The Jerusalem Post
Polls, surveys and Israel education
People who like the findings of surveys – meaning the statistics supported their pre-existing beliefs – often trumpet the headlines and assert, “The results confirm what we already knew to be true.”
People who find that the data contradict their stance advance many arguments, including questioning the sample, debating the margin of error, and questioning the objectivity of the organization conducting the research or those who funded it.
These reactions indeed played out after the release of two recent studies. The first was a study commissioned by The Jewish Electorate Institute, a “non-partisan organization dedicated to deepening the public’s understanding of Jewish American participation in our democracy.” This study found that 25% of American Jews think Israel is an apartheid state, and 22% agreed that it was committing genocide against Palestinians. Predictable reactions included both lauding the statistics and bemoaning the survey itself.
In a second, completely separate study conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), 82% of American Jews reported receiving some Israel education, but the quality of that education varied widely. Only 37% of American Jews describe the education they received about Israel as strong.
After almost any study conducted in the Jewish community, articles like this one will inevitably raise the issue of the efficacy of Jewish education and how that level of efficacy contributed to the study’s results. People reading the recent Jewish Electorate Institute and AJC studies have asked variations of the question, “How is it possible that we raised a generation of youths who could possibly believe X or do Y?” Sometimes it is put even more crassly. “After investing so many millions of dollars in our future, especially in sending so many of them to Israel, how is it possible that this is what we are still seeing?”
As a committed Jew with a deep connection and love for Israel, I fully understand why terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” are triggering. They are for me as well. While current surveys might attract headlines, the broad data we have indicate clearly that the more quality Israel education young people receive, the more likely they are to have deeper connections to Israel and the Jewish people.
So before casting aspersions on education, it is also incumbent upon us as a community to understand what education is, what it is not, and importantly, what it should never become.
I would never want to be a part of any organization that utilizes “education” to achieve 100% conformity on every opinion item on a survey. For me, this would not be good education. This is indoctrination. The purpose of good education, and Jewish education, should be to create generations of young people who think critically and feel empowered to make their own choices in life that may or may not reflect their parents and previous generations.
It is here where Israel education has an inherent dilemma.
And while I believe most people in the Jewish community would favor raising a generation of critical thinkers, the line seemingly is often drawn when these independent minds transgress certain boundaries.
Our obligation as Jewish educators is to provide our learners with knowledge and skills so they can reach their own informed opinions about Israel. But this transmission does not guarantee they will think, believe and feel the same way you or I do. Education is but one part of the overall zeitgeist of the existence of human beings – a powerful one indeed, but not the only element that will determine how our young people think about Israel.
The challenge moving ahead for Jewish educators is to strengthen people’s commitment to a Jewish homeland while simultaneously embracing what is core to the majority of Jewish Gen Z today: a commitment to universal values of freedom, equality and dignity for all people in the world. If these come into tension, either for the educator or the learner, this is precisely where good education ought to, and must, take place.
So, rather than disparage Jewish education because of these latest surveys, we should instead invest even further in more and better educator training and Israel education. This certainly includes investments for young Jewish Americans to experience Israel, where they will form personal connections, appreciate our rich heritage and undoubtedly think for themselves.