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Liberals, progressives, wokeness and Israel

Given the growth of woke culture and the inexorable sorting process in American political life, friends of Israel must ask themselves some tough questions.

Republican and Democratic Party logos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Republican and Democratic Party logos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Samuel J. Abrams and David Bernstein

America has long played an indispensable role in not just supporting Israel militarily but also in providing the country critically necessary political support in often antagonistic international bodies, where the one Jewish state is badly outnumbered by its many adversaries. On numerous occasions, the United States has cast the lone veto in the United Nations Security Council against a hostile resolution. Without the United States, Israel would be badly isolated in the world. America’s pro-Israel posture is predicated on public support for the Jewish state, which appears to be waning in key sectors of the public. Understanding the now potent ideological forces at work undermining this support for Israel is crucial if we are to stem the tide. These impulses are not isolated, but instead are part of a larger sorting trend in the nation today.

For decades, in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the American public has sided with Israel. In fact, in recent years it has done so by rather hefty margins. Consistent with many earlier surveys over the years, the 2022 Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) survey of likely voters in the United States found that Israel sympathizers outnumber Palestinian sympathizers by almost a 2:1 ratio, or 39% to 21%, to be exact. And if we focus upon those with strong feelings—those who strongly favor Israel or strongly favor the Palestinians—the pro-Israel advantage in the American public grows to nearly 3:1 (22% for Israel vs. 8% for the Palestinians).

Adding to this narrative, pro-Israel profile feelings emerge from another key question in the JILV survey. The question asked about competing images of Israel, giving respondents two dramatically opposing choices of how to characterize Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Respondents could choose to see Israel as “an occupier and a colonizer using modern military power to attack defenseless Palestinian civilians to steal more indigenous Palestinian land.” Alternatively, the likely voters could choose the pro-Israel option: “Israel is a sovereign nation which has the right and the obligation to defend itself from terrorists intent on killing civilians.” So, is Israel seen as an occupier and colonizer or as a nation defending itself?

Once again, the results favor Israel by a 2:1 margin. As many as 51% see Israel as sovereign with the right to defend itself from terrorists, while just 22% see Israel as an occupier and colonizer attacking defenseless Palestinians.

But while the overall margins certainly speak to widespread support for Israel in the American public, a closer look points to long-term trends that are not at all reassuring to pro-Israel supporters. Specifically, generation-related variations contain some rather dramatic differences between older and younger generations of Americans, best illustrated by the many sizable gaps between Boomers, now aged 58-76, and Millennials, those between 26 and 41 years old.

A generational shift in the works?

Among Boomers, on the who-do-you-favor question, Israel sympathizers outnumber Palestinian sympathizers by more than 4:1 (52% vs. 12%). But among Millennials, Israel sympathizers and Palestinian sympathizers are almost equal in number (31% vs 29%). A 40-point pro-Israel margin among Boomers drops to a two point pro-Israel advantage among Millennials, amounting to a 38 percentage change in one generation, consistent with wider trends in America political culture.

Just as the balance of Israeli vs. Palestinian sympathies have shifted, so have the contrasting images of Israel. Among the older crowd, Israel-as-sovereign outnumbers Israel-as-occupier by a 6:1 ratio (66% vs. 11%). But among the younger generation, the gap narrows considerably to 41% vs. 33%, amounting to a net change of 47 percentage points from the Boomer to the Millennial generation.

In short, the United States appears to be rapidly shifting its sympathies away from Israel, and beginning to view Israel less favorably. The patterns here help explain why college campuses (filled with 18- to 24-year-olds) seem so markedly unfamiliar to the current students’ parents and grandparents. Indeed, the youngest adults, Gen Z, move even further away from Israel than the slightly older Millennials.

The power of “woke” culture, or progressively distant from Israel

In good measure, the shift among the younger Americans can be attributed to recent currents in political and cultural identities. Being left or right, progressive/liberal or conservative is of far greater consequence today than in recent decades. Identity politics has become hugely salient in terms of thinking about power and social organization and has reorganized and shaped how many Americans see themselves and interact with others. And, today, attitudes toward Israel are most certainly tied to political/cultural identities and, more specifically, the rise of “woke” culture, as some call it.

Support for Israel is a potent and troubling example of how identity politics has played out in the past half century. Specifically, at one time—certainly in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, if not later—Israel was more popular among American liberals than conservatives. Images of kibbutzim, democratic socialism, the Histadrut (Israel’s AFL-CIO) and American folk singers visiting and supporting Israel all contributed to Israel’s special standing among American liberals. But at some point, the political alignment with Israel changed. Today we are in a situation where the right is far more pro-Israel than the left, as the 2022 JILV survey clearly documents.

