Israel’s Titanic Moment

In recent years, Israel has been facing a growing challenge on American campuses as younger generations express critical views regarding its policies, a trend that intensified in light of the war in Gaza following Hamas’ October 7, 2023 attack. The emergence of widespread protests and on-campus political activism against Israel’s actions has sparked contentious debates and even violent protests, revealing a widening gulf between the perceptions of Israel and the perspectives of young Americans. As Israel grapples with these present-day challenges, its leadership must also confront the complexities of engaging with a generation that is increasingly vocal in its unequivocal criticism and will have a much greater impact on its relationship with the United States in the decades to come.

At the heart of the issue lies a fundamental disconnect between the narratives surrounding Israel and the lived experiences of young Americans. For many of them, their perception of Israel is shaped not only by geopolitical or strategic realities but also by moral considerations, social justice principles, and personal connections. With access to massive quantities of visual and textual information or misinformation through multiple social media platforms but practicing a rather narrow news diet within a defined media echo chamber, they are more inclined to question traditional narratives about Israel in the United States and challenge established social and political norms. Consequently, events such as the war in Gaza serve as catalysts for extensive on-campus activism and protest, as young people seek to voice their concerns about the conflict, criticize President Joe Biden, advocate for a ceasefire, and often call on institutions of higher education to adopt Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) policies against Israel. Many Jewish students believe that these protests have become hotbeds of antisemitic discourse and that they no longer feel safe to be on campus, and some universities claimed that the demonstrations attracted individuals and groups that are not affiliated with the institutions.

However, the challenges Israel is facing with the younger generation in the United States go beyond mere disagreements over policy and politics or the debate about the difference between anti-Israel and antisemitic chants; they reflect deeper issues of identity, belonging, and empathy. For young American Jews specifically, grappling with critical views of Israel can be profoundly disorienting, as they navigate the complexities of their own identity and heritage. Caught between loyalty to their cultural heritage as well as their families, and a commitment to social justice and human rights, many find themselves torn between conflicting allegiances.

Moreover, the discourse surrounding Israel in American politics has become more partisan as well as polarizing than ever before exacerbating these challenges, as competing narratives vie for dominance in the public sphere. On one side, pro-Israel advocates emphasize the country’s democratic values, security concerns, and historical struggles, framing criticism as unjust, unwarranted, and possibly antisemitic. On the other side, critics of Israel highlight human rights abuses, violations of international law, and the plight of Palestinians, condemning its actions as oppressive and unjustifiable. Caught in the crossfire, young Americans are left to navigate a minefield of competing narratives, misinformation, and ideological rhetoric, making it difficult to form informed opinions or engage in meaningful dialogue.

The generational gap in American attitudes toward Israel has become crystal clear in light of the ongoing Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. A recent Pew survey from early April 2024 found that younger Americans (ages 18-29) are more likely to sympathize with the Palestinian people than the Israeli people, have a more favorable opinion of the Palestinian people than the Israeli people, be more critical of both why and how Israel is fighting Hamas, argue that Hamas’ reasons for fighting Israel are valid, believe that Biden is favoring the Israelis too much, and are less likely to support US military aid to Israel to help in its war against Hamas. Similarly, a Gallup Poll conducted last month concluded that the support of Israel by young Americans (ages 18-34) plummeted from 64% in 2023 to less than 40% in 2024.

In the short term, the events on American campuses constitute a troubling situation for Israel but in the long term, these trends represent a colossal disaster if not addressed effectively. The critical views held by young Americans regarding Israel have the potential to significantly impact the future of the special relationship between Israel and the United States. As the next generation of leaders, influencers, and voters, their perspectives shape public discourse and policy priorities, exerting considerable influence on the direction of bilateral relations. With an increasing number of young Americans expressing grave concerns about Israel’s policies and actions, particularly regarding divisive issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and human rights abuses in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, Israeli policymakers must grapple with such implications for the longstanding alliance between the two countries.

While the special relationship between Israel and the United States remains robust for the time being as evident by the continued military and diplomatic support provided by the Biden administration, the divergence of views and attitudes among the younger generation toward the Jewish State underscores the need for dialogue, engagement, and mutual understanding to ensure that the partnership remains strong and enduring in the face of these substantial evolving challenges. Still, preserving the special dimension of the bilateral partnership would take much more than a new communication strategy that seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified.

There is an acute need to change policy rather than relying solely on refurbished talking points as a way to navigate the emerging complexities of the special relationship between Israel and the United States, especially given the highly critical views held by a majority of young Americans. While rhetoric and public messaging certainly play a role in shaping American public opinion, substantive policy changes are essential to addressing underlying grievances and fostering meaningful progress. This requires a willingness on the Israeli side to engage in meaningful self-reflection, reevaluate existing behavior, and explore new approaches in Israeli foreign policy in general and particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli policymakers must demonstrate a genuine and lasting commitment to actionable initiatives that reflect the values and priorities of the American people, including its younger generations, or else risk the loss of the “special” aspect of the US-Israel relations.

Considering the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Middle Eastern stability and peace, the first thing would be to avoid a military operation in Rafah, bring the conflict in Gaza to an end and facilitate the release of the Israeli hostages. This should be done in coordination with Israel’s allies, primarily the United States, the parties to the Abraham Accords, and include moderate Arab actors such as Saudi Arabia who can play a positive role in the physical and political reconstruction and revitalization of Palestinian society in an expansive “day after” framework. Proactively supporting the two-state solution, and the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, would be a supplementary and transformative development with the prospects of revolutionizing Middle Eastern politics and restoring the special bedrock of US-Israel relations.

By prioritizing policy over mere rhetoric, Israeli leaders can reaffirm the shared values and interests that have underpinned their country’s special relationship with the United States, ensuring its resilience and relevance for generations to come. Failing to do so would be akin to the Titanic’s captain seeing the iceberg on the horizon, acknowledging the existential danger it poses in the long-term yet refusing to change course to avoid the collision. Israeli leaders are facing a momentous yet straightforward decision–they cannot and should not shirk responsibility to avoid the iceberg. The time to make a decision is now.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Professor of Israel Studies and the Director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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