America and Israel – Changes in public attitudes and why it matters

On the face of it, the relationship between the Israeli and American public appears strong, and could be considered simpler than that of their leaders.  Most Americans and Israelis are spared the policy dilemmas or political pressures that sometimes bring the proverbial “daylight” between politicians.

The result has been a mutual support fest going back decades: by a wide margin, the US public supports Israel rather than the Palestinians and considers Israel among its closest allies. Israelis think the same about America – trusting and reveling in its support, even as they remain baffled by certain cultural traits, like politeness and political correctness.

However, the high number of Americans who continue to express support for Israel hide important shifts in American public attitudes. Changing perceptions of what Israel means to Americans, and what policies Americans support for Israel and vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are feeding polarization of attitudes among different groups.

US public support for Israel: Towards a partisan divide

In recent years, overall American public support for Israel has been shifting. While Americans still overwhelmingly side with Israel rather than the Palestinians – according to Gallup polls, support for Israel has actually climbed steadily since 2000 – the “internal” numbers, or variation among different groups on the issue, show a growing lack of consensus.

In 1967, a solid majority of both Democrats and Republicans, roughly 60 percent, sided with Israel rather than with the Palestinians. Political leadership and American policy reflected this with a massive boost of economic, military and political support at the time.

But the romantic vision of Israel is descending from its perch above politics, and Americans increasingly examine Israel through the prism of their broader political world views. Democrats are now more critical, Republicans more supportive.

One scholar dates the partisan divide - Republicans and conservatives versus Democrats and liberals – about Israel to the start of the second Intifada, and then to September 11 – roughly the early 2000s. However,  Amnon Cavari finds that the alignment of the Evangelical community with Republicans beginning in the late 1980s was also an early cause of the divide, since Evangelicals side with Israel for theological reasons.

By 2012, polling confirmed these changes, and in 2013 the Pew Center released a highly publicized survey showing a large and entrenched partisan gap on Israel. Although the average level of sympathy remains on Israel’s side rather than on the Palestinians’ side by a large margin of five to one (50 percent support it compared to 10 percent for Palestinians), stark differences emerge when looking at the political camps. Three-quarters (75 percent) of “Conservative Republicans” supported Israel, and just two percent chose the Palestinians; while just one-third of “liberal Democrats” supported Israel and 22 percent sided with the Palestinians – a gap of just 11 points.

The “sympathy gap” among different political communities isn’t just a general feeling. It reflects a corresponding partisan gap on the image of Israel and the Palestinians, as well as on issues and policies.

For example, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to believe Israel is seeking peace. Among the former, 46 points more in 2011 said it is trying compared to those who said it was not. Among Democrats, merely 22 points more said Israel attempts to reach peace (Rynhold 2015).

In the same 2011 study, Democrats were evenly divided about whether the Palestinians were also trying to reach peace (49% yes, to 40% no); while three-quarters (72%) of Republicans insisted that Palestinians are not trying to reach peace.

America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The majority of Americans, nearly two-thirds, would like the US to play a balanced role in the Middle East, according to a 2014 Brookings survey. Among Democrats, three times as many prefer for America to “lean towards” Israel’s side as a mediator rather than towards the Palestinians (17 percent, compared to six percent for the Palestinians). Yet 25 times as many Republicans prefer for the US to “lean towards” Israel (51 percent compared to two percent for the Palestinians).

In terms of what Americans view as reasonable solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the partisan gap has also grown dramatically: In 2002, just over 40 percent of Democrats and Republicans alike thought there should be a Palestinian state, with fewer Democrats who opposed it than Republicans. By 2009, the portion of Democrats who favor a Palestinian state – 59 percent –outweighs the number of Republicans by a 20-point margin – only 39 percent of Republicans support a Palestinian state.

Further, Americans overall are less attuned to the Jewish state concept and more committed to upholding democratic values. Thus, if a two state solution isn’t possible, the 2014 Brookings Institute survey found that a strong 71 percent majority of Americans support one equal democratic state, rather than an unequal state in which Palestinians have fewer rights – including a clear majority of Republicans (60%).

The youth factor

The political partisan divide at present appears fully entrenched. And it is unlikely to be reversed, because the constituencies who make up those partisan groups show similar trends.

Pew data from 2012 shows that young Americans are much less likely to support Israel over the Palestinians than older people. Among Americans above fifty years old, a large majority of 59 percent support Israel generally, compared to nine percent who support the Palestinians instead. But among young people, merely 38 percent side with Israel compared to 15 percent for the Palestinians – a ratio of just over two to one.

