How do we frame effective messages about Israel? How do we focus on what the audience needs to hear, rather than what we want to say? These questions are on my mind as I digest a recent survey of opinion elites by American political consultant Frank Luntz and think about challenges posed to me by student audiences this year.
According to Mr. Luntz’s polling research, left-leaning opinion leaders will close their minds as soon as they hear the word “Zionist”. He recommends that this term be jettisoned, along with talk of the “Start Up Nation”: “It’s tragic that so much effort has been devoted to selling an image of Israel that many aren’t interested in buying.” What works?Israel’s religious freedom and its equal rights for women resonate, as do statements about Israel’s humanitarian aid to Gaza.
These are core messages that our local JCRC Speakers Bureau delivers to two hundred-plus audiences each year, including many schools. Lately, however, I’ve gotten more comments from students such as this:
“I think that it is very interesting how people can’t simply just realize that at the end of the day, we are all simply humans living on this earth together, regardless of religion. I don’t get how both sides feel that it matters so much whether their religion owns something or owns a piece of land. Even if the people there belong to different religions, I think that it is okay for them to just accept that, co-own the land, and move on. Maybe the issue is deeper than that and what I am thinking is wrong, but that is how I feel with the information that I know.”
Of course we are all human, but isn’t our identity more than that? For a growing number of young people, it appears that identity and affiliation are fluid. According to a 2014 Pew survey the Millennial generation is “less inclined than older adults to self-identify as either religious or patriotic”. Further:
“Adults of all ages have become less attached to political and religious institutions in the past decade, but Millennials are at the leading edge of this social phenomenon. They have also taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.”
For many young adults whose “tribe” consists of digital communities, the concept of Jewish peoplehood sounds archaic, incomprehensible, a relic of the past for which the modern world has no use.
How can they begin to understand the visceral attachment that Jews feel for Eretz Yisrael, that our bond as a people with this land stretches back over three thousand years? Without some understanding of this connection (and acknowledging that Palestinians also have history in the land) nothing else will make sense. Like the student quoted above, the whole issue will seem like a futile squabble over land that could easily be shared as one state for all.
There are dozens of Hebrew songs that extoll our love for this beautiful land. Audiences of all ages are usually surprised and touched when I share a few of these songs with them. This frank, unabashed adoration of land is a new one for them. Outside of country music, I am unaware of many songs still popular in American culture which express such sentiments. Sure, we have America the Beautiful, God Bless America, This Land is Your Land. But these songs are more a reminder of a shared patriotism, that while still deeply meaningful to me and many Americans, feels passé to others.
For the left-leaning opinion leaders in Mr. Luntz’s poll, the issue is not only messaging but substantive. They differ sharply with many policies of the Israeli government. For millennials (and others, for that matter) who simply don’t understand why Jews have a homeland, the substantive issues surrounding Israeli policy are many steps ahead of where they are.
If your worldview tends toward John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Zionism (or whatever words we use to explain Jewish self-determination) is going to be a tough sell.
So, if I could, I would ask Mr. Luntz: How do we reach young people who see themselves as global citizens, whose worldview is more universal than particular? Moreover, is this just an issue of messaging or is something more substantive required of Israel in terms of policy?
I suspect that, like the opinion leaders Luntz surveyed, extolling the latest Israeli technical marvel is not going to cut it.
William A. Jacobson, on the front lines of fighting BDS on campuses recommends “a generations-long educational effort” to counter the negative propaganda against Israel.
Crafting an approach that will work with the Millennial generation– both in message and format– is the challenge ahead of us.