When I wrote last week about alarming poll results that show a continuing drop in support for Israel among Democrats and young people, I promised to follow it up with ideas on how to confront this growing problem. Recent polling showed that majorities of these two groups now hold unfavorable opinions towards Israel, and the numbers are steadily worsening.
Several advocacy organizations, led by AIPAC’s new super PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the Zioness Coalition and the Urban Empowerment Action PAC, have been waging a highly effective fight against the growing antipathy toward Israel among progressive voters. They deserve immense credit for their work. But the fact that so much time, energy and money must be expended to persuade Democratic voters to support a Jewish state should be taken as a warning sign rather than a cause for celebration.
As I’ve written before, the anti-Semitism that emanates from the extreme right is just as pernicious as the anti-Zionism infecting the far-left. But the Democratic Party has been the historic home of the majority of American Jews, so the loss of support among young people and liberals requires a more serious response than simply changing the subject to nationalistic ultra-conservatism. We will never win over the blood-and-soil bigots and racists—nor should we try. But bringing back the young and the left-leaning is a necessary goal to pursue.
First, we must recognize that we do not see ourselves the way most others do. By definition, progressives are invested in helping the dispossessed overcome adversity. After several millennia of oppression, most Jews see ourselves and the Jewish state as having earned that underdog status. But our academic, economic and political successes mean we are now regarded by many of our detractors not as the oppressed but as the oppressors.
We think of ourselves as David. They see us as Goliath. Until we begin to rebuild our relationship with other underrepresented communities, and help them better understand our history—as we make a better effort to learn about theirs—that fundamental misperception will prevent the political left from being comfortable with Jews or Israel.
The challenge is particularly acute in minority communities, as the once-vital relationship between Jewish and black advocates has largely withered and nascent connections with other groups have yet to fully take root. But we should be just as concerned with the precipitous drop in support for Israel among young voters as they move into more influential positions of civic and political leadership.
Especially worrisome are the markedly less favorable feelings that young American Jews have for Israel. Millennial and Generation Z Jews tend to be much more ambivalent about Israel than their parents and grandparents, which will make it much harder to shift opinions among voters of their age groups in the years ahead.
It’s not difficult to see how younger Jews have developed such different feelings about Israel than previous generations. Their attitudes were shaped not by independence or the Yom Kippur War, but by more recent news from the Middle East that is overwhelmingly focused on settlements in Judea and Samaria and wars in Gaza.
But us older Jews still assume that these young people will think like we do even while growing up in a dramatically different information environment. Because Middle Eastern politics can be so divisive, many Jewish institutions have stepped back from the difficult but necessary challenge of teaching our young people about the challenges and successes of modern-day Israel.
So Jewish students read about biblical Israel but much less about the modern-day country. They learn about Abraham and Moses, and maybe occasionally Ben-Gurion and Meir, but certainly not Lapid and Netanyahu. The resulting information vacuum is then filled by other, less sympathetic sources.
These conversations can be controversial and sometimes unpleasant. But we must be willing to have these conversations—both within and outside the Jewish community. But rather than keeping our next generation of young leaders safe from uncomfortable debate, perhaps it would be better to prepare them for the future challenges they will inevitably face.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www/lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 pm.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.