Myths and Facts About American Campuses: #1 Young Americans Are No Longer Sympathetic Toward Israel

It seems the Jewish community has gotten hysterical over a number of issues, some of which deserve the attention, and others that do not. One of those that do not is survey data suggesting that the younger generation is turning away from Israel.

Perhaps the best response to the fears are facts from the most reliable pollster that has been testing attitudes toward Israel for decades. After their August survey, in the early days of Project Protective Edge, Gallup concluded:

Despite the vividness of news and social media images emanating from the conflict in the Middle East, Americans' attention to the conflict and their attitudes about the actions on both sides have remained remarkably unchanged compared with almost two weeks ago, and also compared with results from the period of Israeli-Palestinian violence 12 years ago. This suggests that Americans may have responded to both crises in ways that reflect their basic attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians rather than the specifics of either conflict. In general, Americans rate Israel much more favorably as a country than the Palestinian Territories, and are much more likely to say they sympathize with the Israelis than the Palestinians when asked to choose between the two sides. 

Overall, American attitudes toward Israel have been at record high levels for the last six years despite the turmoil in the region, the failure of Obama’s peace initiatives, the administration’s public castigation of Israel, anger over settlements and the usual media bias. 

Gallup has also found, and this is where Jewish angst comes in, “Younger Americans show less favoritism toward Israel than middle-aged adults and, in particular, seniors; however, they are no more likely to favor the Palestinians. They are simply less anchored about whom they favor.”

From a political standpoint the added italicized portion is important. Young American may feel less sympathy for Israel than their elders, but that has not translated into more support for the Palestinians.

Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom – or paranoia – the data does not support the belief that young Americans are turning against Israel. If, for example, you look at the most consistently asked question, Gallup’s query regarding sympathies toward Israel versus the Palestinians, 49 percent of Americans ages 18-29 supported Israel in 1982. In the most recent poll, in February 2014, 52 percent of those 18-39 (the cohort was changed) sympathized with Israel. Young Americans are actually more supportive! In fact, if you look at the polls in 1988 and 1996, support from 18-29 year-olds was only 39 percent and 32 percent, respectively. True, in 2006, the figure was 59 percent, but it is hard to argue that support for Israel is declining given the leap in sympathy from the 80s and 90s.

Furthermore, opinions tend to change over time. The chicken-littles believe that if support for Israel among the young is weak today it will remain weak. That is possible, but it has not happened over the last three decades. What has really changed is that older Americans have become much more supportive, with those over 50 increasing their sympathy for Israel from 49 percent in 1982 to 74 percent (for those 55+) in 2014.

This change in support among older Americans also supports the thesis that young Americans have not turned away from Israel; rather they have become much more sympathetic. Consider those 18-29 year-olds from 1982. Today, those people are over 50, so their support has shot up from 49 percent when they were younger to 74 percent today. Similarly the 18-29 year-olds of 1996 are now 36-47 years-old and their support for Israel has increased from 32 to 58 percent. The group from 2006 would be 26-37 years-old and support among the oldest of that group has also grown over time.

I don’t dispute that looking at a variety of questions about the Middle East indicates that Israel’s image has eroded among some young Americans; they have little knowledge about Israel but feel uncomfortable with policies they have internalized from peers, media, faculty and Israel deniers. This too may be an artifact of age and ignorance and could change for the better, especially if the situation in the region changes, and Israel and its supporters do a better job of both explaining the conflict and going beyond it. Moreover, roughly one-third or more have no opinion about Israel so that non-partisans remain open to messages that could restore Israel’s reputation.

Cultivating Israel’s image is an unceasing challenge, which sometimes is effected by events beyond the control of Israel’s friends, and it cannot be taken for granted, even if surveys do not reflect the doomsday scenarios of concerned members of the community


Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine and The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.