I helped to facilitate a meeting this Wednesday on a West Coast campus to discuss goals and objectives for the campus’s community of Israel supporters. The meeting participants, representing several different organizations, offered many suggestions regarding resources, programs, and materials. But when it came time to articulate what we as a community wanted to achieve, it was the words of a Christian Zionist affiliated with CUFI on Campus that fired my imagination:
“How do we increase the love for Israel on campus?”
It was the right question, at the right time. Campuses resume just as the Jewish High Holy Days offer time for introspection and reflection for many of us in the campus Israel network. At this time of year it is appropriate both to examine ourselves deeply and to expand our horizons to consider what can and ought to be. And the question of increasing the love for Israel on campus raises a host of issues for all of us to consider.
The truth is that I am not personally as at home with the language of “loving Israel” as my Christian Zionist friend; I suspect many other Jewish campus Israel supporters may tend to be uncomfortable with such language, as well. We often shy away from emotional appeals and rely on facts, figures, and logic. We look for measurable outputs leading to tangible outcomes—the stuff of business plans and management consulting—and emphasize strategic planning, skills-building, and information sharing. As a community, we tend to offer reasons, talking points, programs, speakers, films, and printed materials—the stuff of intellect and the mind. And, to be sure, all of that is necessary.
But increasingly, it’s clear that such efforts are not sufficient. Training and educating students and others on campus to be Israel supporters by engaging their heads is not enough. We also need to engage their hearts. We need to increase the love.
I hear it almost every time that I have an initial conversation with someone interested in campus, and particularly with Israelis. Almost inevitably, the conversation turns from what we want to achieve in the campus environment to how one gets into the field of advocating for Israel. What drives a person in the US to devote time and energy to advancing the cause of a country and people half a world away? Not only is such support not taken for granted; the data indicates that the emotional attachment is less between young American Jews and Israel and Judaism as a whole than their parents and grandparents.
To find the answers, such discussions turn to fundamental roots and values—a passion for Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people that typically began at an early age, that was nurtured and cultivated through youth groups, summer camps, parents and mentors who took an interest and encouraged that passion, and that built over time from a flicker to a flame. For the current generation of young American Jews—who perhaps are the first generation to truly have the option to choose whether to identify with the Jewish people or to choose a path completely separate from Jewish identity—such basic values and passions sustain the connection and drive to advocate for Israel in the campus environment. In short, it drives them to share the love.
Can we measure “love?” It is an important question because in an age of metrics-based advocacy, many sophisticated stakeholders demand measurable outcomes. Actually, yes: one can measure “love,” at least after a fashion; in fact, it is high time that we did. Market researchers measure brand affinity all the time; that is, the degree to which consumers identify with and express an attachment or preference for one brand or another. Such metrics allow product managers to measure customer interest and loyalty. In the campus sphere and elsewhere, such questions regarding Israel become increasingly more important than the traditional forced-choice questions of political support for Israel, because whether an individual supports Israel in its political conflicts tells us very little about whether that person has any lasting interest or attachment to Israel and Israelis. By broadening our focus from the typical political measurements to a broader measurement of affinity, not only will we learn more about the degree of “love” for Israel in the campus environment—we should also gain insights about how best to begin to increase that love.
My CUFI friend put it to me this way: “For Christian Zionists, support for Israel is about loving what God loves. That is distilling it down to elementary principles.”
Yes, it is. Whether one draws their inspiration from a theological view, from a passion about the national enterprise of the Jewish people, from the afterglow of a direct experience of traveling to or living in Israel and sharing in the excitement of a country and a people full of promise and energy, from a family upbringing or connection, or from any of a myriad of other sources, the essence of cultivating Israel advocates, as well as engaging others around Israel, is about communicating and nurturing love for Israel. That is the essence of creating a new generation of attachment and connection to Israel, both within the campus environment and elsewhere.
As the new academic and Jewish years begin, we in the campus Israel network and beyond should ask ourselves: how are we increasing the love for Israel? Answer that, and we will find our success.
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.