Take variations in Israel-related views by party affiliation as one key piece of evidence. Among Republicans, Israel sympathizers lead Palestinian sympathizers by an overwhelming margin of more than 4:1 (54% to 13%). Even among independents we find a strong lead for Israel. But among Democrats, Israel sympathizers trail Palestinian sympathizers by seven points: 25% vs. 32%. In short, the net difference in Israel and Palestinian sympathies between Republicans and Democrats amounts to a whopping 48 percentage points. (Incidentally, the JLIV results for partisan differences among likely voters largely parallel those reported by Gallup in March 2022 for all Americans. For Gallup the net difference between Republicans and Democrats was even larger—62 percentage points, suggesting that the JILV survey may actually understate the partisan gap in Israel support.)

Of course, with partisan differences so pronounced, it is no surprise that political ideology also sharply differentiates the public with respect to Israel-related attitudes. Indeed, Israel-related attitudes vary dramatically with political ideology, that is, seeing oneself as liberal, moderate or conservative.

Conservatives overwhelmingly sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians (60% vs. 11%). Liberals, for their part, less often sympathize with Israel and more often sympathize with the Palestinians (26% vs. 35%). And the few self-defined progressives among likely voters are almost as lopsidedly pro-Palestinian as conservatives are pro-Israel (18% favor Israel vs. 67% who favor the Palestinians).

In line with these patterns, by more than 4:1, conservatives see Israel as a sovereign democracy rather than as an occupier (66% vs. 15%). Among liberals, the two images are almost tied (39% vs. 32%), and among progressives, the image of Israel as occupier (46%) clearly outpaces the idea that Israel is a sovereign nation with the right to defend itself (29%).

To further examine these issues, we turn to the related matter of “woke” culture. Recent years have witnessed the rise of a “woke” ideology alongside and in consort with shifting and polarizing political identity.

We define woke culture as an ideological predisposition to see the world as divided between the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed and the oppressors, and to attribute disparities among peoples and groups to perceived power differentials, and to assign moral superiority to the oppressed. Woke culture tends to claim that the oppression/oppressed binary is the only acceptable explanation for why some groups of people thrive more than others in our society, and harshly condemns any and all other explanations (hence the term “cancel culture”).

Woke culture has its roots in post-modern thought beginning in the late 1960s, which slowly but surely gained the upper hand in Humanities departments in many universities. Postmodern thought holds that knowledge is not objective, but socially constructed to maintain oppressive systems of power. In this view, knowledge—what people think they know about the world—is constructed by powerful forces in society in ways that benefit the powerful.

According to postmodern theory, oppressive power systems permeate every nook and cranny of society but are hard to see because they are so deeply embedded in our lives. Victims of oppression, postmodernists argue, have sole authentic insight into these hidden forces and are thus uniquely qualified to define and comment on them for the rest of society. In this framework, knowledge is tied to identity and an individual’s perceived position in society in relation to power. While such a worldview may seem entirely esoteric, it has “escaped” the academy and become a pervasive belief system evident in numerous American institutions, from scientific publications to legal bodies to institutions promoting fine art and poetry. And it is profoundly impacting our politics.

We measured woke ideology by drawing upon and combining five questionnaire items that tap into different features of woke culture. The five areas are: favoring Critical Race Theory, favoring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, seeing gender as fluid rather than fixed, viewing People of Color and LGBT individuals as having too little power, and seeing white people as benefiting from privilege. Depending on the respondents’ cumulative score, we divided them into four groups ranging from “low” (23%) to “very high” (14%).

The results for woke ideology and Israel-related views mirror those for political ideology and partisanship. Among those who score low, Israel sympathizers outpace their pro-Palestinian counterparts by seven to one (56% to 8%). The pro-Israel balance diminishes with each increase in wokeness, such that in the top woke category, Israel sympathizers trail Palestinian sympathizers (25% vs. 31%).

We see similar variations along the woke spectrum with respect to images of Israel as a sovereign nation defending itself against terrorists vs. as an occupier. Among the low-woke group, Israel sovereign nation beats occupier by a seven to one ratio (70% vs. 10%); among those scoring very high on the woke index, images of Israel as a sovereign nation defending itself actually trail those of Israel as occupier (32% vs. 36%). Once again, high-woke vs. low-woke are dramatically different with respect to views of Israel, Palestinians and their conflict.

Putting all this together, the more woke one is, the less likely they are to hold pro-Israel views.

And wokeness is not merely correlated with Israel-related attitudes; it plays an important role in shaping those attitudes. A statistical analysis we undertook showed that party affiliation per se (Republican, Independent or Democrat) makes little difference in Israel-related attitudes once we control for political identity (conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive) and woke ideology. But, that said, political identity and woke ideology are about as equally as powerful in predicting pro-Israel feelings. Political identity matters, but so does woke ideology.

The tide is turning—ominously

The long-standing widespread support for Israel in the American public is clearly at risk. As we have seen, pro-Israel attitudes are less frequent among younger likely voters than their parents’ generation. And we’ve seen that with respect to pro-Israel attitudes, Republicans surpass Democrats, while conservatives out-score liberals and progressives, and low-woke exceeds high-woke individuals.

