What Does “Israel Engagement” Really Mean?
By Zohar Rotem
While every client-partner we work with is unique—with their own specific needs and requirements—when we look across the hundreds of projects and clients in our portfolio, we can often point to overarching themes. (Yes, we’re researchers, and so distilling themes from messy data is what we do best.) One area of activity that I find particularly interesting is “Israel engagement.” In part, this is because the term itself means something different to different clients. Jewish educators are likely familiar with the idea that “Israel” is not one but is in fact many: the People of Israel (Am Yisrael), the State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael), the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), and more. These differences manifest themselves within the purposes and practices of the client-partners we work with who engage in some form of “Israel engagement.”
Over the past decade, we have been privileged to work with many providers of Israel experiences to young North American Jews—from larger and established organizations such as Birthright Israel, Onward Israel, and Masa Israel Journey to more recently founded and smaller (but rapidly growing) organizations such as Honeymoon Israel. Several clients that are local Federations also work to increase Jewish teen engagement, often including an Israel travel component. We have partnered with organizations focused on “bringing Israel to campus,” helping them understand and measure the outcomes of doing so. Finally, we have worked with Israel-based organizations whose goals vary from stimulating positive connections to the State of Israel among Diaspora Jews to connecting Israelis to the realities and communities of North American Jewry.
What is striking is that all of these clients see Israel engagement as one of their primary goals, and yet they ascribe different meanings to this work. To do our evaluation, strategic planning, and research work effectively, we need to understand what clients’ goals or outcome statements really mean. From the client-partners’ perspective, what is it that people do—or do differently or do more of—when they are “Israel engaged”? What do they feel, or feel differently, or more strongly? What do they know or know how to do? So, better understanding what clients mean when they say they do Israel engagement is necessary if we are to help them discover whether they do it well, and/or how they can do it better. Moreover, by understanding better what Israel engagement means to different organizations, all who are involved in this work gain a fuller view of the field of Jewish education and Israel education as a whole. The different approaches, reasons for, and goals of “Israel engagement” I highlight below are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, more often than not, a mixture of these approaches is at play. Still, these distinctions are informative of where the broader field of Israel education and engagement is.
Israel Engagement as Connection and Support
Some see the purpose of Israel engagement as garnering greater support for the State of Israel among North American Jews. For over a decade, researchers have noted the declining sense of attachment to Israel among young American Jews. While many Jews say that they are proud to be Jewish, saying that they are proud of the Jewish State has not been easy. As David Hazony has succinctly put it in a recent piece:
Young Jews who have grown up on the ideal of tikun olam, “repairing the world,” do not understand how their parents’ commitment to an armed ethnic nation-state, born of last century’s fears, led by “right-wing” leaders, fits into their Jewish identity.
This trend is worrying to some Jewish organizations in both North America and Israel, and when they speak about increasing Israel engagement they primarily mean countering this trend and increasing support for Israel among American Jews. This support could be political (lobbying Congress), philanthropic (giving to Federations and others that fund Israeli causes), or emotional (a feeling of connection). The bottom line is the same: American Jews should feel (and even express in action of some sort) that they are “on Israel’s side.” Approaches to achieving this goal have ranged from Israel advocacy and hasbara (pro-Israel PR), to Israel Day parades, to connecting Israeli and American Jewish people and groups, through mifgashim (direct personal encounters) or in networks of social action and innovation.
Important, and perhaps less well-known, is the fact that this trend of distancing and alienation goes both ways. Not only are young American Jews feeling less closely affiliated with Israel but many young Israelis, too, have little understanding or sense of affiliation with Jews in the Diaspora. Living as a Jew in Israel (especially if you were born in the country and never lived anywhere else) can create something of a blinkered vision when it comes to global Jewry. For Israel-based organizations, the concern about alienation, and the various approaches to address it, assume that both parties (Israelis as well as young American Jews) have something to gain from an improved sense of shared peoplehood.
Israel Engagement as a Means to an End
While some organizations view support for Israel as their primary goal of “Israel engagement,” other organizations view it as a means to a different end: greater participation in organized Jewish communities “back home.” The theory of change behind this approach goes something like this:
- North American Jews (often from younger generations) should have an intensive Israel experience, such as traveling to Israel, learning about Israel in an experiential way, or interacting with Israeli emissaries (shlichim).
- As a result, they will feel more positively about Israel and begin to develop a sense that their feelings toward Israel are part of who they are as Jews, part of their identity.
- As a result of these positive feelings about Israel, they will also feel positively about being Jewish. Being Jewish will take on a more important part of who they understand themselves to be.
- Finally, all these positive feelings will motivate (young) North American Jews to involve themselves in new Jewish practices and traditions, join Jewish organizations, and attend Jewish programs and events.
Does it work that way? There has been a good deal of nuanced research on this topic. Examples include the long-term evaluation of Birthright Israel (here, for example), the work of scholars such as Lisa Grant (here and here) and others, and some of our own evaluation studies (here, here, and here, for example). While these studies and others point to the impact of Israel education on the participants’ connection to Israel and on their perception of their own Jewish identity, this is very much an ongoing debate, especially around the “efficiency” of investing in Israel travel as a means to Jewish engagement at home.
Israel Engagement as a Communal Catalyst
Finally, for many Jewish communities in recent years, Israel-related topics have been so politically incendiary, so interpersonally divisive, that communal leaders and organizations have preferred to tiptoe around them or avoid them altogether. Other communities, however, have seen this challenge as an opportunity to catalyze their community around Israel engagement. Rather than avoid talking about Israel, these communities promote open dialogue about Israel as a means of bringing an otherwise divided community together. They believe that “if we can agree on ways to have civil and open discourse around Israel, then we can come together to address any other communal challenge.” Israel engagement in this case is defined by engaging local communities in discourse around Israel. This approach begins with adult community members but is readily applied to Israel education and across the age spectrum.
So, What Does It Mean?
Our work as evaluators of programs and initiatives across the Jewish communal sector is often confounded by the challenge of unspoken understandings and implicit assumptions. To help our clients learn what works, when, and to what degree, we first have to really understand what they want to achieve. Clarifying goals and desired outcomes is often an aspect of our work that clients find most informative and rewarding—and often can inform the broader field too. When it comes to Israel engagement, for example, we work with clients to define what the term means in the abstract and to specify what they want participants to feel, think, and do once they have been “Israel engaged.” Once we articulate these questions, we can then begin to find the answers.