As Barack Obama traveled to the Middle East last week for his first presidential visit to Israel, pundits were paying close attention to the personal dynamics between the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Analysts in both countries were wondering if the trip would genuinely repair relations between the two leaders, or if the usual pro forma, but ultimately hollow, affirmations of mutual respect and appreciation would be the hallmark of the visit? (Relations must have thawed enough for Obama to have persuaded Netanyahu to apologize to Turkey for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, though regional instability and shared Turkish-Israeli concern over Syria presumably factored into that decision, as well.)
While the personal feelings that American and Israeli leaders have for each other have influenced (though, I’d argue slightly) US-Israel relations in the past, other factors can be just as critical for continued American support going forward.
As it does every year, Gallup recently released its findings regarding American sympathies towards Israelis and Palestinians. Historically, support for Israelis has been stronger than support for Palestinians, so this year’s results shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who follows these data. Americans, by a margin of 64 to 12 percent, expressed greater sympathy for the Israelis, matching an all-time high. This, Gallup notes, is part of a trend of increased support for Israel over the past decade. All good news, right?
By drilling down, however, we get a more complete and complicated picture of American attitudes. Support among Republicans and older citizens remains strong. However, only 55 percent of those surveyed aged 18-34 expressed greater sympathy with Israelis, compared with the 64 percent overall and 71 percent for those 55 and older. Does that data suggest that young people are expressing greater solidarity with Palestinians and their struggle, at the expense of Israel? Well, no.
In fact, the level of support for Palestinians remains flat among all age cohorts (though it rises to 24% among those self-identified as politically liberal). This indicates, as The David Project’s White Paper A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges argued last year, support for Israel is declining among the college-aged population, not to the benefit of the Palestinian side, but to non-involvement or non-interest. In the long-term, this lack of interest can pose great challenges to the US-Israel relationship – and the strong political and financial backing that comes with it – than whatever personal friction might exist between leaders of the two countries. Finding ways to build support among younger cohorts is absolutely essential if the pro-Israel community wants to maintain the relationship that allows for almost 300 Senators and Congressmen to attend AIPAC’s Policy Conference, and for an Israeli Prime Minister to receive nearly 30 standing ovations during an address to the joint houses of Congress.
Too often as a community, we work ourselves into a frenzy when we see examples of anti-Israel activities, especially on the college campus. This usually reaches a peak in March as anti-Israel groups on many campuses nationwide participate in some form of Apartheid Week, a semi-organized attempt to demonize the Jewish state. At other points throughout the school year, anti-Israel groups erect mock checkpoints or invite outside speakers to bash Israel, Zionism and American support for the region’s only democracy. In reading reports of such spectacles, we assume that support for Israel must be dwindling and that hordes of young students are joining the anti-Israel camp. Some community leaders suggest that the pro-Israel campus community needs to be more vociferous in its response, challenging the detractors by calling out their lies or hypocrisy. “Going negative,” one activist suggests, should be an integral component of campus activity.
There are times, of course, when we need to respond, and respond strongly – if a student is intimidated or harassed, physically threatened, or if his or her academic standing is affected for supporting Israel. However, our overall goal should be to generate a more positive campus discourse on Israel and to help ensure long-term support for Israel in the political arena. Focusing on those objectives does not necessitate attacking the detractors (which often gives them more publicity than what they would otherwise receive), but rather calls upon us to employ a more nuanced, relationship-oriented approach. Such an approach is much more likely to increase support for Israel among a generation of students that reacts better to thoughtful engagement than rancorous debate.
Members of this generation, according to the authors of Millennials Rising, “feel more of an urge to homogenize, and to celebrate the ties that bind, rather than differences that splinter.” Large protests and angry counter-demonstrations will not increase the connectivity of those students who are uninvolved or uninterested in discussions of Israel, nor will they establish the relationships that are critical to long-term support for the Jewish state. While we may despise the anti-Israel programs that aim to smear Israel, we shouldn’t fear students being seduced by their arguments. We should worry more, instead, about pro-Israel students having the necessary support and motivation to actively build a pro-Israel environment.
As a pro-Israel community, we need to employ a strategy and project a vision that relates to the worldview of the younger generation, not try to impose an outdated worldview on them. Though it may be less cathartic than going negative, this more thoughtful, proactive and strategic form of advocacy holds much greater promise in shaping opinions of younger generations of Americans. The relationships that matter in advancing US-Israel relations go far beyond the bonds between two heads of state.
Todd Young is the Director of Campus & Educational Initiatives at The David Project.