Most Birthright applicants functionally illiterate about Israel
A new Brandeis University study finds that among surveyed Birthright candidates, over 50% couldn’t correctly answer even half of the basic questions requiring minimal knowledge of the Jewish state
Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.
Can you identify the name of the Israeli parliament from among the following: (a) The Bet Din (b) The Kotel (c) The Knesset (d) The Schwarma.
Seem like a laugh? Well, according to a recent study, only 60 percent of students about to embark on their free 10-day Birthright-Taglit experience knew the answer.
OK, want something harder? According to Annette Koren, Janet Krasner Aronson, and Rachel Fish, part of the team of researchers working on a Brandeis University study called “The Israel Literacy Measurement Project,” this next question is a doozy.
“Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, and Etgar Keret are (a) members of the Israeli Parliament (b) Israeli novelists (c) Israeli soccer stars, or (d) founders of the Kibbutz movement,” reads the “most difficult” question in the survey.
According to the researchers, over half the students surveyed — candidates for Birthright trips who filled out questionnaires during their orientation — thought the above were members of Knesset. “The 20% of students who answered this question correctly were among the highest scorers on the test overall,” said the authors. (A complete list of questions is found in an appendix to the report.)
In a continuing multi-year project, researchers from Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies are working together with a broad team of experts to understand and assess Israel literacy.
According to the authors, Israel literacy is “the requisite knowledge to participate in productive conversations about Israel.”
Dismally, the team found that regardless of their Jewish background and the ranking of their universities, relatively few students are Israel literate.
During the project’s evolution, the targeted scope eventually moved from creating a tool to assess the general public’s knowledge to focus on the Birthright candidates. And, after interviewing some 1,000 Jewish and non-Jewish students, the researchers found that even those from select universities knew little about Israel.
‘Jewish graduate students, including some who were training to become Jewish professional leaders, lacked some of the foundational knowledge that would equip them to engage in Israel-related activity’
“Jewish undergraduates, particularly those with Jewish education, knew somewhat more. This was not surprising, but we were surprised that Jewish graduate students, including some who were training to become Jewish professional leaders, lacked some of the foundational knowledge that would equip them to engage in Israel-related activity and education,” according to the authors.
Additionally, the researchers found that in some cases, undigested facts and figures may confuse the students’ grasp of Israel more than complete ignorance.
“We have found that students who lack basic knowledge do not have the ability to construct sophisticated narratives about Israel. Using their critical thinking skills, students can discuss newspaper articles and infer some concepts, yet their lack of background knowledge results in misunderstandings and unfounded conclusions,” said the authors.
According to the report, research in political science has found that “specific and concrete knowledge is necessary for a complex and sophisticated cognitive understanding of information.” Therefore, one must be knowledgeable of basic facts before gaining a deeper mastery of the political process.
As a result, the researchers ask whether a person who cannot find Tel Aviv on a map can truly dialogue over Israel’s borders. Likewise, how can a student fully participate in discussions about religion and state if he things that the ultra-Orthodox are the majority?
What is perhaps most concerning in the researchers’ findings in that the students’ level of Jewish education did not significantly enhance their Israel knowledge
What is perhaps most concerning in the researchers’ findings in that the students’ level of Jewish education did not significantly enhance their Israel knowledge. According to the report, students who had Jewish education (part-time, day school, or both) received an average score of 47% correct answers, compared to those who had no Jewish education, who scored on average 42%.
Is this, perhaps, a wake-up call for those parents who spend some $20,000 a year for day school education?
But for the researchers, the “most salient observation” is that the majority of young Jews just don’t actually have an opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“In the interviews, students often stated outright that they lacked knowledge in a specific area,” said the researchers. They speculated, “Perhaps the plurality of students are unwilling to present opinions on subjects about which they actually know very little.”