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Alan Silverstein

Are Americans abandoning Israel?

Day after day, news reports document Israeli air strikes against Hamas targets inside Gaza. Pro-Hamas demonstrators gain coverage by disrupting airports, Christmas tree lightings, Jewish institutional life. Anti-Israel politicians and civic leaders conduct headlining protests. To the consumer of current events, concern mounts that American citizens will turn against the Jewish state in its war of survival with Iran-sponsored terror groups.

The December 13 poll conducted for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs concluded that “overall sympathy for Israel among Americans is still at high levels.” Concern has mounted, however, about affinity for the Israeli cause on the part of Americans ages 18-24. 51 percent of America’s young adults (18-24) told Harvard CAPS (Center for American Political Studies)-Harris pollsters in mid-December that to end the conflict, “Israel should be ended and given to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” In this same survey, two-thirds of those polled ages 18-24 regard individual Jews and the Jewish people at large as “oppressors.”

What is reflected by these data? Is the prognosis for future U.S.-Israel relations bleak?

Jews as “oppressors” — Are Jews being singled out for hatred?

In the Harvard-Harris poll, 67 percent of young adults consider Jews as oppressors. Are Jews being treated uniquely with disdain?

In the Harvard-Harris poll, 79 percent of young adult respondents consider as “all white people” as “oppressors” and all “non-white people” as “oppressed.” The 67 percent viewing Jews as oppressors is placed into a context. This is not simply anti-Semitism; it is a racial marker, pitting American “whites” against “non-whites.”

Additionally, we can question what Gen Zers mean by the word “oppressor.” Are the “oppressors” keeping disadvantaged folks enslaved or oppressed in an illegal manner? No! Political commentator Heather Mac Donald notes that for Gen Z, “the oppressor class” refers to folks who are viewed as having succeeded; the designation includes “white males, Asians, Jews, and other people perceived to be successful.”

Since Gen Z’s “oppressors” are either “white” and/or “successful,” Jews are doubly tagged as being both. Members of Gen Z have been taught to assume that successful folks achieved their position unfairly, i.e., by “oppressing” others. Jews can exit the “oppressor” category only by becoming failures and by somehow becoming “non-white.” This is not merely animus toward Jews but in a larger sense represents hatred of “the other.”

Do 51 percent of young adults actually call for “ending” Israel (including the Israel defined by its pre-1967 borders)?

No! The Harvard-Harris poll reported many positive views about Israel’s existence and even of its handling of war with Hamas.

* 69 percent of respondents affirmed that “Israel has a right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

* 80 percent agree that “Israel has a right to defend itself with air strikes on targets in heavily populated areas with warnings to civilians.”

* 70 percent affirm that “Israel is trying to avoid civilian casualties in its war against Hamas.”

* Two-thirds agree that the United States should support Israel and Ukraine in their conflicts.

* 58 percent say “yes” when asked if Hamas seeks to commit genocide against the Jews in Israel.

* 66 percent consider Hamas’s October 7 attack as genocide.

* 62 percent admit that Hamas utilizes civilians as human shields.

* 73 percent assent that Hamas’s October 7 attack was terrorism.

* 71 percent support the view that calling for genocide of Jews on campus is harassment.

* 73 percent concur that the university presidents who said that the assessment of the October 7 genocide “depends on context” should resign.

* 81 percent agree that women’s groups should explicitly condemn Hamas for crimes against Israeli women.

The young adult respondents also were asked to propose a long-term solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute. But given that they were offered a far-too-limited list of choices, the results are misleading:

32 percent preferred a “two-state solution,” an Arab state and a Jewish state existing side-by-side in peace.

17 percent advocated that the surrounding Arab states absorb the Palestinians. (I assumed this was understood to apply to Palestinians living in the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank.)

51 percent of respondents do not respond in the affirmative to either of these two options.

Regrettably what they were not offered were the following reasonable choices:

* Israeli control of the entirety of pre-1967 Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank

* A bi-national Jewish/Arabic state

* Maintaining the status quo with efforts “to shrink the conflict”

Had any of these choices been offered, clearly far fewer than 51 percent would have said “yes.” (NOTE: There was not even an option of “undecided.”)

Therefore, lacking the opportunity for these choices, 51 percent chose “Israel to be ended and given to Hamas and the Palestinians.” This would appear to imply supporting Israel’s demise.

Given the percentages of “pro-Israel” data provided above — including 69 percent affirming that Israel has the right to a Jewish homeland — a better way to characterize the 51 percent is that they might have endorsed:

“Israel’s presence [in the West Bank and Gaza] be ended and [control] be given to Hamas [Gaza] and the Palestinian Authority [West Bank].”

The Harvard-Harris data do reflect reduced pro-Israel support among American young adults, in contrast to older U.S. citizens.

For example, 60 percent of respondents ages 18-24 agree that “Israel is committing genocide” and not merely “defending itself” in its war with Hamas.

Why is this the case?

