What do Jewish College Students Really Know about Israel?

By Annette Koren, Leonard Saxe and Shira Fishman

Rhetoric about Israel on college campuses has become increasingly strident with BDS, anti-Apartheid walls, and “die-ins” substituting for serious discourse. Despite large-scale efforts by the Jewish community to strengthen identification with Israel among Jewish students, many wish to avoid the rancor of these events and choose to walk away. Others feel they lack the knowledge to engage effectively in debates.

Although a recent study by CMJS found that more than one-quarter of Jewish students described hostility toward Israel among their peers as a “fairly” or “very” big problem, the study also revealed that only half of Jewish students had followed the recent elections in Israel and many had no opinion about key Israeli leaders, including the president.

Understanding the kind of knowledge that young adults – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – have about Israel has been a focus of our recent work. As part of this effort, we developed a diagnostic tool to measure the extent and the nature of knowledge of Israel. The goal was to develop a way for Jewish educators and policy makers to diagnose the “literacy” of particular communities and, armed with this knowledge, develop better ways to educate for deeper understanding.

In collaboration with colleagues at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, who lead educational programs about Israel around the world, a set of questions were developed. We tested these questions with a variety of groups in order to create a reliable and valid assessment of Israel literacy.

What it means to be literate about Israel is not self-evident. With the help of a group of Israel studies experts and educators, a set of content areas and criteria were developed. Dozens of students from a broad range of colleges and universities were then interviewed and helped us assess what students know and how they think about Israel. Questions were then developed, tested, and retested with almost 1000 students in Birthright Israel orientation sessions across the United States and with 100 Jewish and non-Jewish students in a psychology class.

Our report on Israel literacy and the test that has been developed is now available. Findings from the research include:

  • Students had large gaps in knowledge and lacked consistency of knowledge across domains (e.g., geography, conflict, history). For example, a student who had substantive knowledge of the conflict identified Yiddish as an official language of Israel.
  • Geography was particularly challenging to students. They knew that Israel is in the Middle East but were less clear on its location in respect to other bordering countries. On a map question, most students thought the spot marking Tel Aviv represented the West Bank.
  • Jewish students showed little knowledge of Judaism in Israel. Many thought that most Israeli Jews are ultra-Orthodox.
  • Less than half of the students answered more than 50% of the questions correctly.

Jewish schools, camps, and youth groups attempt to impart a love of Israel, but love without knowledge may not prepare students for the questions posed to them by their peers on campus. Underlying our work is an assumption that attachment to Israel is related to knowledge of Israel and that, at least for some, distancing is a result of lack of education around issues concerning the land, politics, and society of modern Israel. Better assessments about the state of knowledge about Israel will be critical to helping educators and policy experts design programs to enhance Israel literacy.

Annette Koren is a Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.

Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Shira Fishman is a Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.