Thursday, December 22, 2005
How the Next Generation Views Israel
By Henry Norr
(many thanks to Jeff Blankfort for the forward)
I recently spotted an ad, I think on the Ha'aretz web site, inviting me to request a free copy of a study called "America 2020: How the Next Generation Views Israel," written by Frank Luntz and published by something called The Israel Project.
Luntz, as you may know, is a key pollster, focus groupie, strategist, and tactician for the Republicans - he's most famous for coming up with language that will attract support for policies people would otherwise oppose. (For example, he's supposedly behind the idea of labeling the estate tax the "death tax" and giving Bush's pollution plans labels like "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies.") In addition, he has a slew of corporate clients, including (according to his web site, www.luntz.com ) Merrill Lynch, American Express, Federal Express, Disney, AT&T, Pfizer, Kroger supermarkets, McDonalds, eBay, MP3.com, 1-800-Flowers.com, and the soft drink and motion picture industries, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable. He's also Jewish, at least according to numerous online biographies.
As for The Israel Project, which I hadn't heard of before, it's evidently a Zionist propaganda initiative. They describe themselves as follows: "The Israel Project (TIP) is an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace. The Israel Project provides journalists, leaders and opinion-makers accurate information about Israel."
Anyway, my free copy of the report - a glossy, 57-page booklet, with a blonde, blue-eyed, conventionally gorgeous and not at all Jewish-looking "co-ed" (or, more likely, a model) on the cover, and a slew of similar pictures scattered throughout - arrived yesterday, and I promptly plowed through it. It's a remarkable document - by turns encouraging, illuminating, infuriating, and in some places flat-out funny. You can request your own free copy at their web site, www.theisraelproject.org, but I thought others might appreciate a summary.
It's based on "face-to-face group interviews with almost 150 randomly selected students under age thirty attending the top graduate schools in America - including the top business school, the top law school, the top school of government and the top school of journalism - … in five mind-shaping centers in America: Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles." Specifically, the students came from Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins (I guess they consider Baltimore to be part of D.C.), the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and UCLA. (Note the absence of Stanford and UC Berkeley, among other elite schools.)
Oddly, the report gives no other information about the sample - nothing about religious or ethnic background (something you'd think might be particularly relevant to the issue at hand), nothing about class (in the socio-economic sense), and nothing about specific fields of study. And there's not a shred of quantitative data backing up its assertions.
What the report says
The main conclusion, repeated dozens of times over, is that "Students at the finest graduate schools in America are turning against Israel in alarming numbers. …Never in the modern history of Jewish State has there been more outspoken public opposition on ELITE college campuses to the basic principles and tenets of Israel. To be brutally frank, if current attitudes are not reversed, America's core commitment to - and alliance with - Israel may not survive." (p. 2)
Some choice quotes follow, with page reference in parentheses. Emphasis (bold and all-caps type) is from the original. Aside from a few bracketed exclamations, I've restrained myself from commenting on Luntz's assertions:
• "Conducting the extensive research for this report was a nightmare for me … their lack of identification with the Jewish State is really not a surprise, It is the intensity of their hostility that I find so alarming. …the momentum away from Israel is even greater than we once feared." (3)
• "In their own words:
* To be pro-Israel is to close their eyes to reality and cling to obsolete loyalties. It is also a very unpopular and socially unacceptable position to take on campus.