1) Young adults rely excessively upon pro-Palestinian social media.
“Wall Street Journal” technology reporter Sam Schechner and colleagues published “TikTok Feeds War to Youth” in the December 22 issue. They stressed that members of Gen Z do not turn primarily to books, magazines, and traditional news sources; they tend to learn about current issues heavily via social media.

“Research shows that many young people increasingly get their news from TikTok [72 percent]…. Similar to other social media platforms, much of the war-content TikTok served…was pro-Palestinian.”

Furthermore, TikTok users “like, share, and search for content, favorite videos, post comments, follow others…. [The] TikTok algorithms…pick up which videos get users’ attention and then feed them the most engaging content on the topic.” In the process, young TikTok users’ smart phones become bombarded with pro-Hamas, anti-Israel war coverage.

2) Gen Z members are ignorant of facts about the conflict and about Jews.
A poll from Economist/YouGov reveals that 20 percent of Americans age 18-29 believe that the Nazi Holocaust is “a myth.” An additional 30 percent said they “did not agree or disagree” regarding whether it is a myth. This means that one-half of respondents did not affirm a fact essential to the understanding of contemporary Jewish history. It means that they do not understand the meaning of “genocide.” Instead, they assume that genocide describes when collateral civilian deaths occur during war-time!

Similarly, political science professor Ron Hassner of University of California Berkeley hired a survey firm to poll 250 collegians of diverse backgrounds throughout the United States about their knowledge of the issues. Most of the students supported the Palestinian political objective of a country “from the river to the sea.”

Yet less than half of those in support of that chant could identify which “river” and which “sea” the slogan refers to. They also lacked historical context. Fewer than one quarter of the chant’s supporters had ever heard of the Oslo Peace Accords of the Clinton administration. They could not pinpoint the identity of Yasser Arafat.

When shown a map demonstrating that, if implemented, “from the river to the sea” would eliminate the State of Israel, 75 percent changed their view. They were shocked that “it would entail the subjugation, expulsion, or annihilation of seven million Jews….” Students also lost their enthusiasm for “Palestinians and Israelis living together in one state” when told that most grassroots Israelis and Palestinians reject this idea.

Hassner concluded that “after learning a handful of basic facts about the Middle East, 67.8 percent of students went from supporting ‘from the river to the sea’ to rejecting the mantra.”

In another Harvard-Harris poll, pollster Mark Penn reported glaring Gen Z ignorance of the facts.

* 44 percent agreed Israel is not a democracy. 41 percent claim Israel does not permit Arab citizens to vote [even though individual Arabs and Arab parties are elected to the Knesset].

* Only 53 percent assent that Israel respects the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and only 51 percent indicate Israel allows gay people to live openly [even though Israel’s High Court just affirmed gay marriage]

* 45 percent think Hamas [which executes gay individuals] allows gays to live openly, and 51 percent remarkably think Hamas respects the right of minorities [totally at odds with their treatment of Christians and secular Muslims].

3) Young adults will change their views over time.
Neuroscientist Michael Siegal noted:

“Many people assume that the ideology of the young is a predictor of the future. But students grow up. They start out as pacifists until they realize that other people want to kill them. They start out as socialists until they realize that socialism brings economic ruin. In the real world, they learn through experience and exposure to other viewpoints that many policies that sound nice lead to terrible consequences.”

So too with regard to some young adult American Jews distancing themselves from Israel. Professor Theodore Sasson’s book “The New American Zionism” concludes:

“Age differences [in pro-Israel points of view] are not a generational phenomenon but rather a lifecycle phenomenon….

“It may express a subtle shift in worldview from universal to parochial that occurs when some people settle down and establish families…, the tendency for maturing Jews to become more embedded in Jewish communal life…, becoming more connected to Israel as they mature.”

4) Some pollsters’ questions might be misleading.
“A lot of this has been not polling, but guesswork,” said Mark Mellman of the Democratic Majority for Israel. “If you just say to people, ‘Should there be a ceasefire?’ Well, who would be against that? Why would anybody be against that?”

“But if you say, ‘Should there be a ceasefire if it leaves the hostages in Hamas’s hands or leaves Hamas in control of Gaza?’ People say, ‘No. There shouldn’t be a ceasefire under those circumstances.’”

Conclusion

The recent Harvard-Harris results are not proof of a major shift in American attitudes toward Israel. They do indicate many young adults’ lack of knowledge of relevant facts. They do reveal an overreliance by young adults upon social media as their source for news. They do point to sensationalism in media reporting — which is often inaccurate — upon data extracted from polling.

Mark Mellman’s Dec 7-12 survey of 1,637 U.S. registered voters of all ages revealed that 67 percent (vs. 65 percent in the Harvard-Harris poll) overall agreed that the United States should support Israel over Hamas, with nearly identical (63 percent vs. 6 percent) for registered Democrats.

When asked: Do you prefer an immediate ceasefire, or only if Hamas is disarmed and dismantled, Democrats preferred the latter (48 percent) over the former (29 percent), with the gap even larger among Republicans and Independents.

In short, Americans’ support for Israel remains strong!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”