This article first appeared in The Times of Israel.
When asked to describe the activities of young Israel advocates, people often conjure up a rather stereotyped image: right wing and religious, protesting on the quad, arguing with speakers and student activists.
The fact is, those depictions could not be further from the truth.
A new study examining 4,000 young Israel advocates—from teenagers to young adults—paints a very different picture. The first and largest study of its kind, “Next Generation Advocacy” is invaluable in explaining what until now has been mostly guesswork: what compels young people to engage in Israel advocacy? Why do they stay involved? What can we do to ensure that they are effectively trained and their commitment nurtured? (Download Next Generation Advocacy: A Study of Young Israel Advocates)
The data revealed rich information about the motivations, interests and needs of young people involved with Israel through a wide array of organizations, ranging from BBYO, Hillel and Moishe House to AIPAC, Israel on Campus Coalition, David Project, AEPi and iCenter, to Hasbara Fellowships, Masa Israel and StandWithUs. In particular, a strong group of leader advocates—those who demonstrate the highest levels of involvement and mobilize their peers—clearly emerged.
Among the leader advocates, the research discovered a plurality of diverse voices: leader advocates span the religious and political spectrum, with less than half defining themselves as “left of center” or “right of center” and 87 percent believing there should be room for multiple perspectives about Israel. Representing all denominations of Judaism, some were raised in strongly affiliated homes, while a quarter are Birthright alumni with little Jewish background. Some young advocates have received extensive Israel education, others virtually none.
Indeed, only one thing seems to unify this inspiring group of young people: a deep commitment to Israel—one that is driven by values and identity rather than by political ideology.
Instead of shouting down detractors, Israel advocates are focusing on peer outreach and spreading a sophisticated, proactive message. They are educating others and engaging in respectful dialogue. They are creating strategic relationships with fellow students and key campus leaders. They are engaging with Israel as a way to express their values, as an opportunity to gain knowledge and to connect with peers.
In turn, they are proving that advocacy is not a dirty word. Rather, it is an essential way to help others learn about Israel and to enhance support for the Jewish state.
These are encouraging findings, but the survey also sheds light on the challenges young Israel supporters face. Despite their dedication, many do not feel properly equipped with the knowledge and confidence to speak up on behalf of Israel and thus are unable to fully translate their passion into effective action.
What’s more, too many leader advocates are falling through the cracks during key life transitions from high school to college and college to community. The study identifies a gap between the majority of young advocates who said they wanted to stay involved and those who actually did. It attributes this gap in large part to the fact that no person or organization stepped in to help ease their transitions and ensure they knew of the opportunities available to them.
As we struggle to sustain solid support for Israel in the US and beyond, this study sheds light on how we can better nurture and significantly expand the cadre of talented leaders ready to stand with Israel. As a community, we need to invest in several areas to ensure they have the experiences, skills and resources they need to be successful Israel advocates.
- Expand firsthand experience. The most committed leader advocates have had personal Israel experiences: 77 percent have traveled to Israel and participated in an advocacy seminar there. By ramping up the number of teens and college students who travel to and study in Israel, and by enabling young advocates to return there multiple times, we can deepen their understanding of Israel and their ongoing commitment to Israel advocacy.
- Enhance Israel education. Leader advocates express great interest in learning more about Israel. As one remarked, “I saw so many people who knew they loved Israel but didn’t have the knowledge or tools to express it, so they were thrown on the ground when they met anti-Israel activists or encountered student apathy. They just didn’t know how to respond effectively.” Creating more opportunities to study Israel—both inside and outside the classroom—will enable young people to become more knowledgeable and confident advocates.
- Provide skilled mentorship. Many of those surveyed pointed to a staff member or volunteer who first involved them and was integral to their becoming capable leaders. Yet, very few of these mentors have received focused training or support. We need to invest in this potent resource by offering them formal training and professional development, sharing best practices, forging peer networks, and exposing them to the opportunities offered by the broad array of Israel-related organizations.
- Invest in effective handoffs. Many leader advocates were active in high school or college and want to continue that work as young adults. To maintain their leadership, we must create a continuum of experiences that begins in high school, nurtures leader advocates through college and helps them transition seamlessly into meaningful volunteer or professional roles in their communities. By investing in a system to facilitate intentional handoffs, information sharing and collaboration between organizations, we will prevent attrition and continue to reap the benefits of our most devoted and skilled advocates.
- Support Jewish education and identity building. The majority of leader advocates were involved Jewishly from an early age. Nearly 75 percent belonged to a youth movement, and 67 percent attended a Jewish camp. Jewish education and the organized Jewish community have vital roles to play in nurturing connections with Israel and offering pathways to advocacy. Many leader advocates said that Israel advocacy is an expression and extension of their Jewish identity, which we must continue to cultivate and celebrate.
To ensure long-term understanding of and support for Israel, it is vital to prepare a new generation of capable leaders and advocates who uphold Israel as the Jewish state and an integral member of the family of nations. It is no longer enough to focus on one organization or age cohort; rather, we must foster a healthy ecosystem that sees our entire community as responsible for developing these new voices. By supporting shared data and infrastructure, student and professional training, programming and measurement across an array of Jewish and Israel-related organizations, we can invest in young people over a decade-long time horizon, paving the way to effective and enduring leadership.
We have met our young Israel advocates. We now know who they are, what drives them and what will deepen their engagement with and on behalf of Israel. They are as diverse, passionate and sophisticated a group as we could hope for—and they have told us what they need in order to be knowledgeable and successful leaders for Israel. Now it’s our turn.