It was no surprise that the U.S. government threw its support behind Israel following the terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens on October 7. President Biden quickly defended Israel, declared himself to be a Zionist, and visited the country within days of the attacks. Republicans and Democrats lined up in near-unanimous support for the Jewish state, pledging moral, political, and military support for Israel’s expected retaliation against strongholds in Gaza. This has been a long-standing pattern since the United States formed its alliance with Israel in the 1960s, and has been sustained since that time through a series of wars and terrorist attacks in the region.
But few expected the eruption of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses and large cities across America in the days and weeks following those attacks. Students on campuses from Harvard and Yale to Michigan and Berkeley marched and signed petitions in support of the Palestinian cause, calling for the elimination of the state of Israel, while ignoring the wanton killing of more than 1,400 Israelis in the attacks. Thousands took to the streets with the same message in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and other cities. A dozen or so members of Congress, nearly all progressive Democrats and affiliated with the left-wing “squad” in the House of Representatives, voted against a resolution to support Israel in the escalating conflict.
In many cases, the demonstrators denounced anyone sympathetic to Israel, including especially Jewish students and residents, as murderers and oppressors. In New York, the police advised Jewish residents to remain indoors and out of view during a scheduled anti-Israel protest in Brooklyn on October 28—an astounding development in a city with the largest Jewish population in the world. Jewish students on elite campuses expressed bewilderment that friends and fellow students had so suddenly turned on them in the wake of the savage attacks on October 7. They did not realize that supporters of the Palestinian cause here and around the world blame them (along with the U.S. government) for the troubles in the region.
The eruption of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish movements should serve as a wake-up call for Israel, and for America as well. It has already done so for many wealthy alumni and business leaders who have criticized university presidents and pulled back donations in response both to the anti-Israel demonstrations on campus and the lukewarm responses of academic leaders to the terrorist attacks.
Still, unless something bold and long-lasting is done to counter those movements, they are likely to grow in influence on campus, in government, and among voters in the years ahead. Opinion across America is increasingly divided on these issues, and opponents of Israel on campus and in politics are now well organized, much more so than they were a few decades ago. On our present course, we could easily reach a point in a decade or two when Americans (and their representatives in Congress) will be sufficiently divided on Middle East issues as to prevent American intervention on behalf of Israel.
This trend was already visible in opinion surveys taken before the terrorist attacks last month. A Gallup poll taken earlier this year revealed a sharp decline in support for Israel over the ten years from 2013 to 2023, along with a sizable uptick in support for the Palestinian cause over that same period. According to that poll, when respondents were asked whether they sympathized with Israel or the Palestinians, 64 percent sided with Israel in 2013 while just 12 percent supported the Palestinians (the rest were not sure), but by 2023 support for Israel fell to 54 percent while sympathy for the Palestinians increased to 31 percent. That evolution in opinion was due largely to declining support for Israel among Democrats (especially) and independents. Democrats in the most recent poll expressed greater support for the Palestinian cause than for Israel, while Republicans did not budge in their overwhelming support for Israel.
The same poll suggested that support for Israel versus the Palestinians varies by age groups, with younger Americans now less likely to side with Israel. Among baby boomers (those born 1946–64), support for Israel is consistent and overwhelming, but millennials (those born 1980–2000) are more likely now to take the Palestinian side. A Pew Research Center poll taken in 2022 revealed a similar result: among Americans over the age of fifty, some 65 percent expressed favorable views of Israel while just 45 percent of those under fifty did so. Among those between eighteen and twenty-nine, some 56 percent expressed a negative view of Israel compared to 41 percent who had a positive view. This is consistent with results from many other polls that point to declining support for Israel among younger Americans, who are also less likely to express positive or patriotic views about the United States. In that sense, growing skepticism about Israel among the younger generation goes hand in hand with the same skepticism toward America.
This is the age cohort that has gone through American colleges over the past few decades while imbibing an assortment of anti-American and anti-Israel points of view taught in courses and promoted in other campus programs. The old-time curriculum through which young Americans learned about the virtues of free institutions and progress through science and free inquiry has given way to a new approach that asserts these ideals are but smoke screens allowing white Europeans and Americans to govern the planet while oppressing minority groups and despoiling the environment. Given what they are being taught, it is not surprising to hear that large numbers of students and recent graduates claim that Israel (like America) stands with the oppressors and the Palestinians with the oppressed. A professor (and critic of Israel) at Rutgers University summed up the situation in an interview with Time magazine: “There is now,” she said, “clear and robust support and understanding of Palestine as a freedom struggle.”
It would be a good thing if those newly energized business leaders, instead of simply withholding donations from their universities, would turn their attention to the long-running challenge of returning these institutions to their core purposes—that is, genuine learning and understanding in an environment that encourages rational debate, discussion, and pluralism. This does not mean that debates over Israel and the Palestinians should be banned, or that one or another side of that debate should be suppressed, but that they should proceed in a rational manner absent the bullying of Jewish students or rote defenses of terrorism that have taken place in recent weeks. It also means that ideological and activist causes now embedded in the academic curriculum should give way to less ideological forms of instruction.
The Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association put the issue well in an open letter this week to Harvard’s leaders: The signers expressed their support for “a broad-based effort to encourage a pluralist culture of good faith debate, critical thinking, and moral reasoning, where Harvard students, who may be tomorrow’s leaders, can learn to express their opinions and test their thoughts on the campus marketplace of ideas, without resorting to violent discourse.”
That is a good statement, though one that will require some hard work to put into practice at Harvard and other campuses preoccupied with victims, oppression, and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” Yet it is a cause worth fighting for and one with some promise of success, in part because it is a battle for the future, in part because it has never really been tried before, and because it offers needed reinforcements to those moderate and sensible voices on campus that have been silent up to now.