Caitlin Baird and others in the Hillel of Metro Detroit Israel Fellowship program.
Caitlin Baird and others in the Hillel of Metro Detroit Israel Fellowship program.

Oakland University Student Caitlin Baird writes about doing research to find the answer to “Does the younger generation truly understand what it means to be a Zionist”?

Walking through the halls of my inclusive and diverse college campus, it is easy to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance no matter where you go. Students proudly express their own identities and individualism freely, knowing they are protected and safe to do so in a generation that is continuously pushing for tolerance. However, I began to realize that a part of my identity that I so confidently displayed was not only greatly misunderstood, but also put down by my fellow peers. This part of my identity was being a proud Zionist.

I expressed this part of my identity by wearing my favorite hoodie almost every week. It was jet black with an Israeli flag on the back and a gold Star of David embroidered on the right shoulder. I began to notice the uncomfortable stares and negative attention this gathered as I walked past crowds of students on my way to class. I thought nothing much of the looks, until the glances and staring turned to odd comments and questions from near strangers. One student waiting in the same line as me in the cafeteria caught me off guard, “How could you support something so hateful?” he asked. Others commented throughout the day, “Israel is not a legitimate country” and “Israelis are oppressors.” Others seemed to just shy away as these comments were announced, with not a single student coming to the defense of Israel. 

Strange and misled opinions such as these took me to question: Does the younger generation truly understand what it means to be a Zionist? What relation, if any, do they have to the Israel-Palestine conflict that provides them with such a mindset?

In an effort to understand, I interviewed 90 students from three local colleges (30 at each campus). Students were asked if they were familiar with the term Zionism and if they could provide a definition of the concept, as well as their thoughts toward the State of Israel if any. 

An overwhelming majority of students, 78 total, were unfamiliar with the term Zionism and did not understand what it meant to be a Zionist. However, these same students who were unfamiliar with the concept of Zionism were quick to answer the second question. Forty nine of the 78 students expressed negative opinions toward the State of Israel. 

With further inquiry as to why they felt the way they did, many students spoke of influence they have had from the BDS movement and other anti-Israeli sentiments. Forty of these students were unable to provide the correct acronym for BDS or a precise reasoning for their support of the movement. As for the students who were familiar with Zionism, eight replied with intense opposition of the State of Israel, three responded with support and the remaining student expressed indifference. 

Upon viewing these results and witnessing the attitudes expressed during the interviews, a realization was made that many students hold anti-Israel sentiment views without understanding the conflict or history of the State itself. Many students are not exposed to the other end of the argument in the Israel-Palestine conflict as well. 

At the end of each interview, I informed the individual student that I myself was a Zionist and asked what their opinion was of me in regards to now knowing this. The majority of students responded politely and/or indifferently. Four students responded surprised with the statement “But you seem so nice” or “I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.” 

However, most of the remaining students responded quite negatively and left abruptly. This has enlightened me that representation of Zionist views is near absent on college campuses and among the younger generation. For progress to be made, and for our younger generation to have a solid base for their beliefs, representation of pro-Israeli views should be brought to light and to the attention of our youth.

Caitlin Baird is a third-year linguistics student at Oakland University.  She recently completed Hillel of Metro Detroit’s Israel Fellowship program.

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