by Rabbi Scott Aaron
There are no guarantees in this world, especially when it comes to entrusting something cherished by one generation to the next generation. Nowhere is this truer than with the Jewish people’s commitment to Israel. Recently, a study was released about “The Birthright Bump” that was commissioned by the Workmen’s Circle. In brief, the study data shows that while people who participate in Birthright (which has been running trips since 2000) express a marked increase in commitment to and support for Israel compared to those have not participated, (hence the idea of a “bump” in support), they are also demonstrating skepticism regarding Israel’s leadership to deliver peace. This will be taken as distressing to some who believe that a pro-Israel stance must also mean a pro-Israeli-government stance. Be that as it may, my own doctoral dissertation research anecdotally supports the study’s conclusion.
My research, in a nutshell, has been focused on trying to better understand how specific events on Jewish experiential education trips like Birthright or Alternative Spring Break impact the Jewish identity development of 18-26 year old participants. For my research I interviewed ten students on two campuses who attended either a Birthright trip or an Alternative Spring Break trip. In the course of my interviews with the seven students who had been to Israel on organized trips, the topic of Israel and the peace process came up repeatedly. In brief, the seven students expressed strong affiliation with Israel and Israelis but had significant doubts that the Israeli government was always correct or justified in its treatment of the Palestinians. They generally expressed suspicion of both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in terms of motivations for peace, but some students thought the trips themselves were actually intended to bias them towards a pro-government view as well as a pro-Israel view.
Now, like I said, my research was not specifically focused on students’ opinions on Israel, and any researcher will tell you that a sample of seven people is not necessarily representative of a large population. The Workmen’s Circle study was of 888 people and was quantitative in nature, meaning people rated their answers numerically and the numbers are crunched into outcomes and trends. My research is qualitative, meaning I engage in dialogue with the subjects and then mine their statements for opinions and viewpoints. Still, the discussion of my small group of subjects echoed the larger study’s outcomes, and I can posit an explanation of these findings based on my own work.
The 18-26 age cohort we are dealing with on Birthright trips is in the identity developmental category of Emerging Adulthood. This is a developmental stage that is hallmarked by certain characteristics, which include among others seeking intensive, intimate social relationships with a diverse range of people, and challenging broad moral assumptions and large cultural and political institutions. The experience of the trip certainly provides the social relationship bonding with other Jews and Israelis which personifies Israel as a caring and real home for young American Jews. But there is no reason to assume that this bond would translate to young adults automatically supporting or trusting the Israeli government’s policies any more than they would blindly trust the American government’s policies despite living their lives here.
In other words, these trips move Israel from an abstract concept to a tangible and touchable place and people, and the shared intensity of the trips with a similar peer group creates a real and positive bond to the place in which those intense, personal experiences occurred. That commitment to the memory of the experience of Israel should not be confused, however, with blind faith in the ability of Israel’s leaders to contend with the ongoing daily reality of policies and practices relating to peace. Building such trust requires an ongoing dialogue with Emerging Adults that recognizes their generation’s suspicion of institutions and institutional leaders, including governments. Emerging adults need to be engaged with facts and ideas that do not simply support Israel’s positions, but that explain why a given position is the most sensible one.
Jewish Emerging Adults need to be heard; we make assumptions about anything – not just politics – with this age population at our own risk.
Trust must be earned. The larger study and my own smaller one both demonstrate that this old adage is still true for this age population despite “the Birthright Bump.” Now that we have gotten them to care about Israel, we shouldn’t be surprised that they might hold her up to their own expectations and standards as well.
Rabbi Scott Aaron is the Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh and a doctoral candidate in the School of Education of Loyola University Chicago. Scott blogs about Jewish education at http://thejewishchronicle.net/drops_of_honey.