Young Americans are showing far less fervent support for Israel than older generations, but almost no-one can agree on why the change is happening, how permanent it is likely to be, or what it all means.
Observers offer a laundry list of possibilities.
Millennials are also much more avid consumers of social media, on which different narratives explaining the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are more readily available — as are especially gruesome images of the human toll extracted by Israeli missile strikes.
These young people also don’t have the same memories as their parents.
Many older Americans can still recall the Six-Day War in 1967 or the Yom Kippur War in 1973, during which Israel’s very existence seemed to be threatened by its Arab neighbors.
By contrast, “young Americans have grown up with Israel as an incredible superpower in the region, and with occupation and intifada,” said Ira Stup of J Street, the liberal-leaning pro-Israel lobby group. “Young Americans often have a vision of Israel vis-a-vis Palestine that is more in line with what is going on now.”
There is no mistaking the depth of the generational split.
Late last month, Gallup asked Americans whether Israel’s recent actions against Hamas were justified or unjustified. Those who were 65 or older backed Israel by a wide margin: 55 percent to 31 percent. But those aged between 18 and 29, said by more than a two-to-one margin — 51 percent to 25 percent — that Israel’s actions were unjustified.
Another survey conducted by Pew around the same time asked whether Israel or Hamas bore the greater responsibility for the current violence.
Respondents across the board placed more of the culpability around Hamas’ shoulders — with the exception of the young.
Overall, 40 percent blamed the Islamic group compared to 19 percent who blamed Israel. Among those over 65 years old, more than three times as many blamed Hamas (53 percent) as Israel (15 percent). Yet among those aged 18-29, 29 percent blamed Israel and only 21 percent blamed Hamas.
Alec Tyson, a senior researcher with Pew, told The Hill that while the findings were “significant,” it was also important not to draw too sweeping a generalization from them.
He noted that when Americans were asked whether they had more overall sympathy for Israel or the Palestinians, Israel consistently comes out on top.
“Young people are more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians by about two-to-one, rather than by about six-to-one among the oldest Americans,” he said.
Even the most recent data, he cautioned, “wouldn’t represent a shift in the public sympathies in terms of [tipping] the balance, but in terms of the magnitude.”
It’s an open question whether the current conflict is changing attitudes.
Tyson said that Pew had been asking people which side they sympathized with in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “for at least ten years, but there is no sense that this is a record narrow gap among young people. That’s just not the case.”
On the other hand, as The Washington Post recently noted, Pew also took a poll back in 2006, when Israel was engaged in a broadly comparable conflict to the current one, except against Hezbollah.
In that instance, young people remained more stoutly in defense of Israel than they are currently: those aged 18-29 back then were three times more likely to blame Hezbollah than Israel for the violence.
“Israel has taken a PR battering in the current war,” Tevi Troy, who served as a liaison to the Jewish community for the administration of President George W. Bush, told The Hill. “There is a lot of anti-Israel propaganda.”
A number of figures from the world of popular culture have expressed broad sympathies for the Palestinians in the current dispute, albeit somewhat tentatively.
Most notably, Rihanna tweeted “#FreePalestine” before deleting the tweet. Actress Kerry Washington (who called one Israeli strike in which four children were killed “heart breaking” on Twitter) and singer Selena Gomez, (who posted the message “It’s about humanity: Pray for Gaza” on Instagram) were among those who weighed in.
Still, pro-Israel figures insisted that the shift among the young was nothing to panic about — yet.
“I’m not hugely worried,” said Tevi Troy. “Over the long run, America’s interests and Israel’s interests are aligned.”