An eye-opening and somewhat discomforting new study of day school students’ attitudes about Israel has me wondering whether we need to rethink and recalibrate our approach toward traditional Zionist advocacy.

The study, first reported in these pages last week (“Students Seen ‘Suspicious’ Of Israel Education”), found that many of the 43 U.S. high school juniors interviewed by a research team from the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University were somewhat doubtful of their schools’ attempts to convince them of certain pro-Israel points of view. And a frequent criticism is that the schools and teachers are “biased,” according to Alex Pomson, senior researcher at Melton.

In part, he explained, this reaction reflects a natural tendency of teenagers to mistrust adults and to react negatively to people who try to shape their opinions.

These findings indicate it may be more effective to present students with information on both sides of an issue — particularly one as complex as Israel — and let them form their own opinion rather than shielding them from criticism or being perceived as forcing on them the “correct” response.

The students interviewed were from four Jewish day schools from different parts of the country, two Modern Orthodox and two community schools. Pomson, who kept the identities of the schools secret, discussed the findings and showed video clips from the interviews with students last week at the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Los Angeles, where the study was unveiled.

Judging from the remarks shown in the clips, it seemed the students at the Orthodox schools were somewhat more positive but one-dimensional in their views on Israel than the community school students, who expressed ambivalence at times.

For instance, “Mike” (a pseudonym), who attends an Orthodox school, said he felt a strong and unwavering commitment to Israel as “the foundation of my existence.” But he also acknowledged that he believed he has been “spoon fed propaganda” about the Jewish state by his teachers over the years.

“It’s too late for me,” he said wistfully, at the tender age of 16, in terms of changing his mind about Israeli policies. He and several other students who spoke almost robotically about their views sounded like their connection to Israel was a mile wide and a few inches deep.

“Naomi,” another student at an Orthodox school, said she was reluctant to talk about Israel and was not sure she would call herself a Zionist but plans to spend a post-high school year in the Jewish state.

(In general, the students were vague and uncomfortable when asked to define “Zionism,” and whether they considered themselves “Zionists.” Clearly, the terms have taken on negative baggage; one teacher at a conference session geared to high school educators noted that it was “painful to watch these day school students who can’t define one of most simple values of the Jewish community,” adding: “And I’m sure the students in our school would answer the same way.”)

Students from the community day schools tended to speak of the situation in Israel as “complicated,” “difficult” and “a struggle,” but “rich in opinions” and “working hard” to resolve conflicts.

Pomson cautioned against reading too much into a study of relatively few students, each of whom was interviewed for about 35 minutes. But he did note that the data represented “the tip of the iceberg,” and that “there is a lot going on beneath the surface for our students.

“The challenging conclusion,” he said, is that young people are “suspicious” of what they hear from adults and “distance themselves from what they hear in the classroom.”

The hard truth is that few Jewish day schools in this country, including prestigious ones in the New York area, offer any full-term courses focusing on modern Israel. And now we learn that those that do may be pushing Israel’s case too hard, creating an unintended and worrisome backlash among students.

‘It’s A Different Generation’

Tuvia Book, a teacher in several local day schools and author of “For The Sake Of Zion,” a curriculum of Israel studies published by the Jewish Agency for Israel, says, “You can’t teach about Israel through rose-colored glasses anymore. These are savvy students.

“It’s a different generation,” he added, noting that today’s teens were raised during the intifada rather than Entebbe or the Six-Day War.

“The old-fashioned ‘my country-right-or-wrong’ doesn’t work for thinking kids; it’s two-dimensional.”

What does work, he said, is bringing in Israelis with different ideologies to offer their viewpoints. “A multicultural approach makes the students more open-minded” and counters their feelings of “being duped.”

Educators also need to consider that, based on the study’s results, students are more willing to accept strong ideological messages from programs they are exposed to at summer camps or youth organizations outside of school rather than in the classroom itself, perhaps in part because the latter setting is involuntary.

What seems clear is that the most successful means of instilling positive and lasting feelings about Israel in students is to have them experience the country firsthand, the younger the better.

Pomson acknowledged in an interview that while he had been skeptical of the benefit of school trips to Israel for seventh and eighth graders, because they are so young, he now believes that the earlier youngsters are exposed to “the real rather than the theoretical Israel,” the stronger their ties, which are heightened by social networking with Israeli peers they meet on their trips.

Thanks to Facebook, Skype and other new technology, the American youngsters often stay in touch with their Israeli guides and the children of their host families, deepening their understanding of Israel’s daily as well as political life, and deepening their personal relationships.

Australia Emphasizes Teacher Training

Educators should recognize and take advantage of this social capital, according to Pomson, who encourages teachers to use as many tools as possible in connecting students to Israel in a positive way, from curriculum to school programs to keeping in touch with Israelis on Facebook.

“Keep in mind that even when schools don’t know what they’re doing, their students do,” he said, explaining that youngsters pick up on whether the schools are approaching Israel in more academic or emotional ways, and they respond accordingly.

Pomson also observed that for many day school students, key positive feelings about Israel are established in the home, with schools providing history, context and supplemental support.

(Students from interfaith families, the study found, felt more distant from Israel. One girl in the video chillingly said she felt as little connection to the Jewish state as she did to Greenland.)

The Melton study is part of a larger project looking at what it takes for day schools in both Australia and the U.S. to connect students to Israel.

One advantage in Australia is that courses on modern Israel are standard at Jewish day schools there, with a major emphasis on teacher training.

Book, who has attended two-week teacher seminars in Australia in the summer, says that as a result “the students there don’t feel brainwashed, they feel empowered.”

By contrast, he said that when many day school students in the U.S. go to college, “they don’t know what they’re advocating for, they have no [historical] reference points.”

With so much of our communal attention on college campuses as a Mideast battleground, it’s time we learned that Zionist education — including an open exploration of issues rather than the candy-coated version — must start long before students reach university. And the very best way to ensure an Israel connection for our children and grandchildren is to get them there, appreciating that Zion is a real place, not just a hollow concept.

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