Israel education: Working towards slow growth rather than sudden conversion

Alex Pomson is Principal & Managing Director, Rosov Consulting Israel. He is internationally regarded for his research in areas that include the life course of Jewish families, teachers’ lives and work, and Israel education. 
The discourse that depicts contemporary relationships to Israel is loaded with images of conversion-like experiences, with people experiencing dramatic swings in their attachments. No doubt many of us have heard stories about young people who, raised in Israel-supporting communities, had their eyes opened, on the road to Damascus as it were, by the first Middle Eastern Studies course they took at college. Here’s Dana, for example:
My first class that I took in college, one of them was a Middle East seminar, and we were reading these books, and one of them was from a Palestinian’s perspective and I just remember that I was kind of shocked…I realized how one-sided the information was that we were provided with [in high school].
Or, there are those who, after years of not being especially engaged by Israel education in their schools or camps, had their eyes opened on the road to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, perhaps by an encounter with young Israelis their own age. They’re inspired “to literally fall in love with the land and the people.” They come away with an awakened sense of Israel’s personal significance. Here’s Zvi.
I loved the feeling of walking on Eretz Yisrael…I just feel more comfortable there, more natural. It feels more like my family and also my culture…I feel that everyone in America is a little too preppy and nice to their neighbors. 
These names are pseudonyms, but the words are real. They are direct quotations from young people who took part in a recently completed study conducted by a team from Rosov Consulting with the support of The AVI CHAI Foundation. (See the published report here.) Seven years ago, researchers interviewed 40 juniors at four different Jewish high schools about their relationship to Israel. Recently, we returned to as many of these individuals as possible, now twenty-somethings, living adult lives. We wanted to explore the extent to which their thoughts and feelings about Israel had changed.
Contrary to expectation, the cases of Dana and Zvi are exceptions. The 22 young people we were able to track down articulated a wide range of sentiments concerning Israel; they varied in the degree of connection they felt to the country and in the specific content that colored their connection. However—in what is perhaps the study’s most surprising finding—they did not substantively change in their relationship to Israel. In high school, their views on Israel were more straightforward, even black and white; today there are more shades of gray in how they see the country. But, to put it succinctly, these young people grew; their views on Israel did not substantially change. 
In fact, what these two waves of interviews reveal is that—not including those who despise Israel for whatever it does (a stance that was not reflected in our sample)—there are essentially three types of relationships to Israel; sociologists would call their most unambiguous expressions “ideal types.” We label them: 
  • The devoted – These people advocate for and actively defend Israel, physically and ideologically. They unambiguously describe themselves as Zionists and proactively seek out relationships with the country.
  • The disengaged – These people are detached from and are largely disinterested in Israel. They tend not to think of themselves as Zionists and are passive in their relationship to the country. They don’t actively seek Israel-related experiences or news. 
  • The disillusioned – People in this group find themselves torn between their personal, ideological, and social connections to Israel and their frustration or anger with Israel’s politics and actions. They are often concerned with Israel’s well-being, but their concern is confounded or complicated by other emotions. 
When I’ve shared these findings with educators, program providers, and funders from North America, Israel, and other parts of the world, I ask which of these three groups they are most troubled by. The answer I get is invariably the same: the disengaged. While the disillusioned are angry with Israel, their families, and those who taught them about Israel—something which is disappointing—they are still actively working through their relationship with Israel. The disengaged, however, are cut off. They’re not even in a conversation. It’s hard to know where to start when a young Jewish woman says, “I feel the same connection to Israel as I do to Greenland. It’s a country that happens to be brought up by a lot of people that I know.” And this is someone who went to day school and Jewish summer camp.
Our study suggests that educators need to mobilize three forces if they are going to cultivate mature and meaningful relationships to Israel; it’s these three forces which, through their interplay, seem to have shaped our interviewees’ relationships with the land and the State. These forces are:
  • Social - grounded in family relationships with Israelis and people in Israel, and personal friendships with specific people encountered, perhaps, through a mifgash or during time spent in Israel; 
  • Cultural or ideological - grounded in Jewish ideas and values that shape how people relate to Israel through their identity as a Jew – perhaps inspired by classes they took, books they read, sites they visited or rituals they experienced; 
  • Political – ideas concerned with Jewish use of power, specifically in relation to non-Jews and especially the Palestinians – encountered at college, on particular programs in Israel, or proposed by friends they met after graduating high school; rarely, if ever, just through exposure to the media. 
In the report, we begin to sketch how these forces can be mobilized productively. We show how when done well, Israel education involves cultivating meaningful social associations with Israel (real, interpersonal memories), developing deep cultural connections with the country (especially connections that are not exclusively religious), and engaging honestly with political questions about Israel. These three processes need to be pursued in harness, in integrated fashion, so that they are neither superficial, sentimental, or glib nor so out of sync with the political ethos of most American Jews that Israel’s choices become incomprehensible.  
This is not easy work. Integration never is: it calls for stirring conflicting emotions; picking one’s way through competing values; weaving together phenomena that typically stand apart from one another. It can also never start too early: better, for example, to become familiar with political concerns about Israel in safe social places – at summer camp or in day school, rather than on the college campus. Nurturing growth, it turns out, is a lot harder than provoking conversion.