* To support the Palestinians is a mature moral judgment based on the facts of today and will be embraced by fellow students and faculty alike." (8)
• "While it may be hard for people reading this report to imagine, the students … believe press reports from the region, especially the print sources where they get the majority of their news, are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Israeli point of view." (9)
• "… many of the young elite in America are openly hostile toward the perceived power of Jews in America." (12)
• "… they view any U.S. support of Israel as generated by wealthy Jewish special interests rather than as a reflection of the national interest." (13)
• "In plain English, for many non-Jewish elites on campus the only Jews that are credible to non-Jews are those who speak about Israel's mistakes and misdeed and are critical of the current government. …the fact that too many Jewish students refuse to make the case for Israel convinces non-Jews that a case cannot be made." (15)
• "Virtually every student we interviewed said he or she had drifted away from Israel and toward the Palestinian point of view over the past few years. Most said that 'learning more about the situation' (often through the media) had sent them into the Palestinian camp. And talking to a Palestinian face-to-face in a university setting is enough to seal the deal - regardless of how many Jews they encounter." (16)
• "Many believe that Israel is NOT a democracy. When they listen to speeches or several pro-Israel ads, they react negatively toward Israel's democratic ideals because they don't consider them true." (18)
• "Support for Israel is intellectual, while support for the Palestinians is emotional. [This seems to contradict the point that the students have move toward the Palestinian perspective as they learn more, but whatever….] … Any lingering support for Israel is a largely rational, cerebral matter and is not especially passionate or vocal. … The Palestinians are the 'underdogs.' Sympathy for the Palestinians is expressed in emotional terms. …In the end, the Palestinians are winning hearts and minds because they have humanized the conflict." (19-20)
• "There is growing support among elite graduate students for a 'one-state solution' … Even when told that such an outcome would potentially destroy the Jewish nature of Israel, opinions did not change." (19)
• "They consistently refer to Israel's security fence as a 'wall,' and so what is entirely a defensive measure is now seen as offensive and aggressive. …They actually believe that Israel's security measures create more problems than solutions - and that the fence is a particularly ugly symbol of 'division,' 'oppression' and 'occupation.'" (24)
• "Bush voters are almost all supporters of Israel, while Kerry voters almost unanimously back the Palestinians." (24)
• "The real problem is how quickly attitudes and perceptions about Israel are deteriorating among elite graduate students. …based on what we heard at all eight sessions in all five cities, hostility toward Israel is likely to increase before attitudes can be turned." (25)
• "Support exists and is growing for a NON-JEWISH one-state solution. Of all the findings, this one is perhaps the most dangerous. To up-and-coming elites, the notion of a "Jewish State" rings of an ethnic nationalism that has been widely rejecte. It sounds religious, extremist and even racist. … For an audience desperate for any solution at all, a secular bi-national state seems a rational option at least worth exploring." (26)
• The New York Times and BBC - especially the online versions of those outlets - and CNN are the top sources of news for these students, but they spend only 10-15 minutes a day consuming news. (31-32)
Tough nuts to crack
Luntz repeatedly waxes eloquent on the supposedly unique challenge of communicating the pro-Israel message to these students. For example:
• "Reaching America's future decision-makers requires special sensitivities with regard to both substance and style. Speaking to these individuals is very different from speaking to any other audience you may encounter. This is an exceptionally skeptical if not hostile group of people. They are already predisposed against any kind of marketing, public relations or lobbying. They consume national and international sources of news so it is hard to communicate with them on a one-to-one basis. [Huh?] (33)
• "America's future leaders [shorthand in this study for the young people interviewed] will assume you're biased or lying until you tell them something they know to be true - which isn't much - or something that sheds a negative light on Israel - which isn't helpful. And they will reject anything that to them appears to be one-sided - which is almost everything." (33)
• "The future leaders are acutely sensitive to 'rhetoric.' This will be tough because this group is extremely sensitive to 'spin' and extremely hostile when they feel they are being spun. More troublesome are their negative reactions to any Israeli spokesperson they deem insensitive and uncaring. The problem … [ellipsis in original] they see most pro-Israel spokespeople as insensitive and uncaring." (40)
• "We tested roughly 20 television spots and 40 print executions to what, if anything, would have a measurable and positive impact on the way these future leaders think and feel about the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. The bad news is that more than 80% of what they saw either had absolutely no impact or actually generated a negative response."
