A well attended session at the recent Herzliya Conference was Israel’s Legitimacy under Attack – New Tools for Advocacy. Here are remarks presented by Professor Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University. They appear out of order for we are intentionally beginning with the Summary – worth reading even as a stand alone:

Taglit-Birthright Israel provides young adult Jews with the tools to be effective Israel advocates. Alumni demonstrate their desire to learn more about Israel by seeking news about Israel, they become more confident in their ability to explain Israel’s situation and, most importantly, they become motivated to engage in Israel advocacy. After experiencing Israel in a highly participatory and sensory way, they feel more connected to Israel – the gap between the alumni and nonparticipants is quantitative, but it is also qualitative. Our evidence makes clear that “walking Israel” is a precursor to “talking Israel.”

From a policy perspective, we have learned that meaningful Jewish experiences are central to fostering strong Jewish identity, in turn, is essential for engagement in Israel advocacy. At this moment in the history of the Jewish people, the essential task is to ensure that Diaspora Jews have the opportunity to experience Israel. In 2007 and 2008, by bringing close to 50,000 young adults per year on Taglit trips, the groundwork was laid for reaching the majority of Jewish young adults. Now faced with fewer resources, but more urgent needs, the worldwide Jewish community will need to garner new funds and engage the next generation with the People of Israel. No less than our collective futures depend upon the success of this venture.

“Walking in Israel” as the Path to “Talking about Israel”: The Impact of Taglit-Birthright Israel

Since its inception on 1999, over 200,000 Jewish young adults from 54 countries around the world have traveled to Israel with Taglit-Birthright Israel. This ten-day encounter allows participants to study and experience Israel through sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, all while interacting with Israelis through a mifgash with Israeli peers. Taglit – emotionally, intellectually, and behaviorally – stimulates participants and gives them three key ingredients to successful Israel advocacy:

  • The motivation to seek more knowledge about Israel;
  • Critical background knowledge, or the means to understand Israel’s political and social reality;
  • And the passion to lobby for Israel when an opportunity presents itself.

Taglit alumni are at the center of the group of young Diaspora Jews who are poised to advocate for Israel. Their intense, ten day experience of Israel has given them the ability and the desire to act as emissaries and advocates throughout the world.

Motivation

Taglit-Birthright Israel trips inspire participants to learn more about Israel. Evaluations of North American program alumni have consistently shown the strong, positive impact of a Taglit experience on participants’ likelihood of seeking news about Israel. In fact, following Israel in the news is the short-term behavioral measure of the impact of the program that has demonstrated the greatest effect. A survey of Taglit participants conducted in September 2006, immediately following the Second Lebanon War, also revealed that participants are 2.3 times as likely as nonparticipants to consult Israeli news sources. Taglit motivates participants to learn more about the social and political situation in Israel long after they return to their home countries.

Means

Taglit-Birthright Israel also provides participants with the framework to interpret information about Israel that they receive through the news media or in college lecture halls. participants in winter 2007-2008 Taglit trips were more than twice as likely as nonparticipant applicants to feel at least somewhat confident in their ability to describe the current situation in Israel.

Traveling throughout Israel with an Israeli tour guide and a group of peers gives Taglit alumni a more nuanced understanding of Israeli politics and society than their contemporaries who did not experience Taglit, regardless of political orientation.

Consider one politically liberal participant in a recent focus group, discussing how he was profoundly affected by Taglit-Birthright Israel:

“I had a lot of preconceptions of what it was going to be like. I kind of out it off because some family members were sort of ostracized for even questioning whether Israel was right or wrong. So I was a little concerned about disagreeing…with the political aspects there. But it was all pretty profound, going there. It’s about Jewishness as a religion as much as it is the tradition and values, individual values and family values. It was very moving. Also, just realizing it’s okay not to agree with the politics. Even the soldiers on the trip – that’s one of the most amazing parts of my Birthright trip was the soldiers that came with us, because you talk with them and lots of them agree…I ended up staying for two and a half months afterwards…it was phenomenal.”

After a Taglit trip, “Rehovot” and “Ramallah” are not indistinguishable, exotic names – they are real places replete with complex histories and political import. This level of knowledge about Israel enables Taglit alumni to be effective advocates for Israel.

Opportunity

A desire to know more about Israel and the capacity to understand and evaluate information are not sufficient to guarantee effective Israel advocacy. Diaspora Jews must also feel passion and commitment towards the Jewish homeland. Research shows that, in addition to providing participants with a desire to learn more and a framework to interpret what they learn, Taglit-Birthright Israel also increases participants’ feelings of attachment to Israel. Thus, recent participants are more than three times as likely as their peers who did  not go on the trip to say they felt “very much” connected to Israel. The same cohort demonstrated more positive attitudes towards Israel after the trip: compared to their peers, they were 1.6 times as likely to strongly agree that Israel is a source of pride, 1.6 times as likely to strongly agree that Israel is a diverse, multicultural society and 1.7 times as likely to strongly agree that Israel is a lively, democratic state.

In the 2006 survey that followed the Second Lebanon War, Taglit participants and nonparticipants were asked about their attitude toward the conflict. Participants were 1.6 times as likely as nonparticipants to express strong feelings of support for and connection to Israel. Thinking about the conflict, program alumni felt greater concern for the lives of Israelis, connection to Israel, responsibility to help Israelis affected by the war and support for Israel than nonparticipants. When opportunities arise to lobby on behalf of Israel, Taglit alumni are well poised to take part.

Summary

Taglit-Birthright Israel provides young adult Jews with the tools to be effective Israel advocates. Alumni demonstrate their desire to learn more about Israel by seeking news about Israel, they become more confident in their ability to explain Israel’s situation and, most importantly, they become motivated to engage in Israel advocacy. After experiencing Israel in a highly participatory and sensory way, they feel more connected to Israel – the gap between the alumni and nonparticipants is quantitative, but it is also qualitative. Our evidence makes clear that “walking Israel” is a precursor to “talking Israel.”

From a policy perspective, we have learned that meaningful Jewish experiences are central to fostering strong Jewish identity, in turn, is essential for engagement in Israel advocacy. At this moment in the history of the Jewish people, the essential task is to ensure that Diaspora Jews have the opportunity to experience Israel. In 2007 and 2008, by bringing close to 50,000 young adults per year on Taglit trips, the groundwork was laid for reaching the majority of Jewish young adults. Now faced with fewer resources, but more urgent needs, the worldwide Jewish community will need to garner new funds and engage the next generation with the People of Israel. No less than our collective futures depend upon the success of this venture.