The American Jewish community is rightly concerned about Israel's position among college students, especially among those who identify as Jews. Community leaders reason that the attitudes toward Israel that develop among college students today will shape the way America and the American Jewish community relate to Israel tomorrow.
Yet contradictory or confusing messages regarding how American students view Israel compete for the attention of community leaders.
Peter Beinart uses anecdotes and interviews to claim that many Jewish students are alienated by Israel's policies and societal values and are at risk of being lost to the Jewish community.
Others like Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Adams, authors of a recent Workmen's Circle survey, rely on polling data and survey responses to claim that attachment to Israel is stronger among current Jewish students and recent graduates than among their older compatriots, even as support for particular policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be falling.
Cohen and Adams attribute the stronger attachment to a "Birthright Israel bump," the result of the large numbers of students who've experienced the free 10-day trip to Israel. Similarly, Mitchell Bard of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise uses a Fall 2011 study by Public Opinion Strategies to claim that 66 percent of current Jewish college students feel close to Israel, nearly equaling the 68 percent of American Jews who report feeling that way.
The challenge confronting those who determine how Jewish community funds are expended is to make sense of these apparently conflicting claims.
A closer look at the claims may help clear the air. Cohen and Adam's findings — that current students and recent grads feel attached to Israel while objecting to its policies — support a less dramatic reading of Beinart's interviews. They also confirm the findings of a 2011 study by Fern Oppenheim of Applied Marketing Innovations that while 85 percent of the younger generation either supports Israel (20 percent) or are open to support for Israel (65 percent), the image of Israel is that of a society that does not reflect this generation's values.
This interpretation resonates for many of us who work with college students. It is also a cause for concern. The attachment to Israel that is dominant among Jewish college students is not deep and does not necessarily represent a personal identification with the Jewish state.
Personal identification that comes from the core of one's being would be more resilient than the "attachment" reported in these studies. It will develop when Israel is perceived as reflecting students' deeply held values, is connected with their personal Jewish identity or is a natural extension of their affiliation with the Jewish people.
Lacking personal identification with Israel, students' current "attachment" is subject to the corrosive power of anti-Israel rhetoric and of the attention given to Israeli policies deemed objectionable by many of this generation.
Two strategies can create a more permanent personal identification with Israel and Israeli society. Oppenheim articulates one of them well. "The best way to connect Americans to Israel," she writes, "is by introducing the human face of the Israeli people — their fairness and decency, indomitable spirit, creativity, morality, diversity of opinion, etc. … We need to talk more about Israelis/Israeli society and less about the state of Israel."
This understanding has led in Philadelphia to "Israel Encounters," in which American college students share experiences with Israelis of different walks of life and have the opportunity to put a personal face on Israeli society. It also helped shape Hillel's programmatic response to the boycott, divestment and sanctions conference organized at the University of Pennsylvania last winter.
The second strategy is to use students' Israel experiences to tell the "Jewish" story as well as the "Israel" story and to showcase Israel in the context of Jewish peoplehood. With minor adjustments, Birthright Israel becomes a journey of personal Jewish exploration and affiliation as well as an exploration of Israel. Israel cultural programs on campus allow students to experience the excitement of belonging to a global Jewish community as well as the richness of Israeli life.
By connecting Jewish students' experience of Israel with a deepening of their personal Jewish experience and with their sense of being part of a historical and global Jewish people, a deeper, more permanent identification with Israel as the Jewish homeland may be established.
Rabbi Howard Alpert is executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and directs its Center for Israel on Campus. A version of this column appeared in Israel Campus Beat, the e-newsletter of the Israel on Campus Coalition.