Luntz to the rescue
Not to fear, though - Luntz will solve the problem. Several final sections of the report are explicitly devoted to "solutions," and there are tips and advice for Zionist propagandists scattered throughout. Just so we'll all know what to watch for, here are some of his suggestions:
• Spokespersons for Israel should always emphasize that they're for peace. "The only way for Israel to evoke sympathy is to be the side working hardest for peace. The best case for Israel is to demonstrate that she is willing to go twice as far as her neighbors to establish peace." (16-17)
• "One solution is for Israeli politicians to sound less political and more human when they communicate on American television." (20)
• Since the students "have doubts about the Palestinian leadership," and their positive feelings about Palestine don't extend to other Arab states like Syria and Saudi Arabia, "there is a genuine opportunity to help shift blame" - by focusing on the personal fortune Arafat allegedly accumulated (and other evidence of PA corruption) and by blaming the Saudis, etc., for rewarding the families of suicide bombers." (20-21, 35)
• "Diffusing the one-state solution is achievable if you play on the emotions of Palestinian sympathizers by emphasizing that the Palestinians themselves oppose this solution." (27)
• "It is critically important that the reporters in Israel have the facts and visuals they need to get the Israel story right [sic] before they go to press." Pay special attention to the NY Times, BBC, and CNN. Since the young people often just glance at the stories, pay particular attention to headlines, visuals, and the first few paragraphs of any story. "Unless our spokespeople are quoted near the top of an article, their message won't get through." (31)
• "The British press matters. The BBC matters a lot … The Internet allows easy access to the European press and reinforces the urgent necessity of correcting the extraordinary biases that exist in the British media. Unfortunately, thus far, efforts to discredit the BBC have not succeeded." (32)
• "Express your genuine and sincere recognition that the average Palestinian has suffered. This will undoubtedly be rejected by some readers, but it is equally important to admit that Israel has sometimes [!!] contributed to that suffering. … the goal here is to strike a note of magnanimity. … Acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of most Palestinians. … There are few things more encouraging to this elite campus audience than pro-Israel leaders speaking convincingly about their hopes for a bright Palestinian future. … Always start and end with an optimistic, hopeful message. The first and last statement should be about achieving peace." (33-35)
• "It's not just a conflict, it's culture." Blame alleged defects in Palestinian culture, such as anti-Israel incitement in the media and schools, a culture of martyrdom, etc. "But be careful - do not directly accuse the Palestinians of depravity. Simply show it, and let the images and words speak for themselves. … Let the Palestinians speak for themselves. Show them Palestinian TV, unedited, without voiceover." (35-36)
• Emphasize Palestinian rejection of Barak's supposedly generous offer at Camp David in 2000. "There is no more powerful tool in driving home Israel's commitment to a peaceful solution [!!] than the Camp David offer." (37)
• Emphasize the locations of suicide bombings, especially "places that graduate students can imagine themselves congregating [at] - Sbarro pizza restaurant, Dolphinarium disco, Hebrew University cafeteria." (37)
• Blame the Wall and the perpetuation of the conflict in general on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "America's future leaders hate Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If there is such a thing as a magic bullet, this is it." (37)
• "START EARLY. The earlier in life future leaders hear about Israel in a positive vein, the less likely they are to support the Palestinian position as they grow older. … those kids who first heard of Israel through Biblical references when they were five, six, or seven grew up to appreciate the spiritual importance of the Jewish State [!!]. Every Rabbi, Jewish community leader, and knowledgeable pro-Israel activist in America should commit to visiting parochial schools and Sunday schools to talk about Israel to as many children as possible. … Israel has developed a powerful alliance with many Christian organizations, and these alliances need to be utilized to provide teaching opportunities within the church itself." (38)
• "Identify non-Jewish, pro-Israel professors and broadly respected student leaders at the elite college campuses and ask them to help spread the word outside of class." (39)
• "They're disputed territories, not occupied territories." (40)
• "They're Arabs, not Palestinians. The term 'Palestinians' evokes images of refugee camps, victims and oppression. 'Arab' says wealth, oil and Islam." (40)
While the recommendations above deal with the content, more or less, of pro-Israel propaganda, Luntz also has lots of recommendations about form
• "The best way to cut through the clutter of competitive message and their own established biases is, in a word, surprise. … Jewish organizations and those who seek to influence the public debate in favor of Israel must accept the fact that outside-the-box, unconventional advertising is imperative for reaching the future elite." (44)
• Pictures and headlines matter more than body copy in ads. "A large, single striking photo or graphic is more important than all the words on the page." (44-45)
• "Get real. The young elites detest the appearance of anything staged. The only way to grab their hearts and diffuse their skepticism is to provide a does of reality. Everything has to look real, sound real and feel real.
One of the most important reasons why the ad campaigns of so many Jewish organizations have failed to move these people is because of the unreal nature of the executions - words and visuals that were so clearly written by ad executives rather than by real people." (45) [He's right on that score!]
• "The face says everything. In their own words, "all the photos in almost all of these ads are hokey and fake looking, and all the crappy smiles." (45) [Either the designer of the report missed that passage, or, more likely, the report is designed not for these skeptical students but for their more gullible elders.]
• TV advertising isn't a cost-effective way to reach such a narrow stratum, but online advertising could have an impact. (45-46)
• In any such ads, "adhere to the rule of no voiceover. Narrators evoke a harshly negative reaction because they are removed from the crisis at hand and are therefore nothing more than pitchmen. If you want to personalize and humanize your story, rely on the voices of those immersed in this crisis - particularly younger women." (46)
• "The messenger is as important as the message. … Stylistically, it is always better to be soft-spoken and mild-mannered:
*Aggressive, loud men are a turn-off.
