Earlier today I posted news accounts of “devastating” new data on young Americans’ feelings about Israel, as compiled by Fern Oppenheim of the Brand Israel Group. I’ve now watched Oppenheim’s speech to the Herzliya conference, which was published yesterday. Her message was that the portion of Jewish college students who don’t like Israel is higher than that portion of college students overall, and this is a “national security” issue for Israel, and the answer is hiring more conservative professors and starting the Birthright program of free trips to Israel earlier. (The minimum age is 18, now.)
Let me summarize the speech.
Oppenheim’s goal is to make sure that mainstream Americans keep a connection to Israel. “Delegitimization needs to be fought on many fronts,” she said, from academic to legislative; but unless Israel improves its communications, “nothing else we do is going to work.”
We are allowing Israel’s enemies to define her and we are not creating a narrative about Israeli society– and the conflict is an integral part of that– about the totality of the society that is going to resonate with the groups in the U.S. that Israel is at risk of losing. And morality is a critical part of that.
Ten years ago her organization held focus groups in the U.S. to determine, What is the underlying image of the Israeli in the American psyche? And they determined that Americans see only “a sliver of Israeli society.”
Americans perceive Israelis as ultra-religious… and steeped in conflict… When they see this, They can’t relate… We’re starting from a negative place. Ultra-religious and steeped in conflict come with a host of misperceptions. Not diverse, not tolerant, not decent, not moral. And just starting out, it’s fertile ground for the people who want to negatively brand and delegitimize Israel.
Oppenheim’s group segmented the American population to assess, what percent of the US market is core supporters of Israel– “really unshakeable.” What percent of the US market is “unreachable.” And who’s in the middle. She addressed donors:
The reason you do this– Mr Adelson– to all the funders in the room– the reason you do this is you want to allocate your resources to where they can be most effective. If you’re spending all your money trying to reach the unreachable, it’s not going to work. If you’re spending all your money on the core, they’re with you.
Who are these people in the middle? And what issues do they have with Israel and what do we need to do to overcome them?
In 2016 the core support of Israel among Americans is just 15 percent.
I want you to know that in 2010 it was 22 percent. That is a drop of a third. Where did those 7 percentage points go? Six went to the groups in the middle, one went to unreachable.
Who are the people in the middle?
They’re college students, they’re Jewish college students, they’re minorities, they’re Democrats, they’re the political left. The truth is if if Israel was not being negatively branded, we could leave these people alone. But Israel is being negatively branded, and to some degree we are misunderstanding the message of BDS to those people…
84 percent of college students are in the middle. But Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is reaching out to them, with a unified message about Israel’s morality:
My goal is to explain to you based on the study we just conducted… what it is possible to do at this point to blunt the effects of BDS and to win this war. The first thing we need to do is understand the mindset of the college student and how he hears delegitimization….
When he hears Israel is an apartheid state, what he’s hearing is, Israelis don’t treat people the way we do. This is a fight about values, morality and the humanity of Israeli society. These kids… they’re thinking Israelis are not like us.
And that is a potential crisis:
The research we just conducted shows that less than 50 percent of the next generation of Americans believe they share Israeli values. If the next generation doesn’t believe we have shared values, it’s really a national security issue.
The two big goals in combating BDS are: 1, “We can’t let the middle go,” and 2, Jewish kids.
The portion of Jews who are “unreachable” on Israel is bigger than that of the general population!
A significant new problem is the rise of an unreachable segment of Jewish college students. Among the general population in the U.S. 9 percent are unreachable, college, 11 percent. Jewish college, 13 percent.
The unreachable number is even higher among “unaffiliated Jews,” those who are not in congregations or Jewish groups– 17 percent.
But the proportion of core supporters of Israel among Jewish students is much higher than the general population: 32 percent, to 15 percent. So there’s a big battle inside the Jewish community.
We need to be doing two things with these people. We can’t wait till they get to college. We’ve got to be showing them the human face of Israeli society from an earlier age. We need to be starting Birthright earlier. We really need to be telling them about Israeli life and creating connection at an earlier age. And the second critical thing we need to do is support the efforts on campus right now of liberal professors who are beginning to deal with intersectionality and creating coalitions on campus to promote critical thinking and diversity and hiring conservative professors to offset the toxic culture. Starting in 2013, it isn’t even any more are you pro Israel or anti-Israel. It’s intersectionality. The narrative now is that are you an oppressor or a victim. And Israel is only a part of that. We really have to begin to address the culture on campus.
So, looking at the middle, and getting to Jewish college students before they reach college, Oppenheim concludes: “These are the things I think that will begin to blunt the delegitimization efforts.”