Over the last 30 years, there has been a dramatic shift in how the American Jewish community relates to Israel. There are several elements to this shift: The narrative of “draining the swamps and making the desert bloom” that so galvanized American Jewish support in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s, no longer seems to hold true. Furthermore, according to recent studies, millennials are less likely than any other group to hold religious or political affiliation — which has undergirded support of Israel for so many years. Finally, the environment on campus has become increasingly hostile, undermining those who seek a connection with Israel during the all-important college years.
This shift is driving conversations at every level. Organizations focused on Israel advocacy are discussing new engagement strategies. Jewish community leaders are digging deeper to understand why progressives and mainline Protestant churches sometimes see intersectionality between social justice and BDS movements. The Israeli government is for the first time investing in programs, like Birthright Israel, that seek to support the Diaspora community’s connection to Israel without the underlying goal of promoting aliyah. Even the U.S. government is aware of, and vocal about, the broadening chorus of American Jewish voices and the nuances of our connection to Israel.
While there is a great work being done to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship in this new environment, the themes of most of those efforts remain either political or religious. We are so busy explaining what Israel is and why people should care that we are missing a more important question: Never mind what we want them to think — what do people want for themselves?
Answering this question points us towards a different set of strategies, focused on creating a long-term, sustainable relationship with Israel that is built on self-interest and not advocacy. TAMID Group is a case in point — an organization that was founded eight years ago by two students who were involved with pro-Israel activism, and found they were engaging the same small group of people on campus. They recognized that the vast majority of the student body couldn’t be bothered to care about the issue. After thinking about it for some time, they opted for a different way to engage students on that which they did care about: their own future.
TAMID engages students by providing the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders with a way to build their skills and resumes: working with Israel’s most innovative companies. Through remote strategy consulting during the semester, and an immersive internship in Israel during the summer, TAMID’s engagement is built on self-interest in one’s own career. The idea these two students had was that a connection to Israel built on professional ambitions would sidestep religion and politics, and have real long-term potential.
TAMID has only been around eight years, and we are still a small nonprofit, with about 1,500 students on 35 campuses. But we’ve learned some important things about engagement that have proven critical to our rapid growth and the quality of our programs, and we believe they are lessons that will serve everyone working to build the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Student leadership: When students are in charge of running the programs from which they benefit, there is never a question of losing relevance or quality. Growth itself becomes a testament to success.
Year-round engagement: While many programs are short-term or lose some students over the summer, TAMID is both a summer program and a campus program. Our year-round engagement with students and Israeli companies ensures ongoing involvement and a constantly growing connection to Israel.
Be what you are: When speaking the language of finance, consulting and entrepreneurship, hot-button topics like politics and religion never enter the conversation. Not all of our students are Jewish, and not all of them are Israel advocates. But you only have to speak to one to see his or her passion for Israel.
Yoni Heilman is the executive director of TAMID Group, whose mission is to train the next generation of business leaders and instill in them a strong and lasting connection to Israel.