*Broken English or a heavy accent is a turn-off. A British accent is the most appealing. [!!]
*Attractive women are always a plus."
• Mothers, especially mothers of terror victims, are especially effective. (39)
• "Take politicians out of the equation. Whenever a U.S. public official appeared in a television or print ad, the young elites lost interest and even grew angry. The presence of political figures - even from Israel [sic] - only fuels the young elites' hostility toward Israel."
• "Selling democracy will succeed. Selling Israel as a model of democracy will fail. … The better approach is to call for true democracy for the Palestinians." (46)
The last pages of the report feature eight sample poster-style ads - five presented as "Ads That Work," three as "Ads That Fail" - with detailed notes about their merits and deficiencies. I won't be surprised to see some derivatives in the BART and MUNI before too long.
Not having much contact with elite campuses, I'm not in much of a position to assess the accuracy of Luntz's findings about the mood of grad students there. But from my casual observations in Berkeley, my home town, and from my general sense of the zeitgeist, I'm quite prepared to believe there's a lot to it. Clearly there's far more sympathy for Palestine, and skepticism about Israel, than there was five or ten years ago. Luntz's report documents one aspect of this trend, and in that sense it's great news.
On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that the report tells the whole story, and the conspicuous absence of quantitative data backing its assertions reinforces my suspicions. Given the firm grip that Zionism still holds is virtually every other milieu in America, the apparent strength of Zionist activism among undergraduates at elite as well as non-elite schools, the enormous representation of Jews on the faculties of most universities (perhaps most of all at the elite schools in his sample), the clear pro-Israel bias of the American media (including the sources Luntz says his students rely on most), and a host of other factors, it's simply not credible that Zionism has ceased to exist or nearly so, among elite graduate students.
One clue is Luntz's observation that "Bush voters are almost all supporters of Israel." Yet the report says virtually nothing about the views of such students. It's not hard to believe that a majority of students in Luntz's sample were anti-Bush, but it's hard to believe that there were so few Bush supporters as to deserve no discussion. Given that Kerry positioned himself as an even more ardent supporter of Zionism than Bush, Luntz's assertion that "Kerry voters almost unanimously back the Palestinians" also strains credulity.
So what else is going on here that might have caused Luntz to exaggerate his findings?
One factor, I suspect, is that Luntz is reflecting and playing to a central theme in the culture of both Israeli and American (and probably European) Jews: "we're fated to be victims until eternity - even though we may seem to be on top of the world at the moment, any day now it could all come crashing down, and our only hope is to wage unremitting struggle to crush our (potential) enemies before they can get to us." Among many Jews, in my experience, this is a sincere conviction; many others seem to find it a useful stance toward the world, an operating assumption, even if they don't really believe the analysis it's based on. (In Beyond Chutzpah, Norman Finkelstein talks about the same phenomenon, in a somewhat different form, in his discussion of Jewish-American leaders so often "crying wolf" about new waves of anti-Semitism.)
A second factor I suspect underlies Luntz's analysis: because that sense of victimhood is so prevalent among Jewish-Americans, tapping it is a great way to raise money - in this case, for The Israel Project and, no doubt, directly or indirectly, for Luntz himself. After all, if the situation is as dire as they describe - from a Zionist perspective - your average rich American Jew will feel duty-bound to chip in to fight back. In this context, it's easier to understand the report's narrow focus on elite universities: the many Jewish alumni of these institutions are, on average, especially wealthy.
Indeed, the report comes with a fund-raising pitch and return envelope, and even before I'd received my copy, I received an e-mail message from Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of the The Israel Project, inviting me to participate in an "exclusive VIP briefing" (a conference call) with Luntz, Ms. Mizrahi herself, and the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. All this "at no charge" - even the long-distance call is free - on just one condition: "make a contribution to TIP by noon, December 13th."
Bottom line: Luntz and TIP are very likely on to some real and positive trends among the students they surveyed, but they've latched on to these phenomena so they can exploit them for their own political and financial ends. Let's celebrate the good news underlying their report, but not delude ourselves into thinking it accurately reflects reality, even in the small world it focuses on.
A final thought: Ms. Mizrahi's fundraising pitch notes that "the considerable cost The Israel Project incurred to reprint the book came at the expense of your [sic] other programs." One more reason to put in your request for a free copy…