exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article Ronnie Gotkin analyses the Kaplan Centre's survey of the Cape Town Jewish community with a specific focus on attitudes towards Israel. He further examines what these findings might mean for Zionist education at Jewish day schools.
IN this article, I will focus on the results of the recent Kaplan Centre survey of the Cape Town Jewish community, pertaining to attitudes towards Israel. My focus is with specific reference to the attitudes of young Capetonian Jews between the ages of 16 and 30. I further examine the implications of these findings for Zionist education at Jewish day schools.
"One can postulate that an older generation whose lived experience includes the horrors of the Holocaust and the ‘romantic’ era of the struggle for the creation of the State of Israel and its battle for survival would feel more committed to Israel."
Of note, the results of the survey are in line with findings of many other countries globally; the older age cohorts tend to be much more attached to Israel than the younger cohorts. With the older cohort, there is a greater level of attachment, with only a smaller number of that cohort not feeling attached to Israel. The figures for Cape Town Jewry are reflected in the following table reflecting attachment to Israel.
From a Zionist perspective, it is encouraging that only a small minority (15%) of young Jews (16-30 years-old) do not feel attached to Israel. This number still presents a challenge, however, especially as only just over a third of these respondents feel very attached to Israel. One can postulate that an older generation whose lived experience includes the horrors of the Holocaust and the ‘romantic’ era of the struggle for the creation of the State of Israel and its battle for survival would feel more committed to Israel.
" ... one also needs to correlate the results of the survey with regard to Israel, with the attitudes of young Jews to Jewish identity, Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood in general. A lesser degree of commitment to Israel could well reflect a lesser degree of commitment to being Jewish in general."
This in contrast to a generation born at a time when the existence of the State is a given. Until the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was generally perceived as David fighting valiantly against Goliath. Currently Israel is a regional superpower and largely the Palestinians enjoy world support as the underdogs, with Israeli policies and actions often deemed controversial.
In addition to interrogating the attitudes of young people towards Israel, one also needs to correlate the results of the survey with regard to Israel, with the attitudes of young Jews to Jewish identity, Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood in general. A lesser degree of commitment to Israel could well reflect a lesser degree of commitment to being Jewish in general.
For those involved in Zionist education, the major challenge is how to reinforce and strengthen our pupils’ sense of attachment to Israel. For Herzlia (which currently enrols approximately 80% of all Jewish pupils in Cape Town), the most interesting and, indeed worrying, finding of the survey is that 56% of the 16-30 cohort do not feel that Herzlia’s education on Israel reflects their views. (Whereas only 28% of the 30-50 cohort feel similarly). However, some interesting responses by the 16-30 cohort to other questions regarding attitudes to Israel both elucidate this finding and also offer interesting, apparent contradictions. The discrepancy in the survey’s findings implies that the views expounded at school are either to the left or to the right of the views held by most pupils. The survey itself does not indicate which of these is the case but anecdotally one can assume that more of the respondents would agree that the latter is the case. Yet, interestingly, when asked whether Israel or the Palestinians are usually or always in the right, and whether settlements are justified or not, most respondents, including the 16-30 cohort (81%), agree that Israel is usually or always in the right, while only 1% believe that Palestine is, on balance, in the right. On the issue of settlements, while approximately 27% of all respondents do not know whether settlements are justified, 41% of the 16-30 cohort are unsure. This greater degree of uncertainty could possibly reflect a lack of knowledge about the issues, or possibly an acknowledgement of the complexity of settlements, which may not be felt as strongly by the older cohort. More than half the respondents (overall, including the younger cohort) regard settlements as “justified” or “fully justified” though a majority of respondents are willing to remove settlements for peace.
These findings seem to indicate a high level of agreement with the justification and rightness of Israel’s actions on the whole from all cohorts, including the younger cohort. There is also no significant sense of the settlements being problematic. (Only 17% of all cohorts believe they are not justified and should be limited or removed).
On the assumption that those students who do not feel that the attitudes on Israel and Zionism expressed at school reflect their own views, and regard the school as being more pro-Israel or more right-wing than they are, one would be hard-pressed to understand why so many pupils feel that there is this discrepancy between their own views and those expressed at school.
"46% of young people would not like Jewish BDS supporters to be censured, compared to an overall result of 22% in this category."
Perhaps some light can be shed on this sentiment by examining the responses to questions concerning the freedom Jewish community members have to criticise Israel in Jewish communal spaces as well as in public spaces. Survey questions which might further elucidate on this discrepancy included attitudes towards Jews who support BDS as legitimate members of Jewish communal organisations and as guest speakers at Jewish events.
While most respondents (83%) agree that South African Jews should be free to criticise Israel in Jewish communal spaces, almost twice as many young people (68%) agree that one should also be able to criticise Israel in public spaces. The 16-30 cohort are also more tolerant of Jewish BDS supporters: Whereas almost half of all respondents would not approve of Jewish BDS supporters speaking at communal events, only 23% of younger people feel the same. That said, 41% of the 16-30 cohort agree that BDS supporters should not be allowed to represent the community in communal organisations and on communal boards (as opposed to 59% overall). 46% of young people would not like Jewish BDS supporters to be censured, compared to an overall result of 22% in this category.
"... while Herzlia (and other Jewish schools) needs to remain faithful to its Zionist mission, the school does need to thoroughly interrogate why so many pupils feel that the school’s views do not reflect their own views."
By and large, the discrepancy between the cohorts therefore does not appear to be rooted as much in their attitudes to Israeli policies and actions as in their willingness to be exposed to alternative views on Israel. It seems likely that the reasons that the responses of the 16-30 cohort on these issues is so divergent to the other cohorts might be a greater scepticism by younger people in general about what they are taught and a greater willingness to engage with opposing views and standpoints, for example with proponents of BDS. (As BDS is generally considered to be a movement which supports the destruction of Israel, Herzlia’s policy is not to provide BDS supporters a platform on issues concerning Israel). In the light of the above, while Herzlia (and other Jewish schools) needs to remain faithful to its Zionist mission, the school does need to thoroughly interrogate why so many pupils feel that the school’s views do not reflect their own views. We need to ask what can be done to narrow that gap. It is important therefore to ensure that Israel-based curricula are as balanced as possible, and allow for open discussion and the expression of different perspectives and viewpoints. The open forums which have been introduced in the High School are one example of what can be done to ensure free debate on these issues, although more could be done in this regard. Needless to say, it is also incumbent on the school to ensure that its pupils are equipped with the requisite knowledge of the history of Israel and the conflict which should always inform opinions, whatever these opinions might be.
Ronnie Gotkin holds a Masters degree in education and is currently Director of Hebrew at Herzlia, having served previously as principal of Herzlia Highlands Primary. He also teaches courses at the Florence Melton Institute for Adult Jewish Learning.