By Arab News
By Kerry Boyd Anderson
In response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and the subsequent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, US foreign policy has remained resolutely in favor of Israel. On the surface, US public opinion also appears to be heavily pro-Israel, but the latest conflict highlights growing partisan and generational gaps in Americans’ attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Overall, Americans tend to support Israel over the Palestinians. Polls conducted after the Hamas attack produced varying results, but all clearly showed that more Americans sympathize with Israelis than with Palestinians. While support for Israel spiked in the wake of the horrific attack, polling before the attack showed that more than half of Americans sympathize more with Israel.
However, US public opinion is far less solidly united behind Israel than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. For decades, Israel received unquestioning support from both Republicans and Democrats. Today, Republican support for Israel remains solid, with a March Gallup poll finding that 78 percent of Republicans sympathized more with Israelis than Palestinians. Among Democrats, however, views have changed significantly. In March, a Gallup poll showed that, for the first time, more Democrats said they sympathized more with Palestinians (49 percent) than Israelis (38 percent).
Recent polling suggests that the Hamas attack drove up Democratic sympathy with Israel and drove down sympathy for the Palestinians, but that is likely to change as more Palestinians are killed and suffer in Gaza. Many Democratic activists have openly criticized President Joe Biden for not doing more to help Palestinian civilians.
There is also a distinct difference between generational attitudes. A Quinnipiac University poll, conducted after the attack, highlighted the generation gap. It clearly showed that younger Americans, while still generally supportive of Israel, are much more likely to take Palestinian concerns into account. For example, among American voters aged 18 to 34, 41 percent said they sympathized more with Israel, while 26 percent sympathized more with the Palestinians. By comparison, among those aged 50 to 64, 73 percent sympathized more with Israel and only 7 percent more with the Palestinians. Fifty-one percent of those aged 18 to 34 opposed sending more US weapons to Israel in response to the Hamas attack.
Several factors are driving both the partisan and generational divides. Historically, most Americans consumed media from a relatively small number of sources, which served as gatekeepers to information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More recently, news media outlets have become far more diffuse and Americans today — especially younger Americans — have access to a much more diverse set of voices. The lowering of barriers to entry in media, combined with social media and smartphones with cameras, has made it much more possible for Palestinians to share their voices and experiences.
Some factors are particularly relevant for young Democrats. Their growing emphasis on social justice has highlighted the power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, increasing some Americans’ understanding of the challenges that Palestinians face. The shift in Israeli politics toward the far right and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s specific alignment with the Republican Party also led many Democrats to question their country’s unconditional alliance with Israel. The decline in religious identity among young Americans, especially in the Democratic Party, has reduced the sense of devotion to the idea of the “Holy Land.”
For younger generations in general, there is a willingness to question the assumptions of traditional US foreign policy. Also, younger Americans are further removed in time from the horrors of the Holocaust and from when Israel appeared to be a fledgling state at risk of annihilation. They see Israel today as an established state with a highly capable military that has both the power to defend itself and the responsibility that comes with such power. Importantly, many young Jewish Americans are more willing to question and criticize Israeli policies than in the past and the partisan and generational gap applies to the Jewish American community as well as others.
Today, US media coverage is more balanced than it was two decades ago. Some Washington think tanks give a voice to experts who criticize the Israeli government. US public opinion is not as unquestioning as in the past.
At the same time, older generations — including both Republicans and Democrats — who maintain a strong sense of devotion to Israel still control foreign policy and much about the discussion in the US. Biden, at 80 years old, has a view of Israel that is strongly shaped by his generation’s views.
More than 400 congressional aides, who tend to be much younger than their bosses in Congress, have signed an open letter condemning the Hamas attack while also expressing concern for Palestinian civilians and calling for a ceasefire. The letter represents a notable break from the decades of unquestioning loyalty to Israel in Congress. However, the aides signed the letter anonymously due to very real fears that they would lose their jobs or face violent threats. The letter and its signatories’ fears demonstrate both changing attitudes and the reality that leaders with strongly pro-Israel views continue to dominate policy.
Younger Americans and many Democrats are increasingly open to Palestinian voices, concerned about their suffering and aware of the US’ role. However, older generations still dominate foreign policy and Republicans also play a key role. American attitudes are shifting, but it will be years before that is likely to significantly change US policy, which will come far too late for the thousands currently under attack in Gaza.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. X: @KBAresearch