By Shuki Friedman
A strong U.S. relationship with Israel depends on broad support for the Jewish state among American citizens. At first glance, a survey published a few days ago by the Pew Research Center shows that American support for Israel is adequate and has even increased slightly.
A closer look, however, reveals a far less rosy future. Support for Israel among the younger generation of Americans is declining, and support for the Palestinians is on the rise. To maintain the existentially necessary strategic backing of the United States, Israel must address the challenge of this eroding support among young Americans before they become tomorrow’s leaders and turn their backs on the Jewish state.
The headline of the Pew survey — “Modest Warming in U.S. Views on Israel and Palestinians” — is gratifying, and the overall picture presented by the survey is indeed positive. The share of Americans who take a favorable view of Israel (67%) and of the Israeli government (48%) has climbed by several percentage points over the past two years. Among older Americans (65+), support for Israel is skyrocketing (78%). Another piece of good news is that, although Israelis often have the impression that the BDS movement is a great success in the United States, the survey shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans (84%) have heard nothing or very little about it. Only 5% support the movement.
There are dark clouds on the horizon, however. The statistics show a dramatic split in support for Israel based on party affiliation. While 44% of Republicans support Israel and take an unfavorable view of the Palestinians, only 12% of Democrats feel the same.
Moreover, support for Israel over the Palestinians decreases dramatically as one moves down the age scale. While 37% of those aged 65 and older prefer Israel, that preference plunges to just 11% among those in the 18-29 age range, while 17% support the Palestinians and a significant number take an equally favorable view of both sides. The younger generation shows similarly low levels of support for the Israeli government. Alongside, one finds increasingly favorable views of the Palestinian government.
In other words, the younger generation prefers the Palestinians over Israel.
This disparity between generations also exists in the American Jewish community. A comprehensive Pew survey of Jewish Americans published a year ago revealed a disturbing picture. Regarding attachment to Israel, caring about Israel, a sense of partnership with Israel and more, there are striking disparities between the older and younger generations.
Among young Jews unaffiliated with any Jewish denomination (40%), only a third see Israel as important. Other surveys published over the past year confirmed this: Young American Jews are more liberal and less emotionally attached to Israel than their older counterparts.
Some of the processes underway in American society, including in the Jewish community, are unrelated to Israel and its policies, but nevertheless, affect it. Still, Israeli policy is naturally an influential factor in shaping attitudes toward the state.
Israel cannot change America, but engaging with the younger generation there, and making every effort to foster an attachment to the Israeli story and the Jewish state, are critical to maintaining the special closeness between the United States and Israel, as well as American support for the Jewish state and its existence.
Shuki Friedman is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.