Menu JTA Search

Study: Grad students hostile to Israel

NEW YORK, June 21 (JTA) — A new survey of attitudes toward Israel among graduate students at top U.S. universities offers a disturbing, if not frightening, picture of increasing sympathy for the Palestinian cause and blame on the Jewish state for the lack of peace. The report being issued this week by The Israel Project, a Washington-based group seeking to strengthen Israel’s image, finds that “tomorrow’s leaders. . .are hostile to the Jewish state,” a growing trend that could jeopardize American foreign policy toward Israel in the near future. Titled “How The Next Generation Views Israel,” the report was written by Frank Luntz, a pollster who has conducted a number of surveys on the attitudes of young people toward Israel and Jewish life for The Israel Project and other groups. It was based on “face-to-face group interviews” Luntz conducted with nearly 150 students under age 30 in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. They attended law, business, journalism or government programs at Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and UCLA. Many of the students come from homes sympathetic to Israel, Luntz reported, but through exposure to university professors and mainstream media have grown “impatient” with Israel and emotionally connected to the Palestinian cause, to the point of rationalizing Palestinian suicide bombings and coming to see Israel as a “burden” to the United States rather than “an ally.” What’s more, Luntz found a thin line between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment among “these young elites,” noting that “they may not be in the ‘Zionism is racism’ camp, but they’re not all that far away.” He said the students “view any U.S. support of Israel as generated by wealthy Jewish special interests rather than as a reflection of the national interest.” Compounding the problem, the report said, is that the students, predominantly left-of-center politically, are so opposed to President Bush that his support for Israel is seen as a negative factor. In arguing that Israel is losing the image war, Luntz said the graduate students do not talk about Mideast issues with their Jewish friends, whom they perceive as “indoctrinated” and “emotional.” In the eyes of the graduate students, Luntz said, “to support Israel as a Jew is to be narrow-minded and one-sided. To support the Palestinians is to be progressive and thoughtful.” He noted that many of the students said they changed their attitudes toward the Mideast conflict during their college and post-college years as they “learned more,” in their words, about the situation from professors, Palestinians they met on campus and the media. The New York Times is the top source of news information, and the BBC is widely seen as well. The students believe the American media is biased toward Israel, according to the report, and that Palestinians are making a greater effort toward peace than Israel. An Israeli government official dealing with media issues said he had not yet read the report but questioned its methodology and intent. The official, who asked not to be named, said the findings would have more weight if they were from an objective poll or survey. Instead, these were gathered by Luntz in direct conversation with the graduate students, and Luntz’s style is to “put his pro-Israel views upfront” so that much of a focus group’s reactions depend on whether the participants like him or not, the Israeli official said. He added that The Israel Project tends to seek out and publicize negative opinions on Israel in order to bolster its own fund-raising efforts, portraying itself as more effective than Israel in the area of hasbarah, or shaping public opinion. This criticism is not new, and The Israel Project, which once worked closely with officials in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, has seen that relationship fade in the past year or two. Others, though, say Israeli officials are overly sensitive to implicit criticism of their difficult work in seeking to improve Israel’s image. According to Luntz’s findings, the graduate students “know nothing about the history of the Middle East,” including the fact that the United Nations was involved in Israel’s founding or that Israel is a democracy. About half of the 50-page report offers advice on how to counter the dire situation, and Luntz urged pro-Israel groups and individuals to “express genuine recognition” that Palestinians have suffered, but to blame the problem on corrupt Palestinian leaders. “If there is such a thing as a magic bullet” in terms of an effective response, Luntz said it is the fact that “America’s future leaders hate Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” and don’t expect Israel to negotiate with them. The message, according to Luntz, should be that the security fence and other forms of Israeli self-defense are necessitated by the violence committed by these terrorist groups, and that once the groups are eliminated, peace prospects will improve. Luntz’s report contained one overt jab at the approach of organizations like Israel21c, a U.S. group that emphasizes Israeli accomplishments in science, technology, medicine and other areas, and whose slogan is “Israel beyond the conflict.” In recommending advertising that emphasizes peace, tolerance and hope, Luntz criticized ads that only promote Israel’s innovative accomplishments. “You can’t get beyond the conflict,” he wrote, “until you get beyond the conflict.” Focusing on scientific breakthroughs, he added, “will go unheard unless and until your audience hears and believes that Israel is a proponent of peace, an advocate for justice and a force for compromise.”