For Jewish College Students, Knowledge on Israel is Power
A new Brandeis University study shows that over half of all Birthright candidates do not know how to answer even the most basic questions about the Jewish state, making them functionally illiterate concerning Israel. The study seeks to understand and assess Israel literacy and is a continuing project with participation of researchers from the university’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
The study found that regardless of the students’ background — for example, whether they had attended Jewish day school or not — and the ranking of their university, relatively few Jewish students were Israel literate. This is among students who are interested enough in Israel to apply to go on a Birthright trip; results would most likely be even more depressing among those who were not Birthright candidates.
The results are truly disconcerting at a time when anti-Israel motions and boycott, divestment, and sanctions activity are rampant on US college campuses and Jewish students are met by an unprecedented wave of antisemitism. As the authors of the study say, Israel literacy is “the requisite knowledge to participate in productive conversations about Israel.” Without knowledge, it is going to be near impossible to participate in any kind of meaningful conversation about Israel. The authors go on to say that “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.”
It is indeed surprising, but perhaps not as surprising as one might think. For several decades now, American universities have favored a postmodern ethos of highly politicized multiculturalism and the pushing of “narratives” over learning about facts, and this ethos has naturally spread in the educational system. Students are taught literary deconstructionism, feminism, poststructuralism and any number of other “isms” that are mainly about undermining any idea of objective truth-seeking and fact-finding in the real world. The fact that so few students know much about Israel — especially Jewish students — is proof of just how successful this ethos has been.
The debate on campuses, as it is today about Israel, is not about facts, but about shutting down those voices that would even dare to venture into any kind of meaningful and factually based conversation about Israel. The BDS movement and its affiliates naturally do not care for the truth about Israel, because the truth is devastating to their cause of obliterating Israel. That is why they peddle lies, which they proceed to yell and scream in the most emotionally charged language and with the most drama possible. They enact their antisemitism at loathsome events such as Israel Apartheid Week and by acting out through the most primitive forms of demonstrations against visiting scholars and others who try to lecture about Israel on campus in a manner that does not fit their narrow, anti-Israel, antisemitic agenda.
In the face of such challenges, it is tragic that Jewish students appear so ill-equipped to counter all the lies on a factual basis. Because, regardless of the current ethos on campuses, where facts have such low status, it is ill-advised and nearly impossible to try to counter the anti-Israeli campaigns launched there without resorting to facts in one way or another. Once the BDS movement succeeds in making the war of words — because it is a war — about something other than the truth about Israel and advocates of Israel bow to that, Israel advocacy in the US will have made itself irrelevant.
Unfortunately, we live in times when truth is considered to be at best nonexistent and at worst a Western, imperialist invention. There is no truth on American campuses today, there is only ideology and the scrambling for “safe spaces” that will ensure that students are not confronted with anything that will collide with the politically correct view of the world espoused by their professors.
However, it is inconceivable that the case for Israel can be won on university campuses without constantly, repeatedly, stubbornly and forcefully telling everyone even remotely interested in listening the truth about Israel. Jews are the indigenous people to Israel and the historical and legal facts of Israel’s creation must be disseminated repeatedly, until every single hateful liar has been brought to gobble up his own untruths. There is no other way. You cannot bring people to learn the truth about Israel by talking about how great the beaches are in Tel Aviv, how wonderful Israel is in high tech or how it is the gay capital of the Middle East. That is all good, once people learn that Israel is as historical and legitimate as can be. You need to establish the foundations first.
Increasing Israel literacy among students is vital to any kind of Israel advocacy on campuses, which is why the Brandeis study is so important. Knowledge is still power. You cannot stand up for something of which you hardly know anything. Historical and legal education about modern and historical Israel’s foundations is critical.
However, the lack of literacy is not only a problem for the students involved — it is very much a problem of their parents’ generation. These students are the product of an upbringing that cannot have been very focused on learning much about Israel. As poor as the Jewish day schools have been in imparting much significant learning about Israel, the illiteracy more accurately speaks volumes about the failure of these students’ parents in inculcating in their children an interest in Israel.
The lack of Israel literacy is not only telling of the crisis for Israel advocacy on campus. It is telling of the crisis of large parts of American Jewry, which has lost touch with and interest in Israel.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.