U.S. Discourse Is Growing More Pro-Palestinian. U.S. Policy Isn’t.

Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

This time is different.

The pattern of events is familiar: Some narrow instance of Palestinian dispossession awakens resistance against the broader reality of apartheid. Hamas asserts its centrality to that resistance through terroristic violence. Vile crimes beget reprisals. And then American-made, Israeli-piloted planes start dropping bombs on schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings in Gaza: an area more densely populated than Shanghai, and one that Israel’s blockade has helped to render “uninhabitable” by the standards of the U.N.
But how those events are being covered and interpreted in the U.S. media is less familiar. Apologetics for Israel’s right to defend itself (by dropping bombs on an overcrowded city while entrenching apartheid rule) are present but not pervasive. Palestinian voices appear more prominent on TV news. On social media, expressions of solidarity with Palestine seem predominant. Formerly mainstream liberal pundits are calling on Israel to recognize the Palestinian right of return in the pages of the New York Times.

Bari Weiss, the celebrated critic of identity politics and champion of Jewish ethno-nationalism, has documented these developments in catastrophizing prose. In a newsletter titled The Bad Optics of Fighting for Your Life, Weiss writes:

For the past few years, leaders within the American Jewish community have been deeply worried about whether the Democratic Party, with the wind now in the sails of the Squad, would go the way of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. That question now seems tragically parochial. 

The world has gone Corbyn. Look online. When Andrew Yang, the frontrunner in the New York mayoral race, tweeted on Monday “I’m standing with the people of Israel,” AOC rallied the online hordes. The anodyne statement was, she said, “utterly shameful,” and the pile-on ensued. By Wednesday, Yang had all but apologized. The ratio is the new veto. How pathetic.

It turns out America didn’t need a Corbyn. We just needed a Twitter and a few reckless demagogues in Congress. 

The world has not “gone Corbyn.” But a segment of Weiss’s Twitter feed has evidently developed opinions about the expendability of Palestinian lives that offend her sensibilities.

And I think she’s partly right about why that has happened. In my wholly unscientific opinion, the new tenor of U.S. discourse about Israel-Palestine reflects five developments:

• The growing prominence of social media has eroded the capacity of (historically pro-Israel) mainstream news outlets to shape (i.e., gatekeep) coverage of the conflict. Where Israel’s bombing of Palestinian civilians was once routinely described in the passive voice — and the casualties, left largely anonymous — today, videos of such violence and victims routinely go viral. This doesn’t just give the rising generations of social-media-addled news consumers a broader view of the conflict; it also influences the mainstream media’s coverage, as every political reporter and cable-news booker now spends an inordinate portion of their waking hours on Twitter.

• A related but distinct factor is the changing demographic composition of mainstream newsrooms. America’s dominant media institutions are growing more racially diverse, and Black and Hispanic Americans tend to evince more sympathy for the Palestinian plight in opinion polls. But even more consequential than this, in my estimation, is mere generational churn.
The millennial generation is unprecedentedly left wing in its political sympathies, and this is especially true of college-educated, urban-dwelling millennials, who now comprise the bulk of most news-outlet staffers and are aging into positions of leadership. I think this is an underrated explanation for the Democratic Party’s leftward shift on economics; a policy-wonk cadre whose worldview was shaped by 2008 and its aftermath is displacing one whose formative experiences were stagflation and the ’90s tech boom. Similarly, a generation more inclined to view the left’s perennial causes with sympathy is taking the reins in mainstream media.

• Palestinians and their left-wing allies in the United States have done a great deal of organizing. As Weiss suggests, the socialist left has managed to place a few unabashed advocates of Palestinian rights in the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, Palestinian activist groups have made their presence felt on U.S. college campuses, which has likely played a part in shaping the sympathies of the emerging media and political elite referenced above.

• Bibi Netanyahu aligned himself with the American right, denouncing Barack Obama’s Iran deal in a speech to the U.S. Congress and all but formally endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012.

• Above all, though, the dissonance between Israeli policy and American liberalism’s putative values has grown increasingly conspicuous. Netanyahu once made some effort to keep up the pretense that his government was interested in a two-state solution. But the ascent of the Israeli far right, the robust support for Israel among American Evangelicals, and the newfound indifference of Gulf State monarchs to Palestinian liberation have rendered such pretenses unnecessary. Israel does not need the enthusiastic support of liberal American Jews (though it has retained a good deal of it, anyway). It has the stalwart support of the Orthodox and the Christian right. It does not face any concerted global pressure to reconcile its treatment of the Palestinians with international norms of human rights; such norms no longer exist, even nominally, when one of the world’s great powers is committing a cultural genocide in broad daylight. There is no external brake on the rightward shift of Israeli public opinion.

Liberal American Jews — raised on a vision of Israel as a beacon of gay rights and tech innovation — are often oblivious to just how reactionary Israeli opinion has become. In a 2016 Pew poll, a plurality of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” The state’s policies reflect this sentiment. Both within Israel proper and the occupied territories, de facto apartheid is giving way to the de jure variety. There is no politically relevant Israeli left for U.S. liberals to identify with. There is no proffered narrative for how unconditional American support for Israel is supposed to yield two states for two peoples. The story is now, in essence, “Read the Hamas charter and you’ll see that the Palestinians deserve what’s coming to them.”

Photo: Pew

Put differently, U.S. discourse on Israel has shifted precisely because U.S. policy toward Israel has remained the same. On Monday, two days after Israel bombed the AP’s office in Gaza, Joe Biden “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks.” Three decades ago, George H.W. Bush conditioned U.S. loan guarantees on assurances that the money would not be used for settlement expansion. Now, Israel’s flirtations with annexation of the West Bank make no impression on American policy. Billions in aid still flow from the U.S. to Israel each year. Within the Democratic Party, a majority of voters object to this deference and want their government to pressure Israel into pursuing peace (at least if Gallup is to be believed). But among the broader public, reflexive support for Israel (or else indifference to the conflict) remains dominant.

From a national Gallup poll released in March. Illustration: Gallup

Weiss’s horror at the state of U.S. discourse on Israel-Palestine is thus, to borrow a phrase, tragically parochial. The American chattering class’s growing sympathy for the Palestinians isn’t immaterial. And it could eventually be reflected in public policy. But for the moment, Israel is about as geopolitically secure as it has ever been. The world hasn’t gone Corbyn; it’s gone illiberal.

U.S. Discourse Is Growing More Pro-Palestinian, Policy Isn’t