aged students in progressive US markets. “We hired a Chicago-based company and decided we're going to take three hotspots where there are a lot of this particular demographic; Atlanta, San Francisco and Miami," Landau said. "In Miami we mainly surveyed Hispanic; in Atlanta we surveyed mainly African-Americans and in San Francisco the left-wing progressives.”

Landau explained that all three subgroups surveyed “define themselves as progressive,” and were aged 18 to 24, adding that they made sure that these young Americans surveyed were college students or graduates.  

Joanna Landau Founder & CEO, Vibe Israel (credit: RONI PERL)Joanna Landau Founder & CEO, Vibe Israel (credit: RONI PERL)

“We asked them some very simple questions about Israel,” the Vibe Israel head recalled. "Examples are: what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Israel? Would you buy an Israeli product? What are your general perceptions of Israel? And: have you seen anything about Israel online recently?"

“There's a claim among the Jewish community that BDS is super successful on campuses. This survey shows that by definition, BDS is not a successful organization."

Vibe Israel founder & CEO Joanna Landau

Is BDS actually successful on campus?

LANDAU, who is a leader in the pro-Israel community, was surprised to find out that the initial results were “much better than what the [Jewish] community thinks.” The results showed that half of the respondents said that they were positive toward Israel, of which 30% said that their perception is “positive,” and another 20% said it is “very positive.” She added that “40% were neither positive nor negative and only about 9% who were negative and very negative.”

She explained that the way she understands the data is that “it makes absolute sense. Israel is a tiny country and this conflict is no longer interesting.”

Landau explained the reason they chose to survey college students: “There's a claim among the Jewish community that BDS is super successful on campuses. This survey shows that by definition, BDS is not a successful organization. If they were successful, we wouldn't be one of the 20 strongest economies in the world.”

It's as if “we are creating the paranoia for ourselves so that dozens or hundreds of organizations can do a lot of work – which is very important, but it's missing an entire blind spot: These 90% who basically said ‘I'm totally open to having some kind of conversation with you.’”

She thinks that the funds and energy of the Jewish community are invested in the wrong direction. “What we're doing is that the entire community is focusing their effort on the 9% who likely will not change their mind. There's a massive amount of people who are indifferent and they're the silent majority. Why are we not creating content for them?”

Israeli products and tourism of interest to students

ACCORDING TO the survey, a majority would consider buying Israeli products or traveling to Israel. “This is an indicator of “brand preference,” Landau said.

The survey shows that three-fourths said they would consider buying Israeli products and less than a quarter (23.6%) said they wouldn't. Two-thirds said that they would consider traveling to Israel for a vacation, whereas 32.7% said they wouldn't consider it as a destination.

“There's a ton of things that we're good at, particularly that are of interest to young people, but they don't know it because we're not telling them,” Landau said of what she sees as a totally wrong strategy of most “hasbara” (outreach) organizations.

Vibe Israel created original content and targeted these college students in the selected cities. “Let's say one person is interested in vegan food, so for instance, Israel comes up – then you will create an affinity for Israel. Once you've got that affinity and you start seeing Israelis, you know what these people are about – and then if you come across something negative, at least you have some context, right? You say, wait a minute, I'm not sure that makes sense.”

So how did this silent campaign work? “We took content that was mainly fun stuff like dogs, television, food and travel. We turned them into 30-second videos and then we pushed them to this demographic.” They spent $10,000 in each of those cities, $30,000 in total. “We got three million hits, which was a very bang for your buck,” she said.

Three weeks later they did the same survey all over again with those Gen Z youngsters in those three cities. The responses were better than Landau and her team would have guessed. “We saw a shift from 50%, positive towards Israel to 74%. About 20% came from the indifferent. The 9% that were negative towards Israel went down to 4%," she said.

“The most effective and fastest way to reconnect young people, Jews and non-Jews to Israel, is through social media. But it has to be positive.”

Joanna Landau and Vibe Israel 

LANDAU WAS born in London and moved to Israel with her family when she was five years old. After serving in the IDF as a paramedic, she read law at Cambridge University where she gained BA and MA degrees. Joanna also holds an MBA, cum laude, from Reichman University in Israel. She worked as a lawyer in the high-tech industry and established two Internet start-ups based in Tel Aviv. In 2009, Joanna founded Vibe Israel (formerly Kinetis), to change the way people think and feel about the Jewish state.

She is a member of the International Education Committee of Taglit-Birthright and the Advisory Committee of Innovation Without Borders, and a director of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism. In 2017, Joanna was chosen by Forbes Israel as one of the fifty most influential women in the country. She lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and three children.

Vibe Israel is a nonprofit organization “shaping and promoting Israel's global image, especially among the next generation,” according to the organization’s mission statement. “We are the megaphone for everything that is attractive, relevant and appealing about what Israel and Israelis have to offer the world.”

The organization has been doing lots of research since 2018 on how Israel is perceived in the US. “We've seen a shift; Israel's image is actually improving,” Landau revealed. “It's improving for the right reasons. It's improving because more people are discovering more things about Israel and becoming more for us.”

Even though Netflix has been displaying lots of Israeli content in recent years, Landau doesn't think it is helping Israel’s image overseas. “We have to be careful with the content that we're creating, because it's Fauda [a series about an IDF special forces unit] and Shtisel [a series about the ultra-Orthodox community] – they both highlight outflows and conflict. I'd like to see stuff that is about social entrepreneurship in Israel or Israeli food.”

Asked how she sees the issue of hostility toward Israel by the young Jewish demographic in North America, Landau answered that “I think that the concern is justified, but I think the answer is much simpler than people think,” explaining that “there is an assumption, especially in the Jewish community, that Jewish millennials and Jewish Gen Z are different from standard Millennials or Gen Z’s."

We have to "start treating them as young people who by definition, don't connect with us if they don't want to. Now we're thinking in their terms and we need to start saying, ‘why should young Jewish kids want to stay connected to Israel?’ So it means you've got to find all the great stuff that aligns with it.”