For many years now, Israelis have been told that the biggest threat to the survival of the Jewish state is Iran’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons.
But another long-term trend could be eroding the foundations of Israel’s security: a generational decline in western voters’ support and sympathy for the Jewish state.
Public attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have seen dramatic swings following dramatic events. A Gallup poll conducted for Newsweek in 1982, just days after the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut, registered a 17 per cent crash in Americans’ support for Israel.
Likewise, polls taken after the October 7 Hamas massacre, in which Israeli civilians were the main victims, showed U.S. voters’ support for military aid to Israel had increased to the highest level recorded in years.
Those swings tend to be short-lived; opinion soon reverts back to norm. But the long-term trends in public attitudes toward the conflict offer a warning for Israel.
Polls conducted both before and after October 7 show that Canadians under age 30 tend to hold views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dramatically different from those of Canadians aged 55 or over. (There is also a smaller gender split, with men on average more supportive of Israel.)
People involved in Israeli advocacy admit to being shocked at the size of pro-Palestinian protests across the West, and their ability to mobilize far greater numbers of people than have come out in support of Israel.
“I don’t think it’s limited to campuses,” said Shimon Fogel, of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Advocacy in Ottawa. “I think that they’ve taken to the streets and cities across Canada and it’s really a phenomenon that’s touched all of Europe and the U.S. as well.”
The tone at some of the protests has been “vitriolic,” Fogel told CBC News.
“I’m stunned by the level of support being expressed for Hamas,” he added.
James Kafieh, vice-president of the Palestinian Canadian Congress, said it’s wrong to suggest that more than a small fraction of those taking part in these protests support what Hamas did on October 7.
“There are thousands of people who are coming out to these demonstrations in Canada, in the United Kingdom, in London, hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
“That someone might show up and express some sympathy for Hamas or what it did is really a distraction. I think that people focusing on that is an attempt to distract from the essential message of the demonstration, that it is time to recognize Palestinian human and national rights.”
Jewish communities across Europe and North America have reported a growing fear of being identified as Jewish in public.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, reacting to the attempted firebombing Monday night of his childhood synagogue in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., said “there’s something wrong in this country where a war in the Middle East has spread in Canada and is making Jewish Canadians feel this unsafe.
“This is the majority feeling now.”
Those sentiments are even more acute in some parts of the West. In France, long the centre of Jewish life in Western Europe, Jews are now outnumbered by French Muslims by about ten to one.
A heavy-handed effort to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations after October 7 backfired as tens of thousands took the streets regardless.
“The asymmetry in the size of the constituencies is impacting on the public debate,” said Fogel.
But the growth of Arab and Muslim populations in the West explains only a part of the opinion shift. A bigger factor is that younger westerners are much more likely to be critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian cause than their parents or grandparents.
“It’s not just a perception,” said Fogel. “It’s real, it’s measurable and it all really does centre around this notion of transnational progressivism, and young people are very attracted to it because it uses the language of human rights and intersectionality.
“It was born on campus in critical race theory … Israel just being sort of the poster child for that collection of Western colonial imperial warmongering governments that have suppressed the rights of minority groups.”
‘Ordinary people see the slaughter’
(The notion of Israel as a “white” oppressor and the Palestinians as a “brown” victim ignores the demographic realities of the region, where both the Jewish and Palestinian populations include people whose appearance ranges from blue-eyed European to Black African and everything in between. Indeed, in both communities, descendents of Africans complain of discrimination from their own side.)
Kafieh rejects the suggestion that Palestine is just a cypher for other issues.
“Canadians do care about human rights, and they can see the contempt for human rights that’s evident in the present government as it relates to Palestinians,” he said. “Ordinary people see the slaughter.”
He said bans on marches, calls for crackdowns on anti-Israel activism and other incidents are all signs of desperation. “There is panic within the Israel lobby about their ability to keep hold of the political elite,” he said.
“There is a panic within the Israel lobby around the world, but also here in Canada, where they can’t win the debate, they really can’t justify the extreme actions of the state of Israel. And so instead they seek to criminalize dissent.
“There’s been polling in recent years that shows that rank and file ordinary Canadians are way ahead of their government. Regardless of which political orientation they have, whether they’re Conservatives, Liberal, NDP, Green or Bloc, they are far more supportive of the Palestinian cause than is the Government of Canada.”
Younger Canadians are more likely to describe Israel’s offensive in Gaza as excessive. They’re also more likely to express greater general sympathy for the Palestinian side, and to be critical of Israel as a country.
An EKOS poll conducted in September found that almost half (48 per cent) of Canadians aged 18 to 34 who expressed a view saw Israel as “a state with segregation similar to apartheid.” Only 39 per cent of the 45 to 54 age group, and just 29 per cent of those aged 55 to 64, saw it that way.
A demographic trend running against Israel
An Angus Reid poll conducted this week found that women aged 55 and over said that their sympathies rest more with Israel than Palestinians at a rate of about 3 to 1 (30 per cent vs. 9 per cent). Those numbers were reversed among women aged 18 to 34 (35 per cent said they sympathized more with the Palestinians, while 14 per cent sided more with Israel).
