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Young Americans Are Swinging Toward Palestine’s Cause

Israel’s support of right-wing politics abroad has backfired.

By , a Palestinian-American writer.
Demonstrators line a New York City sidewalk, holding Palestinian flags and picket signs. A protester in the foreground holds a white poster that reads "Palestinian lives matter," with a heart drawn in the colors of the flag.
Demonstrators line a New York City sidewalk, holding Palestinian flags and picket signs. A protester in the foreground holds a white poster that reads "Palestinian lives matter," with a heart drawn in the colors of the flag.
Supporters of Palestine demonstrate in Times Square in New York City on April 8. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.” Those were the words spoken by then-Israeli citizen, now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2001 to a group in the northern West Bank settlement of Ofra, picked up by a hot mic. Fast forward two decades, and it appears the prime minister was right—the U.S. public is movable, though not exactly in the way he thought. Polling over the past few years indicates that U.S. support for Israel is on a steady decline, while sympathy for Palestinians in the eyes of Americans has been on the rise.

“America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.” Those were the words spoken by then-Israeli citizen, now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2001 to a group in the northern West Bank settlement of Ofra, picked up by a hot mic. Fast forward two decades, and it appears the prime minister was right—the U.S. public is movable, though not exactly in the way he thought. Polling over the past few years indicates that U.S. support for Israel is on a steady decline, while sympathy for Palestinians in the eyes of Americans has been on the rise.

Part of this is because Israel, once a bipartisan cause, has now become strongly associated with the right. Years of mutual infatuation between the U.S. Republican Party and Israel’s far-right Likud party culminated in the Trump administration’s internationally condemned decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel to the disputed city of Jerusalem. In turn, the recent rise of a progressive flank within the Democratic Party has produced politicians such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal, who are both willing to openly criticize the nature of the Israeli state.

The old impulses are still there, as evidenced by the pushback after Jayapal’s recent description of Israel as a racist state. But more Americans than ever, especially among the young, share Jayapal’s assessment of Israel. A Gallup poll released in March and a University of Maryland poll released in April show, respectively, that Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israelis, and that more than a fifth of Democrats view Israel to be a “state with segregation similar to apartheid.”  The Jewish Electorate Institute has found that nearly 35 percent of Jewish Americans agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.”

Columnists and analysts have been keen to agree that Netanyahu’s multiple premierships over the past three decades have played a major role in disillusioning Americans. Since 1996, Netanyahu has served more than 15 years as prime minister in three nonconsecutive terms. His longest term lasted from 2009 to 2021, during which he publicly clashed with former U.S. President Barack Obama and embraced his far-right successor, Donald Trump. Today, Bibi is overseeing the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Yet it would be a mistake to attribute the shift in public opinion to Netanyahu’s rocky relationship with Obama or his love affair with Trump. While Netanyahu’s presence in the public consciousness has helped polarize the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict around partisan lines, the data suggests that this steep decline in support for Israel cannot be pinned on just one individual. The Gallup poll in particular, conducted entirely within the month of February, shows that there was an approximate 11-point shift in public sentiment in just the past 12 months. This is notable because Netanyahu only returned to office in December of last year, indicating that the government of change led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid in rotation did little to meaningfully improve the image of the Israeli state in the eyes of Democratic voters in the United States.

Beyond the heightened polarization along partisan lines, evidenced by the various polls since May 2021, there is also a stark generational divide. While baby boomers and Generation X poll as more sympathetic to Israelis, millennials have been shifting toward Palestinians. Gallup polling finds that “millennials are now evenly divided,” with 42 percent sympathizing more with the Palestinians and 40 percent with the Israelis. These statistics come at a moment when Israel is more integrated into the region than ever before, with the notion of an Israel surrounded by enemies fading away as states such as the United Arab Emirates and Sudan normalize relations and deepen cooperation via the Abraham Accords. In contrast, the Palestinians are further away from an end to occupation than they were before the First Intifada of the 1980s, and with formal annexation on the horizon, the widening gap in strength has become difficult to ignore.

