The generational rift that explains Democrats’ angst over Israel


In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Sunday through Tuesday, 42 percent of Americans said they sympathized more with Israelis in their longstanding conflict with Palestinians, while only 9 percent picked Palestinians. Another 22 percent said their sympathies were about equal, and more than one in four, 27 percent, weren’t sure.

Last week, Hamas fighters entered southern Israel at the border with the Gaza strip and raided communities there, killing more than 1,000 Israelis and taking hostage hundreds more. The killings have been decried as an act of terrorism by President Joe Biden, who has expressed U.S. support for Israel in the aftermath.

But some liberal activists, including on college campuses, have argued that the killings are Israel’s fault for its government’s support of settlement expansion in the West Bank and the economic and security restrictions it has applied to Gaza. Some Democratic lawmakers have called for stronger recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in the aftermath of the war’s launch. More have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid escalation in his response. Biden himself said on Wednesday that he told Netanyahu in one of their several calls that Israel must “operate by the rules of war” going forward.

The Democratic divisions exist among the electorate, too, underscoring the extent to which last week’s attack and the subsequent war that has erupted threatens to split the party’s leaders and loyal voters from the youngest and most liberal parts of its voter base. In the new Economist/YouGov poll, 28 percent of self-identified Democrats said they sympathized with both groups equally, 26 percent said they sympathized more with Israel and 15 percent said the Palestinians.

Age and ideology appear to be driving the split among Democrats.

Among Americans under the age of 30, 25 percent said they sympathize more with Israelis, 19 percent with Palestinians and 25 percent with both equally. The split was similar among those who described their ideology as liberal: 25 percent for the Israelis, 17 percent for the Palestinians and 31 percent said their sympathies were about equal.

Another poll, a Fox News survey conducted Saturday through Monday, also found similar divisions by party and age. The poll showed greater support for Israel — it did not offer respondents the option of saying they sided with both groups equally — but majorities or near-majorities of Democrats (59 percent) and voters under 35 (49 percent) said they sided more with the Israelis in “the Middle East conflict,” far fewer than Republicans (79 percent) or voters 65 and older (82 percent).

And a Morning Consult poll conducted Tuesday through Thursday also found a wide party split, with Republicans about twice as likely to say they sympathize more with Israelis than Democrats.

The trend among Democrats and younger Americans has been clear over the past few years. A Gallup poll earlier this year — before the war — found support had reached a tipping point: For the first time in Gallup’s 20-plus-year trendline, more Democrats sympathized with Palestinians than Israelis, driven in large part by the younger elements of the party’s membership.

The rapidity of the movement was striking. Democrats sided with the Israelis by a 30-point margin in 2016 — a 41-point margin swing in just seven years.

There’s been similar movement among younger Americans in the Gallup poll. Five years ago, millennials, defined by Gallup as those born between 1980 and 1999, were 32 points more sympathetic toward Israelis than Palestinians. Earlier this year, they were evenly divided.

Sam Weinberg, the executive director of the liberal youth group Path to Progress, said younger Americans see greater nuance on overall questions of sympathy toward one side or another.

“I think the sympathies of young people, and people on the left generally, rests with those who are seen as disadvantaged,” he said, in reference to the conditions in Gaza, which have been described as exceptionally bleak by international aid organizations.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a deeply complex one, and Weinberg cautioned that the longstanding question used to poll American attitudes — with which side Americans sympathize more — oversimplifies the issue.

“You can be pro-Israelis and anti-Netanyahu. You can be pro-Palestinians and anti-Hamas,” he said. “The false binary that we’re presented with in the media and in this polling is really damaging.”

Other poll questions also reveal demographic divides, including in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack.

A separate YouGov poll asked whether Americans believe helping Israel is a “very important” goal of the U.S.’ Middle East policy: 58 percent of Republicans said it was, more than double the 24 percent of Democrats who agreed.

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