The truth is of the utmost importance to Brandeis University Prof. Len Saxe, an American social psychologist whose early work often dealt with the veracity of lie detector tests. Which is why he was “triggered” last week when he saw research that he found unreliable.
Saxe stopped by the offices of The Times of Israel this week during a brief Israel trip to address what he saw as unfounded statements in an article last week about Brand Israel, an initiative of marketing and public relations experts, which alleged a “devastating” loss of Israel support among Jewish college students in the United States. Over the past 15 years of Birthright-Taglit trips to Israel, he has collected data for comprehensive research on the state of mind of young Jewish adults.
To Saxe, the idea that Jewish college students are less connected to the Jewish state just doesn’t compute.
Among other issues, the head of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Jewish Studies has been tracking “Israel attachment” among college students for the past decade and a half. According to Saxe, the vast majority of Jewish students feel some connection to Israel, and those who participate in Israel trips, such as Birthright Israel, have particularly strong connections.
In the past two years alone, the center has performed a half-dozen studies, including two national studies and a set of studies of particular campuses. At these campuses, which include Brandeis, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, random samples of all students were surveyed and students were given a $10 Amazon gift card to respond to a 15- to 20-minute survey.
“We have a mountain of data,” said Saxe.
With a team of some 30 researchers, Saxe said, his studies confirm that there is no evidence that there has been a major shift away from Israel.
One ongoing project is a longitudinal panel study of applicants to Birthright Israel — those who participated and others who did not. Now almost a right of passage, Birthright Israel was founded in 1999. The organization takes young Jewish adults aged 18-26 on 10-day trips to Israel, where they tour the country’s highlights and meet young Israelis, including soldiers, who ride with them on their tour buses.
In the 2016-17 school year alone, almost 50,000 young adults will visit the country. At its peak season, this could translate into some 2,000 arrivals a day.
“If they were disaffected, they wouldn’t come,” said Saxe.
A comprehensive 15-year study with the latest findings will be available in a few weeks, said Saxe. They show that majority of survey participants, even those who did not go on Birthright Israel, feel an emotional connection to Israel. Additionally, Saxe has found that there is a lingering positive effect from Birthright, even 15 years after participating in the program.
In an era of headlines that speak to the rise of anti-Semitism and Israel delegitimization programs on campuses leading to disconnected Jewish youth — who in some cases join pro-Palestinian groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace over those that support Israel — Saxe said the data doesn’t back up this narrative.
“One finding from our national studies of dozens of campuses is that there are only a few that have environments that are perceived as hostile to Jewish students and/or Israel. But, interestingly, even on these campuses, anti-Israel sentiment does not deter students from applying to Birthright Israel, taking Israel studies courses, or participating in Jewish activities on campus,” said Saxe.
Saxe said that while Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts should be taken seriously, they are hardly catastrophic. Relatively few Jewish students support these efforts.
“As much as people are concerned about Jewish students being ‘grabbed by BDS,’ there are so few they can hardly be measured,” he said, showing a graph from the center’s Penn study in which only some 1-3% of students could be considered as anti-Israel.
“If Jewish policy is directed only to those who yell the loudest, we’re going to miss the opportunity to educate the far larger group of young Jews,” he said.
Additionally, “BDS doesn’t necessarily mean a greater disconnect [with Israel]. In some cases, it gets students talking with another,” he said, “and promotes Jewish solidarity.”
According to Saxe, the division among the US Jewish communities, particularly among young adults, “is not between those who support or do not support Israel,” he said. “The division is between those who know something [about Israel] and those who don’t.”
To Saxe, the most effective way to be educated about Israel is simply by visiting it.
‘Having traveled to Israel is the strongest predictor of attachment’
“Having traveled here [to Israel] is the strongest predictor of attachment,” he said.
And the numbers are rising: According to a 2013 NJPS national survey, in 1990, only 25% of those aged 25+ had been to Israel, and only some 15% of college students. “Today, nearly 50% of those 25+ have been to Israel. By the time students they graduate college, more than 40% have been to Israel.”
Having been to Israel in far greater numbers, “the millennial generation is more connected than their parents,” he said, who are those who were socialized in the 1970s and 1980s. “One of the interesting ‘side effects’ of Birthright is that participants come home and try to get their parents more involved in Judaism and with Israel,” said Saxe.
Perhaps unlike their parents’ generation, raised on the mythology of an invincible Israel following the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, young American Jews “are more in sync with the general population views in Israel,” said Saxe. And in Israel, the old adage “two Jews, three opinions” applies in spades.
“Some may be critical, but they do it out of support and what has traditionally been called ‘ahavat Yisrael‘ [love of Israel]. There is a diversity of public opinion in Israel, and American Jews reflect some of those views,” he said.