A Window Into Israel Views On Campus

Israel Project focus group with Harvard, MIT students seen as ‘horrifying’ by organizers. But a political scientist offers a more nuanced reading of Jewish students’ responses.

12/16/09
Staff Writer
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The Israel Project, a Washington-based Israel advocacy group, put 15 unsuspecting Jewish students from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a small room with 20 non-Jewish classmates and prompted them to candidly discuss Israel, Palestinians and Iran.

Should anyone be surprised that the tone was strongly critical of Israeli policy and the pro-Israel lobby here, and that many of the Jewish participants did not rush to Israel’s defense?

Frank Luntz, the pollster who served as the group’s facilitator and who in an earlier TIP policy paper recommended likening the removal of Jewish settlers on the West Bank to “ethnic cleansing,” said he found the results “horrifying.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of The Israel Project, which works primarily inthe realm of media and public opinion, called the results “troubling.”

“If it had been students from any other campuses I would not have been horrified,” she explained. “But this was the best and the brightest. I know it involved only 30 people — and that’s not the same as an 800-person poll — but it’s still problematic. A leader is a leader, and those who are selected to attend Harvard and MIT are more intelligent and successful than the vast majority of people.”

The problem, Mizrahi said, was “not that they [the Jewish students] were too open-minded, it is that they were too quiet.”

Mizrahi found the results so disturbing that she declined to post them on her organization’s Web site.

“I don’t like to air our dirty laundry and share our shortcomings with our enemies,” she said.

In a detailed memo describing the experiment, Luntz pointed out that the students did not know the religion of the other students in the room. All they knew was that they were being paid $100 for their opinions about American foreign policy; they did not know the focus would be on Israel and the Palestinians.

For three hours the students — who for the most part did not know each other (only a few knew three or four others in the room) — engaged in a candid discussion with prompting from Luntz.

“Needless to say, the results of the group were truly eye-opening,” he wrote. “They’re perhaps best summarized by the following exchange, which took place early on in the session. When we first started discussing Israel, it was only a matter of minutes before the phrase ‘the Israel lobby’ was uttered, along with direct references to Jewish money. The problem, frankly, wasn’t that these terms and topics were broached. The problem was the type of negativity directed toward them.

“This is Harvard and MIT, and yet none of the Jewish students interjected during this exchange to offer an opposing viewpoint.

“The question you should be asking is not why smart Jewish students are having so much trouble on American college campuses, but instead, why these students are not standing up for Israel. You can’t blame the institutions when the students who attend them are the ones at fault.”

But Luntz and Mizrahi did not address another potential variable: the fact many Jewish students, more liberal than their elders, agree with some of the critical interpretations of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, their report seemed to start with the assumption that all the Jewish students would agree with TIP positions on Middle East controversies.

University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald, the former director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies, said the focus group results were not surprising, and offered more nuanced explanations.

The fact the Jewish students didn’t speak up may have several causes, he said.

“First, there is a real frustration about its policies among many Jewish students who support Israel,” Wald said. “At some level, some may have been reluctant to speak up because they agree with some of the criticisms of Israel and the Israel lobby.”

For other Jewish students, he said, Israel is “simply not salient; we have a lot of data to support that.”

And some Jewish students who reject left-wing criticism “have concerns about ‘dual loyalty’ charges, and may not have wanted to engage in identity politics in a face-to-face situation,” he added.

Matthew Cohen, president of Harvard Students for Israel and one of those in the focus group, said he believes he acquitted himself better than Luntz’s analysis suggested.

“I was one of the few who spoke out in opposition” to the anti-Israel comments that were made, he said, adding that in retrospect he could have done more.

“I think there can always be more support and more vocal backing of Israel, but by the same token I did challenge the assertions put forth by some of the detractors of Israel,” Cohen said. “In any arena looking back you are going to be critical and think you could have done a better job. There is always more defense you could have used, but I was proud of myself; I wouldn’t say it was a failure by any measure.”

Asked about the Jewish students’ silence when claims about the “Israel lobby” were mentioned, Cohen replied: “I thought claims that the Jewish lobby was in control [of the U.S. government] were so ridiculous they didn’t merit defense — and I think the group felt the same way.”

Cohen, the only student who was not promised anonymity because of his high-profile position on campus, said he believes the Israel Project experiment was an “effective program.”

“It did show that education needs to be there for activists,” he said.

“That was a major distinction between those who talked and those who didn’t — self-confidence was exuded by those who were knowledgeable. It showed the need to stay current on Israel [events]. I keep up on the issues, which I think was one of the main reasons it gave me confidence to challenge some of the assertions. Everyone came away knowing they had to have that ammunition and become better informed about the situation.”

Mizrahi said the results must also be put into perspective because compared with a similar test in 2002, these results were “fabulous.”

“The Jewish students were much more informed and comfortable with Israel,” she explained. “But the problem is that the best and brightest still don’t have it in their kishkas to stand up for Israel under the social pressure of their peers.

“When they heard one of their colleagues say the U.S. supports Israel because of the power of the Jewish lobby, I would have liked to have heard a student who is informed say it’s in America’s best interests — and then enumerate some of the reasons for the strong American-Israeli relationship. It didn’t happen, and it’s disappointing because they are knowledgeable. Most knew the answers and are very aware of the issues.”

Some of them had attended training sessions offered by The David Project, a pro-Israel student program. But Mizrahi said that even those students “still were quiet.”

Nevertheless, she said that as these 20-something students graduate and enter the workforce, “hopefully they will feel comfortable about Israel later in life to be informative” when speaking with others.

At the end of the session, Luntz asked everyone to write down the number of Jewish students they believed were in the room of 35 students. The average response of the non-Jewish students was nine, when there were actually 15.

“The room was almost half full of Jews, but to the non-Jews listening to the conversation, there were too few people with too few voices speaking up and being heard,” Luntz said. “And remember, this is from the same people who talked about the all-powerful ‘Israel Lobby.’”

The non-Jews were then asked to leave the room. When they had gone, Mizrahi said, the Jewish students became “amazingly articulate on the issues. They had the knowledge and they had in most cases the belief.”

Luntz pointed out that when he asked the Jewish students how they believed they did in defending Israel, he said “incredibly” all had a positive initial reaction.

“But as I asked them to reflect on what was said — and what wasn’t — the evaluations became more candid ... and a lot more regretful,” Luntz observed.

In explaining his reticence to speak up, one student said: “There were a couple of comments about how Jews have too much influence in U.S. politics. ... It was kind of scary because you didn’t want to say too much, because there are people in the room that already think you’re too overbearing and that you have too much influence.”

Another student offered the following explanation: “When someone [at Harvard] says something like, ‘Jews have too much power in American culture and politics,’ that’s an anti-Semitic statement. It’s uninformed, and I don’t think those people are necessarily worth dialoguing with.  You’re not going to convince someone who walks in here who’s an anti-Semite that Jews, in the end, that ‘hey they’re good people.’”

And a third said that given a second chance, he would do things differently.

“If put in the situation again, 100 percent I would be much more vocal,” he said. “I would make sure that people don’t leave this room with the wrong perception of Israel because this could be the only chance they have to get an impression.”

Mizrahi said that in contrast to these results, in 2002 many of the Jewish students from the same two schools were found “not to have the knowledge and did not feel connected to Israel in the same way. Many of the Jewish students felt embarrassed about Israel and saw it as the aggressor and oppressor. ... So we have seen progress.”

Last Update:

12/16/2009 - 10:38

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