What’s more, the very groups that are associated with lower levels of support for Israel are also the groups that are more populous among younger than among older adults. While Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2:1 (49% vs. 20%) among Boomer voters in the JLIV survey, the reverse is true among Millennials (27% vs. 49%). Similarly, among Boomers in the sample, conservatives hold the lead over liberals by a wide margin (52% to 16%), while the reverse is true among Millennial likely voters (27% vs. 47%). And we see a similar pattern with respect to those low or very high on the woke index: 34% vs. 8% among Boomer likely voters, and 10 vs. 20% among the Millennials.

On all three measures, younger (Millennial) likely voters are far more left-leaning than older (Boomer) likely voters. And given the tendency for Democrats, liberals/progressives and highly woke people to score lower on Israel support, we can readily anticipate further erosion in Israel support in the years to come, as generational succession inevitably unfolds.

The broader context: Sorting and polarization

Putting all this together, what the JILV survey powerfully documents is a troubling phenomenon that has pervaded the larger American political system today: namely political sorting. In its most basic form, political sorting, which is often confused with polarization, is a fairly new phenomenon, whereby ideological and attitudinal positions no longer vary but are expected to align to particular liberal or conservative attitudes. The result today is that Democrats are more uniformly left-leaning and Republicans are more uniformly right-leaning than they were decades ago.

Both the left and the right promote packages of ideas and attitudes that must be adopted wholesale if one is not to fall into disfavor. Today, dissent and divergence become almost impossible if one is to avoid adverse social consequences and possibly real professional ramifications as well. And for macro-political development, as Democrats are more habitually liberal and Republicans become more conservative, compromise and bipartisanship becomes harder to achieve. This is exactly what is happening with respect to Israel and ideology and represents an existential threat to the Jewish community and American support for Israel as well.

The recent uproar at Berkeley Law School is a case in point. Nine student groups at the law school banded together to amend their bylaws so as to exclude any Zionist speaker from ever speaking at the law school. That Women of Berkeley Law, the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and the Law Students of African Descent felt compelled to join forces with the Middle Eastern and North African Law Students Association in this endeavor illustrates how powerful this ideological sorting can be. Under the guise of intersectional solidarity, groups that have nothing to do with the Middle East conflict institute a litmus test that permanently excludes the vast majority of Jews who believe Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. To be part of the community of the good is to expel people with improper beliefs.

More specifically, to understand sorting, one must understand that the electorate has not changed significantly in the aggregate as generations have aged in and out, but rather, voters have sorted. Consider that in the 1990s there were many pro-choice and pro-immigration Republicans and pro-gun Democrats. These variations have disappeared, with issues all lining up on the left or right such that if you are a Democrat, you must believe and promote a particular agenda wholesale, and thus one can predict an individual’s political positions based on partisanship alone. Thus, the United States is experiencing increased partisan polarization now even though Independents have grown as a share of the electorate while the number of partisans has shrunk.

Turning to the JILV survey itself, support for Israel has become part of the larger political sort of the American public. Today, vast majorities of Republicans support Israel, while Democratic backing is much lower. To be on the left these days means that one cannot support Israel and be ideologically pure; backing Israel is a conservative value and that line cannot be crossed in the ideologically sorted world of today. Thus, it is also the case that those who score lower on the woke scale are appreciably more aligned with Israel than those who are highly woke. Attitudes toward Israel are now part of the liberal or conservative packages that partisans must uniformly adopt, constituting a new norm in American politics evident in the data here. As Abrams and Wertheimer pointed out, sorting has become so deep that it has influenced views and sharply divided Americans on ideas as varied as the nuclear family, the structure-enabling philanthropy and, of course, the police and justice systems.

Moreover, views toward religion, tradition and history have become part of the story now. To be liberal today means real disdain for people of faith and their rights to religious liberty, including support for Israel, while conservatives take the exact opposite approach. As Zaid Jilani has written with respect to race, the vision of the now sorted left is one where, “America isn’t a land of opportunity. It’s barely changed since the days of Jim Crow. Whites, universally privileged, maintain an iron grip on American society, while nonwhites are little more than virtuous victims cast adrift on a plank in an ocean of white supremacy.”

The emergent narrative and anti-racist policy positions are now stories, “where whites are the villains and minorities are the victims” making “honest discussion of why homicide is the leading cause of death for young Black men … off limits” for instance. The JILV data show the exact same trend with respect to Israel; support for Israel, even with its faults and complex narratives, is simply on the wrong side of the story and cannot be supported if you are on the liberal side of things.

Given the growth of woke culture and the inexorable sorting process in American political life, friends of Israel must ask themselves some tough questions: Should they continue to focus attention on progressives with deeply held woke commitments who seem to be sorting themselves out of support for Israel, or seek to strengthen support among those who don’t share those ideological commitments and are more inclined to support Israel? To what extent should friends of Israel continue to focus efforts on making Israel’s case in the public realm, and to what extent should they join forces with others in opposing the ideology that gives rise to the growing antipathy toward the Jewish state?

Now is a good time to rethink the mainstream Jewish posture in American politics.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Abrams is currently on the Board of Directors of FIRE.

David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org) and author of “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.”

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

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