Updated: May 25, 2021 8:08:09 am
Since the start of Ramadan in mid-April, there have been nightly clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinians, with threatened evictions of Palestinian families living in East Jerusalem re-escalating tensions in the decades-long conflict. In response to the deaths of over 200 people, mostly in Gaza, pro-Palestinian protests have erupted across the Western world including in America, a long-time ally of Israel. On May 15, the anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian exodus from Israel, thousands of demonstrators marched in solidarity with Palestine in several US cities including Washington DC, Brooklyn, Phoenix, Dearborn and Memphis.
These protests reflect a growing trend within the US electorate wherein younger Americans are more likely than their predecessors to take a critical stance on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. A 2021 YouGov survey found that only 45.5% of Americans under the age of 30 considered Israel to be an ally of the US compared to 83.8% of Americans over 65 and 71% of Americans overall. Favourability levels towards the Palestinian Authority have increased amongst the younger generation as well, with students in particular expressing deep concern over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. For young Americans, the conflict between Israel and Palestine can be viewed through the lens of Israel’s dominant military advantage, shifts in domestic American politics and liberal college ecosystems. Their perspectives in turn, could have implications on US foreign policy moving forward.
Israel’s global standing
America has historically been very closely aligned with Israel since the formation of the Jewish state in 1947. However, it was in the aftermath of the 1967 war between Israel and a coalition of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, that support from America became unequivocal. During the Cold War, Arab States were under Soviet influence and from a foreign policy calculus, it was in America’s national interest to maintain Israel as an ally in the Middle East. Israel also enjoyed strong support from the American public and Israeli lobbies contribute heavily to US electoral campaigns. The largest of those lobbies, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, regularly sees upwards of 20,000 attendees at its annual conference and prominent US politicians like Donald Trump and Joe Biden have made appearances there as well.
Dov Waxman, the chair of Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that the newfound support for Palestine amongst American youth can be attributed to Israel’s transformation from the ‘underdog’ to being a dominant military power in the Middle East. He tells Indianexpress.com that “older generations came of age politically during a time when Israel was seen as a vulnerable country surrounded by enemies” whereas younger Americans view Palestinians as “the proverbial David against Israel’s Goliath”. Waxman argues that even American Jews, who have a strong sense of their Jewish identity, are now more willing than older generations to separate an intrinsic “attachment towards Israel from support for the policies of the Israeli government.”
In the article, ‘Joys and Dangers of Solidarity in Palestine,’ published in 2008, Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bard University, expands upon that sentiment, noting that Israeli culture in the 21st century focuses on security, “leaving peace and reconciliation” behind in favour of dealing with an “existential Arab threat”. This in turn, she asserts, is one of the most prominent reasons why younger American Jews oppose Israeli violations committed “in their name”.
Israel’s domestic shift to the right has been well-documented in the Western press. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has relied on far-right factions to maintain his grip on power, and the country, under his leadership, has seen extremists, once relegated to the fringes of politics, occupy positions of power in the Knesset. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 48% of Israeli Jews want Arabs expelled from the country and towards that end, in the last 12 years, Israel’s settlement population has ballooned from 490,000 people to more than 700,000. In a controversial report published in April of this year, the non-profit group Human Rights Watch, characterised Israel’s policies towards Palestinians as constituting “crimes against humanity.”
Arie Perlinger and Ami Pedahzur, both experts on security studies, reinforce this notion in their 2018 publication, The Radical Right in Israel. They state that until the early 2000s most authoritarian sentiments in Israel were restricted to “far right political entities,” but more recently, there has been a “clear tendency amongst members of more mainstream parties to promote such ideas as well”. Waxman thinks that the perspectives of younger Americans are influenced by those shifts, noting that they “have only known Netanyahu, as most weren’t politically active during the tenure of Israeli Prime Ministers who have veered centre-left”.
Tamir Bar-On, Professor at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, however, disagrees with this view. Speaking to Indianexpress.com over the phone, he says: “Yes, there has been a right-wing drift in Israel”. He, however, insists that protests in America “have less to do with what is happening in Israel and more to do with domestic trends”.
American domestic politics
In the past, US support for Israel transcended party lines. During the first Intifada, then-President Ronald Reagan criticised Israel for “harsh security measures” but continued providing it with aid and special access to US military technology. In 2012, when Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza, then-President Obama defended Israel’s actions, stating that the US was “fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself.”
