It appears that many seasoned commentators on Israel believe that, whatever happens with Netanyahu’s speech in Congress—and within the Israeli election to follow—nothing significant will change regarding American support for Israel. There have been rough patches before. The relationship between the two democracies is too ethically and strategically essential to be harmed. It would be political suicide for a candidate from either the Democrats or Republicans to question Israel, or our alliance with Israel, very strongly. A nuclear Iran is, after all, a very serious issue. Predictably, the speech will be praised as a success, no damage done, a momentary “flap.”
These are seasoned voices, “old hands” on the Middle East, but I believe they are wrong. While it is probably true that little will change in the short term, they neglect the long-term impact of Netanyahu’s almost compulsive snubbing of the President, his administration, and basic foreign policy protocol. Things have a way of adding up. And what they are adding up to, for a significant number of Americans—especially young Americans—is a reciprocal, “Screw you.”
Students of mine openly wonder what Netanyahu thinks he is doing. Perhaps because of our own partisan divide, the notion that his visit is sincerely in the interest of Israel’s welfare—rather than part of a political circus—is credible to almost none of them.
It would be easy, and partly right, to suggest that these young Americans are petulant and without historical perspective. They typically know little about the real struggles Israel has faced, about the genuine dangers Iran and other anti-Israel nations pose, or about the full story of the U.S./Israel relationship. Indeed, many young Americans are entirely unaware of these things. But the point remains that the current moment makes them less likely ever to become aware. Or to care one way or the other. The present moment evokes, at best, boredom and fatigue as far as Israel’s welfare is concerned.
So one can be appropriately critical of this generation’s short-sightedness and limited historical perspective. But no such excuse can be made for Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Israeli and American allies. If he and they are gambling with a generation of good will toward Israel, it may not be fair, but they are nonetheless largely responsible.
Meanwhile, “fatigue” may itself be an understatement. Plenty of forces are working to mobilize young Americans’, not indifference to Israel, but hatred. Netanyahu’s initiatives also facilitate that. Many will respond, rightly, that anti-Semites do not need a pretext for being hateful—they will always find one–and that is obviously true. But it is also beside the point. There are too many young people who are genuinely not anti-Semitic for whom anti-Semitism is entirely alien, but who find themselves furious. They tell that to me because they know I teach about the Holocaust, and they are uncomfortable with their outrage. What we most ought to fear is when they are no longer uncomfortable.
These developments did not begin with Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. Poll after poll taken both during and before the war in Gaza last summer showed young people—both Jews and non-Jews—to be radically less supportive of Israel than older Americans. Few issues, including marriage equality, show such a generational divide. Headlines wonder whether Israel’s welfare has become a non-issue for millennials. Even among Congressional staffers, young people deeply engaged with contemporary issues, the trend has been the same. Recent developments escalate that disaffection.
And so a generation of young Americans views Israel with increasing puzzlement. For most, their response remains some version of indifference. For some–no one can say how many—it has become more active hostility. And it is this generation, informed or not informed, who will vote for the next President and Congress. And, as a result, for what will become American policy toward Israel.
That is part of what is at stake this week and in the weeks to follow. And those who assure us that the realities of precedent, power, and established principle will prevail may find themselves victims of their own wishful thinking.