The findings make sense. Younger people have grown up in a political reality and public discourse that is more complex than the simplifying David versus Goliath image of Israel of the late 1960s. Instead of witnessing Israel withstanding seven Arab invading armies, a nearly 50-year long military occupation of the Palestinian Territories now takes center stage, forming the context to frequent wars in which Israel’s power vastly out-muscles the Palestinian people.

It is particularly interesting that a survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on anti-Semitism in 2013 showed that younger people are “remarkably free” of prejudicial views. In other words, young people are becoming less anti-Semitic than the older generation, and simultaneously more critical of Israel – refuting the right-wing claim that criticizing Israel’s policies often implies anti-Semitism.

The rising American electorate

An increasingly vital American constituency, the Hispanic community, is generally less sympathetic towards Israel than others. When asked whom they side with more, Israel or the Palestinians, about ten points fewer Hispanics favor Israel than non-Hispanic American voters – under 50 percent compared to over 60 percent, respectively. Still the majority of both groups support Israel over the Palestinians, but again among Hispanics, support for the Palestinians is slightly higher than non-Hispanics, according to Cavari and Melnik’s data from 2015.

The African American community, too, holds more critical attitudes towards Israel’s policy than the average American public. A Pew survey from 2014 showed that black Americans were more likely than white Americans to think Israel was responsible for that summer’s war with Hamas (Protective Edge), and more black Americans thought Israel had gone too far in its military response. But the same ADL survey cited earlier showed an overall decline in anti-Semitism among Afro-Americans – once again indicating that political criticism of Israel is unlikely to be a cover for underlying anti-Semitism.

So young people, Hispanics and African Americans express a more critical stance on Israel’s policies, and they also embrace a more liberal Democratic-oriented political worldview in general. Why does that matter? It matters profoundly. These groups, together with unmarried women who are also largely young, are known collectively as the “rising American electorate.” In 2016, for the first time, these groups combined represent a majority of American voters. The future will see their share of the electorate expanding.

These trends create a changing context for the Jewish American vote, which raises a vital question. If the “rising American electorate” emboldens the Democratic party to take a tougher line on Israel, will Jews migrate to the Republican party rather than change their political stance, just as the “Solid South” migrated en masse from the Democratic party to the Republicans following racial integration and the civil rights movement? The last Presidential poll saw the highest portion of Jews voting Republican (30%) since the Reagan-Bush years in the 1980s (39%). Or could Jewish Americans, who still vote overwhelmingly Democratic, begin re-thinking their position on Israel?

The view from Israel

Finally, given the crucial links between the two countries, what will this relationship look like in the future?  What do Israelis know or think about American attitudes, and how much do they care?  

The age gap that leads young Americans to be more critical of Israeli policies and more skeptical of general support is in stark contrast to Israeli young people. My own research, confirmed by other Israeli pollsters, shows that the latter have moved unequivocally further right for a number of years.

There are two main reasons for this trend. A higher portion of the young Israeli Jews are religious, because religious families have significantly more children in Israel than seculars. More traditional and religiously observant communities generally express more nationalist views, maximalist positions on the conflict and sometimes even anti-democratic attitudes. This correlation is perhaps the most consistent finding in the history of Israeli polling.

But even among secular Israelis, young Jews are somewhat more right-wing than the general Israeli population, and certainly more than the oldest cohort (55+). This appears to be primarily because they have grown up experiencing 15 years of nearly non-stop violent conflict: the second Intifada, the second Lebanon war in 2006, three Gaza wars and a sharp increase in violence in the fall of 2015. While foreigners increasingly pay attention to the occupation, Israeli society invariably downplays one side of the equation – four million Palestinians living under military rule for five decades – and emphasizes the other side of the equation, in which Israel views itself as the victim of violence whose overtures for peace are routinely rejected.

Despite this widening perception gap, Israelis are well aware of shifting American attitudes. A 2015 study shows that progressive Israeli Jews are more favorable to the US while right-wing Israeli Jews are less so – apparently, the latter both grasp and resent the growing critical attitudes in America. Israeli Arab-Palestinian citizens generally hold more negative views towards the US, most likely because they view America as heavily weighted in favor of Israel in the conflict.

Thus the generation of twenty-somethings in the US and Israel today appear to be on quite different political paths with relation to Israel’s future. Since today’s young adults will eventually become tomorrow’s leaders, the political calculus shaping American policy towards Israel may very well fundamentally change in the future. 

This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here