Do pro-Palestinian protests indicate a shift in US support for Israel?

The relationship between the United States and Israel has been very close almost since the founding of the Jewish-led state 76 years ago.

Israel has depended on America's money, weapons, and global diplomatic defense to survive and prosper. Until recently, support was tireless from a bipartisan core of Congress and American politicians, and generally American voters as well.

Israel, which formed as a refuge for Holocaust survivors, was often portrayed as a victim and an enduring ally of the United States in a difficult and dangerous part of the world.

Israel's seven-month war against the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip is testing that relationship.

In reaction to tens of thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths, young Americans are protesting on numerous college campuses across the country. While there have also been pro-Israel demonstrations, the largest and loudest have been in support of the Palestinians.

Here's a closer look at what the protests could mean for the US-Israel relationship, US-Middle East politics and whether the next generation of Americans will chart a different course.

Why are young people suddenly so interested in this topic?

The Palestinian cause – the quest of millions of Palestinians for independence and a sovereign state after mass displacement by the creation of Israel in 1948 – was totally marginalized during the Trump administration and remained in the background while President Biden sought the normalization of the Israeli ties with its Arab neighbors.

Then came October 7, 2023. Legions of Hamas militants and allies invaded from Gaza into southern Israel, killing, burning, and taking hostages. Around 1,200 Israelis were killed at several kibbutzim and at a music festival; More than 200 were captured and transported back to Gaza.

Israel's retaliation was brutal and massive. More than 34,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israeli air and ground attacks. Most of Gaza's population of 2.3 million has been forced to flee their demolished homes.

This horrifying new chapter in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict brought the issue back to the forefront.

Which side do younger Americans support?

Even before Israel invaded Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack, polls showed a significant number of unfavorable views of Israel among young Americans.

In a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 41% of adults under 30 had a favorable opinion of Israel, compared to 56% unfavorable.

By contrast, majorities of all age groups over 50 viewed Israel favorably.

A Pew poll in February found that among young Democrats, support for the Palestinians was overwhelming: 47% favored the Palestinians compared to 7% favoring Israel. Support also declined slightly among older Americans, falling just below the majority, but this did not translate into support for the Palestinians.

What is the difference between age groups?

In addition to the unpopularity of Israel's counterattack in Gaza, the generational divide is affected by history and perspective.

“There is a generational replacement,” said Ethan Porter, a professor of media, public affairs and political science at George Washington University in Washington.

While narratives about Israel and Palestine some 30 years ago relied heavily on memories of the Holocaust, activists today are more inclined to see Israel not as the home of genocide survivors, but as a colonial occupying power. that perpetuates it.

Younger Americans also have no firsthand memories of terrifying episodes of Palestinian terrorism, such as airline hijackings in the 1970s and suicide bus bombings in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Additionally, young people (particularly college students) are predisposed to activism on behalf of those considered oppressed or discriminated against, following the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements that demand equity, justice, and civil rights.

Does this mean that young American voters care more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Not necessarily.

Polls suggest that the Middle East is not at the top of the minds of large numbers of young Americans.

The Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, which has been surveying young voters for more than two decades, found in a survey this year that among 16 issues of importance to voters under 30, the war between Israel and Gaza was in second place. last place.

The top issues in order were inflation, healthcare and housing.

Is Israel losing the public relations battle for young Americans?

Maybe.

Over the years, Israeli governments have invested a lot of effort in what they call their hasbara, or global public relations, pushing the Israeli narrative around the world.

And it was a great success. This may be the first episode in the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which the Palestinian cause has driven American discourse.

There are many reasons. The magnitude of Israel's attack on Gaza, with massive destruction that wiped out entire families, went beyond previous Israeli offensives and quickly eclipsed the October 7 attacks. It is difficult to put a positive spin on tens of thousands of dead.

The evolution of social media into a ubiquitous visual force has relentlessly shown the world the suffering of Gazans.

A new generation of Palestinian activists seems much better organized than their predecessors. The Palestinian public relations machinery was relatively ineffective in the past.

Today, Palestinian activists keep busy WhatsApp chats and can flood the area on par with the Israeli hasbara.

“Social media allows people to see a ton of material that affirms what they believe,” Porter said. “The cumulative effect is powerful over time.”

Will the protests change American politics?

That is the big question.

So far, the university protests, while drawing a lot of attention, show no signs of changing US policy toward the Middle East.

On Thursday, when President Biden was asked directly whether he would alter his approach to Israel in response to the chaos on campus, he gave a one-word answer: “No.”

Several attempts in Congress to condition the billions of dollars in aid the United States gives to Israel have gone nowhere.

Biden has continued to strongly support Israel's right to self-defense, but has also moderated his tolerance for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, who consistently reject Washington's efforts to force Israel to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. and allow the entry of desperately needed food, water, medicine and other humanitarian aid.

It is Netanyahu's bellicose presence at the helm of Israel's government that has also turned off many American voters, including former supporters of Israel, polls show.

Biden is also facing a sharp decline in his political support among Arab American voters, especially in swing states like Michigan, which have a large community of descendants from Lebanon and other Arab nations.

Will these passions last among younger Americans?

It's hard to say whether these feelings have staying power.

As college semesters come to an end for the summer, protests may subside.

Students become employed adults and often become more conservative or dominant in their politics, as happened with baby boomers.

Another major Palestinian terrorist attack inside Israel, or violent anti-Semitic attacks in the United States, could also restore sympathy for Israel.

On the other hand, young people are promising to take the pro-Palestinian struggle to other places, including the Democratic National Convention scheduled for August in Chicago and corporate headquarters seen as complicit in funding the Israeli war effort.

Is this an echo of the protests against the Vietnam War?

Some comparisons have been drawn between the current wave of protest and the antiwar movement against American military involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, a truly transformative period in American history that began on college campuses and continued. spread throughout the country.

Some of today's images evoke images from a generation ago. Occupy academic buildings. Singing on the green lawn of the university. Fights. And be arrested by the police.

At Columbia University in New York, the same campus building occupied in 1968, Hamilton Hall, was again raided and confiscated by activists in recent days.

But Vietnam had a much more direct impact on many more Americans, infusing popular culture and dominating national discourse. Tens of thousands of American men and women were sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia and killed in combat. A mandatory draft saw the pain spread across families across the country and across society.

“You can see why people are tempted to make the analogy,” said Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University who specializes in the Vietnam War and other conflicts. “But the differences are even more striking.”

Namely, among other elements: the acceleration of both the protest and the response.

Years of the Vietnam War passed before the anti-war movement gained momentum; The war in Gaza is about to enter its seventh month. Police units to break up university demonstrations in the Vietnam era were not called in until well into the phenomenon, not in the first days.

Furthermore, Schulman said, the medium-term consequences of the massive anti-war demonstrations in the Vietnam era were not at all what the protesters were seeking. Nationally, the Democratic Party collapsed, politics generally became more conservative, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, and the war dragged on for several more years with some of the bloodiest and deadliest battles to that date.

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