Americans are Growing More Critical of Israel. Washington May Not Care.

I’m still giddy from spending an hour on our Zoom call last Friday talking to Noam Chomsky. Chomsky discussed the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child in Philadelphia (and later as a young scholar at Harvard); the experience that turned him against religion at age 10; how he felt, as a young Zionist activist, when Israel was created (he wasn’t happy); his needing a police escort to give lectures critical of Israel on American college campuses in the 1970s and 1980s; his disagreement with his friend Edward Said when Said called for a binational state in Israel-Palestine. Chomsky is now 92. And he was extraordinary.

We’ll send the video to paid subscribers on Wednesday.

If that’s not enough to get you to subscribe, our guest this Friday will be Representative Betty McCollum, who this year introduced historic legislation to prevent US aid to Israel from being used to mistreat Palestinian children. If you’re curious about whether the Israel-Palestine debate in Congress is changing, come ask her. There’s no one better positioned to know.

Until then, you’ll have to make do with my answer. Is the American debate over Israel-Palestine changing? Yes and no. Yes, the American public is growing more supportive of US pressure on Israel. Yes, the media is growing more critical of Israeli behavior. But, no, there’s no guarantee that these attitudinal and cultural shifts will change US policy. When it comes to Israel, there’s a bubble around Washington, DC. And there’s no sign it will puncture anytime soon.

Let’s start with the trends in public opinion, then get to their potential impact—or lack thereof—on US policy. Ordinary Americans do appear to be gravitating toward a tougher US line toward the Jewish state. In 2008, according to Gallup, 33 percent of Democrats supported more pressure on Israel to change its policies. In 2018, it was 43 percent. By this March, it was 53 percent. Republican opinion, by contrast, has remained basically flat: 17% of Republicans now back more US pressure on Israel, a number that hasn’t really changed in 15 years.

When you get more specific, the data grows starker. Last month, Bernie Sanders briefly tried to stop Joe Biden from selling Israel precision bombs worth $735 million. When the Arab American Institute polled Americans on the issue last month, it found that ordinary Democrats opposed the sale by a margin of almost two to one and, even among Republicans, only a small plurality supported it. On the broader question of whether the US should restrict aid to Israel if it continues to build settlements in the West Bank, Democrats agreed by a margin of more to three to one. Republicans were almost evenly split.

These figures illustrate the chasm that now exists between opinion among Americans as a whole and opinion in Congress. Sanders’ bid to block the bomb sale—which enjoyed overwhelmingly support from ordinary Democrats and considerable support from even ordinary Republicans—didn’t win the backing of a single other US Senator. Conditioning US aid on settlement growth—a position backed by three-quarters of grassroots Democrats and almost half of grassroots Republicans—also remains a fringe position in Congress. I haven’t seen a tally of members of Congress on that exact question. But Representative McCollum’s bill, which prevents US aid from being used to abuse Palestinian children, enjoys only 25 cosponsors, according to her staff. Since hers is the only legislation I know of to condition US aid, that means 193 out of the 219 Democrats in the House of Representatives, and all 211 House Republicans, oppose any conditioning of US aid at all. Think about that for a second. It’s not just that rank-and-file Democrats are more supportive of pressure on Israel than Democrats in Congress. Even rank-and-file Republicans are more supportive of pressure on Israel than Democrats in Congress.

Which brings us to the $3.8 billion question: Is there a transmission mechanism through which ordinary Americans can make their representatives heed their will? If there is, the media will likely play a crucial role, both in accelerating the shift in public mood, and making that shift harder for politicians to ignore.

There’s no question that press coverage of Israel-Palestine has changed. When Israel went to war in Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014, the US media spoke about Palestinians far more than it spoke to them. During the most recent round of fighting, that changed. From cable TV to the nation’s op-ed pages, Palestinian voices were more prominent. One reason is that the Black Lives Matter movement has made journalists more sensitive to questions of representation. Another is that, over the years, Palestinians and their supporters have responded to their relative exclusion from the mainstream media by gaining influence on social media. And social media now exerts more influence on the mainstream media than it did in the past. When Bari Weiss wrote this January that Twitter has become the “ultimate editor” of The New York Times, she was exaggerating. But social media has become an important way for writers and editors to find stories, find writers and gauge the public mood. And so the pro-Palestinian shift on social media, which has been years in the making, is changing the media as a whole.