EKOS found that, overall, Canadians whose sympathies lie more with Israel (28 per cent) still outnumber those who identify more with Palestine (18 per cent). But the trend lines are clearly running the other way.
There are also demographics of particular concern for those in the West who support the Jewish state. Perhaps the most important regards supporters of the U.S. Democratic Party.
U.S. support — diplomatic, financial and military — is a cornerstone of Israel’s security. What has made it so solid and reliable is its bipartisan nature. Since 1948, Israel has never had to worry about whether a Democrat or a Republican was in office.
As the splits in Democratic ranks over the censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib revealed this week, the party now includes a strong pro-Palestinian caucus and the voting base is less keen on Israel than it used to be.
Fogel says Tlaib represents a fringe view in the party.
“I think for the most part support among Democrats is still very solid. You can see that in the orientation of the Biden administration,” he said.
“There is, to be sure, an outlier group on the extreme left and the margins of the Democratic Party that are very noisy and critical in their criticism of Israel and opposition to Israel. But I’m pretty confident it doesn’t translate into the mainstream of the Democratic Party and Israel still enjoys that quality of bipartisan support.”
A shift among Democrats and the diaspora
But while support for Israel remains strong among elected Democrats, polls show serious slippage among rank-and-file voters. Twenty years ago, Democrats favoured Israel over the Palestinians by nearly 40 percentage points. A Gallup survey conducted in March showed Democrats’ sympathies now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49 per cent to 38 per cent.
Already, the Biden administration is showing signs of dialing back the unreserved green light it gave Israel to go after Hamas in Gaza, and warning Israel against seeking to either seize land or expel people from Gaza.
The administration has received warnings, including from the crucial swing state of Michigan, that its stance on the war could hurt its electoral chances next year.
Another demographic of supreme importance to Israel is the Jewish diaspora.
Generational divisions within the Jewish community mirror those in the wider society. In a 2021 Pew Survey, 37 per cent of American Jews under 30 said that the U.S. government was too supportive of Israel — twice the rate of Jews 50 and over, and also a higher percentage than any U.S. Christian denomination.
While two-thirds of American Jews aged 65 and older said they were very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, only 48 per cent of those ages 18 to 29 felt the same way.
In Canada, one of the largest and most effective Palestinian solidarity groups is Independent Jewish Voices.
“There’s been a dramatic rise of Jewish voices around the world, also in Canada, that have been challenging the extreme views of the right wing organizations that have been speaking on behalf of the Jewish community,” Kafieh said.
The fringe factor
While the Jewish state can probably count on continued support from a majority of the Jewish diaspora, the fact that a growing minority are in dissent, said Kafieh, “can give a way forward for politicians who are terrified of the allegation of antisemitism and will blindly support anything that Israel does, or at the very least remain silent.”
One of the factors that has complicated the task of those who work in pro-Israel advocacy has been the rise of previously fringe elements in Israeli politics.
Figures such as finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who describes himself as a “fascist homophobe,” are alienating to young westerners with progressive social views.
CIJA’s Fogel said he’s hopeful that the most extreme elements in the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may fade from the scene as Israel unites around a new unity government and possibly moves toward new elections.
“What we clearly need over here is some kind of cycle breaker that allows the different stakeholders to approach this in a fresh way, that gives them some vision of a horizon that isn’t characterized by conflict, but rather by something new, something more constructive,” he said.
“I suspect that Israelis, given the opportunity, will choose leadership that offers them a more stable, secure and hopeful future. And it would not include marginal elements that work to opposite ends.”
Kafieh says he expects to see the tensions on Canada’s streets and campuses continue to increase.
“I see things becoming more severe, greater limitations on freedom of speech, attempts to limit the right to protest in Canada. At a certain point, the resistance to this will reach a critical point,” he told CBC News.
“Canada originally supported South African apartheid, until one day under a Conservative government, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney brought that policy to an end. They understood that such a policy change would be wildly, wildly supported by the Canadian people.
“I believe that at some point in the very near future, that same critical point will come when the government of the day and the opposition parties of the day will look at the polling information and understand that their position is no longer tenable, that when they blindly support Israel, they are harming their political futures.”
Fogel said he doesn’t believe the trends in public opinion are irreversible.
“Without a doubt, it’s of deep concern,” he said. “But here’s the thing. As the millennials and Gen Zers and so forth mature, they will be confronted increasingly with some of the anomalies of what they had thought was the case. So, for example, the young LGBTQ community, seeing itself as part of the struggle for greater equality and empowerment and freedom, have gravitated towards this particular camp.
“But as they have to confront the inconsistencies — how, for example, somebody from the LGBTQ community living in Gaza doesn’t really have much of a future, contrasting that to pride festivals in Tel Aviv on an annual basis. Different groups that have identified with these progressive voices will be challenged to rationalize them.
“I can only be hopeful that as their experience deepens, they are going to appreciate in a much more sophisticated way the problems inherent in that simplistic view of the world as being divided in a binary way between the oppressed and the oppressor, the victims and the victimizers.”