Why is there a generational divide on Israel in the US? Experts explain

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The mention of Israel and the Palestinian territories often divides Americans along generational lines — with older generations, by and large, more sympathetic to Israelis, while the young are increasingly siding with Palestinians, polls have shown.

This generational rift grew into a chasm following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, which has so far left 1,200 Israelis and more than 15,000 Palestinians dead, according to officials from both governments.

Sixty-five percent of voters 65 and older sympathize primarily with Israelis, and 52% of voters under 34 sympathize more with Palestinians, according to a Nov. 16 Quinnipiac University poll.

“Younger American voters, 18-34 are much less inclined to support Israel militarily and not nearly as supportive of Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 massacre as older Americans we polled,” Tim Malloy, a polling analyst at Quinnipiac University, told McClatchy News.

Why exactly the generations are so at odds over Israelis and Palestinians was not polled, Malloy said.

But academics, activists and public opinion experts told McClatchy News that a variety of long-standing factors — including differences in media consumption, historical narratives and demographic changes — likely come into play.

“There’s so much that flows into the views that we have,” Thomas Patterson, a Harvard University professor who researches public opinion, told McClatchy News. “I think there’s quite a lot going on here below the surface.”

Media consumption

One prominent factor likely contributing to the generational imbalance is the striking differences in media consumption by age, Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, told McClatchy News.

While baby boomers rely heavily on print media and cable television as a source of political news, millennials and Generation Z are more inclined to use social media for current events coverage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

“Very bluntly, I think younger people are much less affected by mainstream media, which they see as very biased,” Khalidi said.

“A lot of students tell me that they follow young people in the Gaza Strip or elsewhere who are livestreaming or doing podcasts and on social media regularly whom they’ve come to trust over time,” Khalidi said.

Through the use of social media, young people have been exposed to the oppression of Palestinians, which often goes uncovered by mainstream outlets, Khalidi said.

Popular cable news networks exemplify this blindspot, Patterson said. “They talk about Palestinians, but they talk a lot more about the Israelis and much more about the Israeli hostages than the Palestinians in jails.”

Social media platforms, however, are far from perfect vehicles for delivering news. Americans who primarily get their news from places like Facebook and Twitter are less informed about current events, according to a 2020 Pew study.

These platforms have the power to polarize young users, sending them down rabbit holes and into echo chambers, Julie Fishman Rayman, the managing director of policy and political affairs at the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group for Jewish people, told McClatchy News.

“You like one video — whatever the political bent of it is — and suddenly the algorithm is all over you, sending you all sorts of legitimate or not legitimate sites or videos that simply validate or reinforce that message,” Fishman Rayman said.

Historical narratives

The collective narratives about Israel and the Palestinian territories — shaped by the media and influenced by proximity to historical events — have also changed over time, leaving each generation with a unique perspective, one that’s difficult to change, Patterson said.

“For older Americans, the history of Israel is different than if you’re 25,” Patterson said. “This relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and to some degree the U.S. as a protector of Israel, that’s a more deeply embedded idea, I think, in older people than younger people.”

For people who came of age in the wake of World War II, the narrative that captured the public consciousness was that of the Israelis, whose connection to the Holocaust was ever-present, Khalidi said. The story of the Palestinians, though, was largely overlooked.

“I think the time from the Holocaust is absolutely a factor here,” Fishman Rayman said, adding that Israel’s early wars with multiple surrounding countries also shaped perceptions.

“That memory, that sort of Israel as the David and the neighborhood as the Goliath — which was the prevailing narrative for decades — that narrative has been lost,” Fishman Rayman said. “Now, I think, amongst young people especially, Israel is not the David; Israel is the Goliath.”

Social justice

Another factor to consider is that younger generations tend to be more affected by social justice issues, Khalidi said.

Over the years, a variety of social justice movements, like the push for racial equality and environmental rights, have become linked to the movement to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, Sonya Meyerson-Knox, the communications director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organizations that describes itself as a “progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization”, told McClatchy News.

“I would argue that those movements are never exclusive to the young, but certainly are made up more strongly by younger people,” Meyerson-Knox said.

Fishman Rayman said that an idea exists “especially among young progressives that Palestinian liberation is somehow in the same vein or in line with LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, feminism, climate justice.”

She said it creates a “mental gymnastics” that allows “people to turn a blind eye to Hamas’ really truly evil subjugation of women… the willingness to put Palestinians in harm’s way.”

Changing demographics

Demographic change in the United States also is prone to play a role in shaping public opinion of Israel and the Palestinian territories, Patterson said.

Younger generations are made up of larger percentages of racial minorities, certain groups of which have historically been more sympathetic to Palestinians, Patterson said.

The decline in religious affiliation, too, has probably had an effect on the divide, Patterson said.

White evangelicals, who tend to be older, are far more supportive of Israelis than their nonreligious counterparts, who tend to be younger, Patterson said.

Younger American Jews, as well, have become “less attached to Israel,” Ted Sasson, a professor of Jewish Studies at Middlebury College, told McClatchy News. Though, this detachment partly reflects a “lifecycle dynamic rather than a generational dynamic.”

“Having said that, there’s no guarantee that today’s younger Jews will grow more attached to Israel in the future, as did prior generations,” Sasson said. “Israel’s right-wing government has alienated many American Jews, and the future of the American Jewish-Israel relationship probably depends in some measure on the future composition and conduct of the Israeli government, as well as future dynamics in the American political arena.”

Younger generations, though, are more likely to be affected by current events than their older counterparts, Patterson said.

When you’re young, your opinions are more malleable, as they’re underlied by less information, but as you age, they become more baked in, Patterson said.

“The way our minds’ work, we accumulate these pieces of information and these experiences, and they work their way into our opinions,” Patterson said. “At some point, our opinions kind of stand on their own.”

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