As Palestinians and their allies have gained media influence, pro-Israel gatekeepers have lost it. That’s partly because of partisan polarization. There are still lots of high-profile defenders of the Israeli government in the US media. But there are fewer high-profile defenders who have credibility in even moderately progressively spaces. Consider the evolution of Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz’s views on Israel haven’t changed; he’s long been a fierce defender of Israeli military action. But although long disliked by supporters of Palestinian rights, Dershowitz was once considered respectable by prominent Democrats. Dershowitz met with Barack Obama numerous times to discuss Israel policy when Obama was president. It’s inconceivable that Biden would meet with him today. Dershowitz’s support for Donald Trump has made him a pariah among even moderate Democrats. You’re now more likely to find him on Newsmax than MSNBC or CNN. That means that when Dershowitz lambasts progressives for their supposed hostility to Israel, it’s easier for those journalists to ignore him than it was a decade ago.

The right-wing commentator Andrew Breitbart once claimed that “politics is downstream from culture.” On Israel, American culture is changing. So if Breitbart is right, Washington politics will eventually change too. But I’m not sure he is right. After all, the loudest voices in popular culture—as well as the large majority of Americans—have been demanding gun control legislation for years. Yet even with Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of congress, gun control legislation is going nowhere. On gun control, Washington remains insulated. And it may remain insulated on Israel-Palestine too.

One reason it may remain insulated is that while public preferences matter to politicians, so do the intensity of those preferences. Most Americans support gun control but, traditionally, conservative gun owners who oppose gun control have cared about the issue more. And through groups like the National Rifle Association, they’ve been better organized. On Israel-Palestine, you can see a similar dynamic. Most progressives think it’s wasteful and immoral for the US to give Israel money to build settlements. But for most of them, Israel-Palestine isn’t a priority. For many of the progressive organizations they’re involved in—say the AFL-CIO or NAACP—it’s not a priority either. By contrast, hawkish Jews and hawkish white evangelical Christians are more likely to prioritize Israel-Palestine when they vote, and more likely to join organizations that make it a priority, like AIPAC or Christians United for Israel. As a result, while many members of Congress may represent districts where most people support conditioning US aid, the people those members hear from on the issue—and the ones who donate to their campaigns—may not.

The other reason Washington may remain insulated from public opinion is that America’s political system just isn’t that democratic. From the gerrymandering of House districts to the electoral college to the filibuster, the US government is rife with features that allow minorities to thwart the majority’s will. And the Republican Party is now engaged in a brazen effort to wield these anti-democratic features to ensure that America’s fastest growing demographic groups—people of color and younger Americans, the very folks who are most likely to sympathize with Palestinians—can’t translate their numerical weight into political power. When the media covers efforts by state legislatures in Georgia, Florida, or Texas to make it harder for Black and Hispanic Americans to vote, journalists rarely comment on the implications for US policy toward Israel. But make no mistake: The more Republicans succeed in restricting voting, the more durable the pro-Israel consensus in Washington will be.

One more point. When people talk about a political shift on Israel-Palestine, they’re usually comparing the present moment to the last quarter-century, when conditioning aid to Israel has been beyond the pale. But in the decades before that, during the cold war, wielding US aid to pressure Israel wasn’t beyond the pale; it was commonplace. Dwight Eisenhower threatened to restrict US aid. So did Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. So even if there is growing political support for US pressure on Israel now, there’s still less support than there was when Reagan was president. If you want the US to curb Israeli abuses, this moment looks better than 2010 but worse than 1980 or 1990.

Unconvinced by this analysis? Good. Join us on Friday and hear from someone who knows Congress from the inside.

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Other Stuff:

Speaking of how American politics has changed, watch this debate between a former Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey, and Meir Kahane. Given the direction of the GOP, I wonder how many Republicans in Congress would be willing to publicly challenge Kahane today.

My Jewish Currents colleague Joshua Leifer has written an important piece about the political, cultural, and economic developments that helped spark violence in Israel’s “mixed cities.” (Another good reason to subscribe to Jewish Currents).

It was somewhat drowned out by the news from Israel-Palestine. But if you missed this New Yorker investigation by Masha Gessen into a donor’s successful effort to block the University of Toronto’s hiring of a scholar who expressed support for Palestinian rights, I’d strongly recommend it. I’ve made this point before, as have many others. But if you claim to oppose “cancel culture” yet ignore the blatant infringements on Palestinian free speech in the US (and Canada), you don’t really oppose “cancel culture” at all.

Last week I talked to University of Texas Professor Peniel Joseph about the American debate over Israel-Palestine for his Race and Democracy podcast.

I also spoke at this webinar sponsored by Massachusetts Peace Action.

This coming Tuesday, I’m speaking on “Palestinian Rights, Jewish Responsibility” to another progressive Massachusetts group, Critical Connections. You can sign up here.

See you on Friday,

Peter