Even among evangelical Christians, support for Israel is plummeting. Over the span of just three years, from 2018-21, support for Israel among younger evangelicals dropped from 69 percent to 33 percent. Younger Christians, generally more racially diverse and conscious of the morally corrosive qualities of figures like Trump, are diverging from their elders on issues such as immigration and climate change, and their views on Israel are no exception.

Public outcry from the international community in response to the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh by the Israeli army, as well as the dispute between the Israeli state and the Palestinian Jerusalemite residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, have been massive contributing factors to these shifts in perception as well. In the United States, nearly half of all Democrats under 34 years old disapproved of President Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza crisis in 2021. Many Democratic members of Congress, spearheaded by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, continue to demand answers in the wake of Israel’s decision not to prosecute the soldiers responsible for Abu Akleh’s death. In the case of the latter, systemic discrimination and state-backed displacement against Palestinians has inspired Black activists across the United States to draw comparisons between the Black Lives Matter movement and the cause of Palestinian liberation.

This more intersectional approach reflects the increased awareness of what life under the occupation is like, especially after the killing of Iyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man, by Israeli police occurred the same week that George Floyd was murdered in the United States. The jarring parallels in brutality and subjugation have caused intra-Jewish conversations about how to approach civil rights in America and Israel-Palestine as more people in both regions are drawing connections between them. Unlike the case of George Floyd, the policeman who killed Iyad was acquitted of all charges, renewing outrage and despair about the systematic lack of accountability. With social media’s prominent role, more activists in social justice movements have found themselves exposed to the ways in which the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza produces conditions that amount to injustice for Palestinians.

The ascent of the progressive wing in the Democratic Party has further strengthened the Palestinian perspective in U.S. politics. In 2018, the United States saw the first two Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives. One of them is Tlaib, a Palestinian woman whose grandmother is living under Israeli military occupation. Tlaib’s vocal support of Palestinian self-determination has helped facilitate a new tendency within Democratic politics that dissents from the more mainstream, bipartisan consensus touted by Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party.

Political analyst Abe Silberstein noted that it’s not just Tlaib anymore who strongly supports Palestinian self-determination. Whereas in years past, commemoration of the Nakba—the displacement of Palestinians by the creation of the Israeli state in 1948—would have been completely taboo on Capitol Hill, Tlaib’s Nakba Day event was hosted by Jewish Sen. Bernie Sanders in a Senate hearing room and also saw a prominent Black congresswoman, Cori Bush, in attendance. Progressive organizations within Jewish American society, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street as well as more broadly left-wing organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America, are beginning to take a sharper line toward Israel, thus applying pressure to the Democratic Party’s consensus and moving some Democrats, even moderates such as Betty McCollum and Andre Carson, toward a proactive approach.

The situation is only likely to get more divisive. With a government of self-described “fascist homophobes” and militant followers of the ultranationalist Meir Kahane’s ideology, Israel teeters on the edge of embracing an openly Jewish supremacist, anti-democratic political program that risks alienating even traditional Democratic supporters of Israel. As the occupation continues to crystalize and de facto annexation takes place under the auspices of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, criticism of Israel’s role in the conflict is likely only to grow in scope and harshness, especially given the recent and rapid deterioration in the relationship between the Israeli government and the Jewish diaspora in the United States. It is unlikely that these actions can be easily reversed, especially without pressure from Washington and the broader international community.

In recent months, settler-led pogroms in the Palestinian villages of Huwara and Turmus Aya have further shocked the consciousness of Americans: Jewish, Arab, and otherwise. The U.S. public is sensing that the status quo of 2023 resembles something more of an unequal, unjust one-state reality than a complicated war between two nations. Today, the Palestinian narrative of a desire for the end of the occupation and some arrangement of self-determination or equality is compelling to progressives. Tomorrow, barring a dramatic change in the trajectory of the conflict, that narrative is bound to become compelling to more and more people. Perhaps America can be moved in the right direction.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh is a Palestinian-American writer.

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