Israel’s Great Challenge: Gun-hating, Gay-backing, Grass-smoking Young Americans

Support for Israel is lowest among the very same demographic groups that are increasingly winning American hearts and minds on domestic and social issues.

A Pew Research poll released this week found that for the first time, a majority of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, by a 52%-45% margin. Support is lowest among older, conservative Republicans and highest among younger, liberal Democrats.

The same trend holds true, in varying degrees, in all the recent polling on the issues that top the current American domestic agenda, such as gun control, gay marriage and immigration reform. The younger and more liberal you are, the more you are likely to support such measures; the older and more conservative you are, the more you are likely to oppose them.

Support for Israel, on the other hand, runs in the opposite direction: older, conservative and Republican Americans tend to prefer Israel over the Palestinians by overwhelming numbers, while younger, liberal and Democratic Americans are more ambivalent. In a January Pew poll, the gap between “conservative Republicans” and “liberal Democrats” on this matter was no less than a staggering 75%-33%.

Thus, while Israel continues to enjoy substantial overall support in the American public, its weakest links are to be found among the groups that are now on the ascendant on most domestic and social issues of the day. Generational gaps and demographic trends have combined to produce a significant shift in American public opinion, as the National Journal wrote this week: “The culture wars now favor the Democrats. The wind is in their backs.”

The question, therefore, is whether this wind might not eventually erode traditional support for Israel in American public opinion as well. Is the so-called “partisan gap” on Israel a permanent feature of the American political landscape that should worry Israelis or is it a reversible trend that will change with the times?

It is tempting, for example, to comfort oneself with the assumption that support for Israel comes with age, that young liberals who are now equivocating about the Jewish state will evolve over the years and become strong Israel-supporters, just like their elders. But that intuitive theory is rebuffed in a paper published earlier this year by Israel’s Institute of National Strategic Studies (INSS) in which researchers Owen Alterman and Cameron Brown cite polls showing that in the late 1970s, the generational divide was the other way round: Americans aged 18-29 were more supportive of Israel than those 65+ and over.

“Generations seem to develop views toward Israel that guide their opinions throughout their lifetime,” the authors note. If that is true, then the so-called Millenials born after 1980, will maintain their tepid support for Israel throughout the coming decades as the Israel-backing Silent Generation and Baby Boomers slowly leave the stage.

Alterman and Cameron also dissect the correlation between religiosity and support for Israel, and come to the far less surprising conclusion that the most supportive are the most religious, both Christian and Jewish, and that the coolest toward Israel are those who cite “none” as their main religion. The entire “partisan gap” on support for Israel created in the past two decades, after all, isn’t so much a decrease in left-wing backing for Israel as a dramatic increase in right-wing support that stems from the growing prominence of Israel among Evangelical Christians and their increasing dominance of Republican politics.

Right-wing Jewish ideologues like to gloat over the growing political divide as proof of liberal perfidy in general and the left’s animus toward Israel in particular. They tend to gloss over their own role in turning Israel into a “wedge issue” which they unsuccessfully tried to exploit in order to pry Jewish voters away from U.S. President Barack Obama in the recent elections. By portraying support for Israel as a uniquely Republican and conservative cause, Republican Jewish propagandists are steadily ensuring that many young liberals will be instinctively repelled from embracing Israel too ardently

Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the general global trend of liberal-leftist criticism of Israel – which, at its extreme, translates into a negation of its very right to exist. This is a trend that started after the Six Day War, was exacerbated during times of wars and intifadas, and is becoming permanently entrenched the longer that occupation and political stalemate continue. American Democrats, in fact, are far more supportive of Israel than most leftist or social democratic parties throughout the world, with the exception, perhaps, of Australia’s Labor Party.

Obama, who has often been accused by detractors of inspiring left-wing criticism of Israel, may have allayed some of these concerns during his recent and successful visit to Israel. Some Israeli policymakers, for their part, are not blind to the negative trends and are trying to devise ways to increase support and understanding among groups, such as U.S. Latinos, who have been less exposed to the Israeli experience and to its unique place in the American psyche.

Nonetheless, most current Israeli decision makers tend to view America’s intellectual and liberal elites – which include many American Jews - with same kind of distrust and disdain that they show toward Israelis of the same ilk. They increasingly respond to liberal criticisms with outright hostility that far-too-often and far-too-quickly degenerates into accusations of anti-Semitism. This dialogue of the deaf drives an ever-deepening wedge between Israel and the driving forces behind the liberal wave that seems to sweeping America in ever increasing intensity on issues ranging from gay marriage to legalization of marijuana. Ultimately, it may lead to a realignment of American attitudes toward Israel as well.

Much of the Israeli establishment will view this challenge in terms of budgets, priorities and hasbara. Others may assume that Israel’s own policies in the territories and its general weltanschauung are diametrically opposed to, and therefore irreconcilable with, the prevailing views of most liberals, even in America, and that there is nothing much to be done about it.

No one should be under any illusion, however, that the distance between Israel and the increasingly gay-backing, gun-hating, grass-smoking American population is anything less than a dangerous threat to its number one strategic asset, relations with the U.S. Given the speed in which American attitudes are changing on other issues, this danger may be lurking just around the corner.

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AP