(NEW YORK) — Twenty years ago, Tallie Ben Daniel was a college student wandering the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, when she came across a bumper sticker that read “Free Palestine.” Born to an Israeli family in Los Angeles, Ben Daniel had never heard the phrase before. “I had zero context for what that meant. And I didn’t understand,” she recalled. “Free Palestine from what?”
Today, Ben Daniel is an advocate for Palestinian human rights. She’s currently the managing director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that challenges the way the Israeli government treats Palestinians. But her past confusion makes sense against the backdrop of the early 2000s.
In general, U.S. support for Israel was a common, unquestioned stance on both sides of the aisle, while the aftermath of 9/11 only deepened Americans’ rapport with Israel from the lens of solidarity against terrorism claimed by Islamic extremists. Even among those concerned for the Palestinians, many clung to the fleeting optimism that the Oslo Accords of the 1990s could yield a peaceful two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
In 2001, when Gallup polled Americans on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, views were clear and consistent: Only 16 percent of Americans sympathized more with the Palestinians, while 51 percent sympathized more with the Israelis. Back then, this wasn’t even a particularly partisan issue — only 18 percent of Democrats sympathized more with Palestinians.
Two decades later, though, the landscape has changed. The share of Americans with more sympathy toward the Palestinians has ticked up to 25 percent. And that support has more than doubled among Democrats: Today, 39 percent report feeling more sympathy for the Palestinians.
A confluence of factors over the past decade seems to be driving this shift. Social media has changed how war is witnessed across the globe — especially among young people — and a growing awareness of social inequities in the U.S. may be reshaping how some Americans perceive conflict internationally, too. But most of all, the Palestinian-Israeli question has become a topic that embodies an intra-party identity issue for Democrats, one that has increasingly pushed liberals to reconsider what constitutes progressive politics.
Summer 2014 marked one of the most deadly episodes of violence in Gaza. In May that year, Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed two Palestinian teenagers. In June, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank and ultimately killed, and the IDF launched a full-force defense operation in response. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 73 Israelis were killed — 67 soldiers and six civilians. Meanwhile, 2,251 Palestinians were killed, 551 of them children. Those casualty numbers affected the way the world saw the conflict, and the narrative of justified self-defense that the IDF presented wasn’t universally accepted outside Israel, said Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA.
“It’s really the last decade, during which so many events and shifts and factors have changed thoughts in the public domain,” Waxman said.” Indeed, myriad dynamics — for example, how U.S. social-justice movements drew parallels to the escalating violence of the 2010s and how Donald Trump’s allied stance toward Israel raised eyebrows during his presidency — have gradually moved the needle on how the American public views the Palestinians.
Notably, what happened in 2014 was the first large-scale escalation in the age of widespread social media. In the years since, researchers have pointed to the ways in which social media has reframed how the international community observes war in real time, whether over the past decade with the Palestinians or this year with the Ukrainians. Whereas bumper stickers once spread messages locally, hashtags were now sending information buzzing around the globe. Until then, most wide-scale information, particularly about life in Gaza, came through mainstream media outlets. Now, for the first time, people around the world were exposed and had access to firsthand accounts from Palestinians, many of which challenged (or at least contextualized) the details reported by large outlets. Some posts also singled out headlines and language used by such publications, accusing their framing of the violence as unfairly neglecting the Palestinian struggle.
“That summer, it was just so clear, how disproportionate the violence was,” said Ben Daniel. “The Israeli government will often talk about their assaults as ‘it’s a war,’ but it became clear that there was only one side with a military.”
Her change in perspective is indicative of how Americans’ opinions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have shifted, too — with change especially pronounced among younger Americans. According to Pew Research Center data from March, 61 percent of American adults under 30 have a favorable view of the Palestinian people, compared with 56 percent who have a favorable view of the Israeli people. Ben Daniel thinks it’s important that these young Americans have also been witnessing growing civil rights movements at home.
“Around the same time, Black Lives Matter was having a resurgence. And alliances between folks at, say, Ferguson [Missouri] and Palestine shifted consciousness in general,” said Ben Daniel. She believes that the violence in Gaza in 2014 and the support of Black Lives Matter happening in tandem and underpinned by social media helped circulate comparisons to the conflict by paralleling police brutality in the U.S. with IDF tactics in Gaza.
Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed following the July 2013 acquittal of the neighborhood-watch volunteer who killed Trayvon Martin, has aligned itself with the Palestinian cause. In 2014 and again in 2021, pro-Palestinian activists and Black Lives Matter activists have demonstrated their support for each other on social media.
As a growing share of Americans began confronting uncomfortable and embedded injustices in their own country, the parallel details in Palestinian accounts of systematic oppression contextualized a conflict halfway across the world in a new light.
This comparison has been moving. But it has also been controversial.
“It can be a starting point for people new to the conflict, but I caution against taking the comparison too far. That’s ignoring a lot of more complicated dynamics and history,” said Laura Birnbaum, the national political director of J Street, a prominent pro-Israel advocacy group that supports a two-state solution. Comparing the BLM and pro-Palestine movements isn’t something everyone will see as fair, Birnbaum said. She and other supporters of Israel don’t think it’s reasonable to analogize Jews in Israel as white, slave-owning colonizers when the Jewish state exists because of the historical oppression of its people. And some still see Israel in a precarious position as the only non-Muslim-majority country in the Middle East, Waxman said.
This is another place where age may come into play. Whereas some older generations of Americans lived through the latter half of the 20th century, when Israel’s existence was not necessarily considered a guarantee, millennials and Gen Zers are more likely to view Israel as a strong nation with ample financial and military power, Waxman said.
At the very least, the use of the BLM comparison shows how the framing of this conversation has changed. What was once a debate over the logistics of land division has now, for liberal Democrats, turned to a discussion about Palestinians’ human rights.
And that, Waxman said, helps explain why the pro-Palestine position has become a facet of progressive and Democratic identity. “In the past, supporting Israel was seen as aligned with or consistent with liberal values. And, increasingly, it’s seen as contradicting liberal beliefs and values,” he said. This shift has happened primarily among the most liberal Democrats. Gallup polling from February 2021 indicates that liberal Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians compared with Democrats as a whole, by 48 percent to 39 percent. Moderate and conservative members of the party still tend to sympathize more with Israel.
And that is exactly what we’ve seen with a small but growing set of politicians. Pew research from April 2016 showed a widening gap on this issue between supporters of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, the most publicly pro-Palestinian members of Congress — Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who herself is Palestinian American, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose hijab renders her visibly Muslim — have also aligned themselves with the party’s progressive left arm. This divide between moderate and liberal Democrats on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is evocative of recurring debates in the direction of the party across a host of issues.
And the schism occurring within the Democratic Party over Israel is only further facilitated by how staunchly Republicans have doubled down on their support. Conservatives are more sympathetic toward Israel than ever, and interestingly, evangelical Christians, who skew overwhelmingly Republican, report even stronger pro-Israeli beliefs than Jewish Americans according to Pew. Meanwhile, Waxman and Ben Daniel also suggested that Trump’s close allyship with Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem — a city claimed by both Israel and Palestine — as Israel’s capital only drove the notion of unconditional support for Israel further to the right.
The Palestine-Israel question has become an increasing variable in politics, determining campaign funding for certain candidates. Earlier this year, in the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, helped raise about $2 million for state Sen. Valerie Foushee, who ran against and ultimately defeated pro-Palestinian and hijabi candidate Nida Allam, a Durham County commissioner. As is usually the case, however, the money in Foushee’s campaign didn’t go toward pro-Israel campaign messaging but instead to closer-to-home everyday issues that resonated with constituents on the ground, like Foushee’s pro-choice abortion stance.
That is indicative of the fact that, while the pendulum is shifting for Democrats, it hasn’t really affected policy yet, Waxman said. That’s because no matter their political identity or age, Americans don’t rate Israel as a high priority issue in their daily lives. “Americans aren’t voting on this, really,” Waxman said. “It’s too far removed compared to other, more everyday issues.”
That said, opinions on the Palestinian cause show that issues don’t have to dictate votes to be relevant within a party. This topic will likely continue to matter for Democrats, even if it doesn’t help get them elected.
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