However, in recent years, there has been a polarisation of views towards Israel amongst Democratic and Republican voters. Democrats, who are much younger on average than Republicans, view Netanyahu and by extension Israel, in negative terms because of “his opposition to President Obama over the Iran nuclear deal but more significantly, because of his embrace of President Trump,” according to Waxman. This anti-Trump, anti-establishment bent amongst American youth is exacerbated by the emergence of left-wing politicians, notably Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her ‘squad’ of like-minded Congressional Democrats. Members of the squad have prominently criticised Israel, with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “an imbalance of power,” Rep. Ilhan Omar calling Netanyahu an “ethno-nationalist” and Rep. Ayanna Pressley comparing the suffering of Palestinians to that of black people in America. Another member of the squad, Rep. Rashida Talib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, proclaimed that aid to Israel must be conditioned “on compliance with international human rights and end (to) the apartheid”. The squad has a disproportionate influence over young American voters, with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez boasting a Twitter following of 12.7 million users. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Dem) in comparison has 7 million followers on Twitter and the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has 2 million.
These domestic political trends towards liberalism have been mirrored on college campuses. Long considered bastions of liberal thought, colleges have inculcated activist movements, both in the past and in terms of the current conflict in Israel. Professor of Middle Eastern politics, M Hallward, in her book ‘Transnational Activism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,’ writes that “college campuses have an extensive history of social activism,” pointing to movements in the 1970s against the apartheid regime in South Africa as the predecessors of the divestment movement against Israel that characterised the first mainstream student opposition to the actions of the Israeli government. According to Bar-On, colleges in the US are fundamentally infused with “anti-fascist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial politics’” thus serving as the perfect ecosystems for the seeds of protest movements to be planted.
Additionally, as college campuses become more diverse, students are increasingly exposed to views that may challenge the ones they had known before. According to Waxman, given that Americans view the situation in Israel through the lens of domestic politics, they are “able to draw parallels between the issues of Palestinians and those faced by Black Americans.” Consequently, campuses that have served as the stage for Black Lives Matter protests, would also align themselves with Palestinians in opposition to what they see as colonialist Israeli policies. Moreover, with increasing diversity, American students are also exposed to more opinions. “As America becomes more diverse,” says Waxman, “one thing that has penetrated the consciousness of younger Americans is familiarity with the Palestinian narrative through people they know. Older Americans didn’t have that exposure.”
Social media sites have also contributed to this shift in attitudes. Following the escalation in the conflict, protest videos began to appear on social media sites, with one, allegedly showing people fleeing Israeli air-strikes in Gaza, being viewed over 44 million times on TikTok. Proponents of social media point to its democratising effect, alluding to the ways in which it can be used to mobilise groups of people whose opinions may be marginalised by the mainstream media. Two Flemish researchers, Steve Paulussen and Raymond Harder, in a 2014 study, even point to the effects of Twitter in making issues and opinions “newsworthy,” thus conferring upon them legitimacy in terms of public perspectives. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, youth in America are overwhelmingly more likely to use social media as a means to highlight support for certain causes and collect information on protests and gatherings happening around them. Interestingly, the same survey showed that 72% of young Americans thought that social media makes people think they are making a difference where they really aren’t.
Foreign Policy Impact
Robbins writes that even as “the Palestinian struggle has become powerful and central…we know that American solidarity with the Palestinians has little direct effect on decisions made in Washington.” In the past at least, that sentiment has rung true. American political support for Israel has remained steadfast under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Biden has reinforced his own support for Israel on multiple occasions in his capacity as a Senator, Vice President and President respectively. While he has opposed Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank, he said in a 2019 interview to PBS NewsHour, that the “idea that we would cut off military aid to an ally, our only true ally in the entire region, is absolutely preposterous.” Thus, according to Waxman, while there has been “unprecedented Congressional debate over Israel” in recent months, “in policy terms, we are a long way from seeing any major shifts as Biden is still very much taking a pro-Israel line in this conflict which should continue in the short term.”
In the long run however, shifting sentiments could significantly alter America’s approach to Israel. As per a report from the Pew Research Centre, the Baby Boomer generation, statistically likely to be more pro-Israel, are slowly retiring from public life. In 2017, they accounted for 62.1% of the total number of seats in the US House of Representatives. In comparison, the 116th Congress, which began its term in January 2019, had 53.9% of its seats occupied by Baby Boomers, with Millennial participation conversely increasing from 5 members in 2017 to 26 in 2019. These freshman Representatives are overwhelmingly younger, more liberal and more diverse than members of previous Congresses. They have already demonstrated a willingness to “condemn the Israeli government and scrutinise American aid to Israel” according to Waxman. Thus, in the future he says, “when that aid agreement comes up to be renewed, there will be a lot more debate than there has been in the past, where America basically issued Israel a blank cheque.”
Julie Ellison, A Short History of Liberal Guilt, Critical Inquiry (1996)
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, The Joys and Dangers of Solidarity in Palestine: Prosthetic Engagement in an Age of Reparations, The New Centennial Review (2008)
Arie Perliger and Ami Pedahzur, The Radical Right in Israel, The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right (2018)
M. Hallward, Transnational Activism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2008)
John Ellis, The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done (2020)
Steve Paulussen and Raymond Harder, Social Media References in Newspapers. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as Sources in Newspaper Journalism, Journalism Practice (2014)
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