Many have taken notice of the recent Pew poll that shows decreasing support for Israel among millennials. Overall the poll showed solid American support for Israel; 54% sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while only 19% said they sympathize with the Palestinians. But the poll also showed alarming generational contrasts; only 43% of millennials (born after 1980), as opposed to 61% of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), feel sympathy toward Israel. Another recent poll showed that fully one-third of millennials would support a boycott of Israel.
Why this decrease in support among millennials? The Pew poll must be read not simply as a story about changing attitudes regarding Israel but about a changing America. Broadly, the issues are Protestantism and patriotism.
The first change is the erosion of the Anglo-European demographic base of the United States. This was brought about by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that replaced the quota system with one oriented towards family unification and attracting skilled labor, and from the 1980s onward by a series of amnesties that retroactively legalized many millions of illegal immigrants. Amnesty has become the deliberate strategy under the Obama administration, which has decided to discard border enforcement and offer legal status to illegal immigrants.
Growing Hispanic and Muslim communities in the United States are far less supportive of Israel.
Whatever one may think of this, not least of all making immigration policy through executive action, the outcome, in terms of creating an ethnically and religiously diverse millennial youth bulge, is unprecedented in US history. The Protestant founding of the country was predicated on emulating Jews and inspired a level of religious tolerance, if not always affection, toward them. Other growing American communities, such as Hispanics and Muslims, are far less supportive of Israel. A millennial wave with non-European and non-Protestant origins has inherent distance from Jews and has been exploited by the left-Muslim alliance in American life that underpins the BDS movement.
But the shape of public attitudes, including among millennials, is never a foregone conclusion. Historically, immigrants from a plethora of cultures including non-Protestant countries came to the US and embraced democratic republicanism, constitutionalism, and the "melting pot," wherein they retained private culture and beliefs, and participated as equals in American economic, legal, and political life. From this also flowed respect for minorities and for national aspirations, Jews and Israel included. This is no longer entirely the case.
The demographic shifts of the past 50 years have coincided with a second major process, the systematic discarding of American national identity by its educational system. Previous generations had been acculturated into knowledge of and respect for constitutionalism and the "American's creed." But starting in the 1960s civic education was gradually discarded, beginning with universities. Post-Americanism has now filtered down to all levels.
Civic literacy and respect for basic American virtues are at new lows on university campuses.
A pernicious form of multiculturalism gradually inverted the story of America's history, legal and political systems. To a shocking extent primary and secondary schools depict America at best as a background to stories of individual and oppressed group empowerment and at worst the pivot of capitalist, colonialist, imperialist and warmongering evil. Civic literacy and respect for basic American virtues such as religious liberty and free speech are at new lows, especially on university campuses.
As in European states, a sense of guilt was inculcated among Anglo-Europeans (now lumped together as 'whites'), including if not especially among Jews, and corresponding senses of grievance intensified among others. This strategy of divide and conquer was especially useful to late 20th century ethnic minorities anxious for power and to new 21st century coastal elite structures of corporate media and technologists. Transnational progressivism – borderless cosmopolitanism that elevates international and law institutions to near religious status – vies to become the reigning ideology, supported by a broader culture of censorship, self-censorship, and racialization.
Israel supporters are frequently harassed and shouted down at American universities.
Israel supporters are frequently harassed and shouted down at American universities.
To this must be added the increasingly pervasive anti-Israel environment on college campuses, where the word Zionism is anathema, pro-Israel speakers are regularly harassed and shouted down, and where being anti-Israel is demanded as part of progressive conformity.
In is in these contexts that millennials as a demographic have been programmed to side against both Israel and the United States. They now increasingly do so.
To see the process a few years down the line we may look at Britain. There demographic engineering by the ruling Labour Party at the beginning of the 21st century was designed to make Britain "multicultural" and to cement its own political power. This saw the dramatic rise in 'Asian," that is, Muslim, immigrants with the number increasing by over 75% in a decade. They vote almost exclusively for Labour, and a significant minority have deep antipathy towards Jews and Israel.
The natural alliance between socialists and communists who dominate the Labour Party and outsiders anxious for power has brought Islamists into the political mainstream in Britain and will do so in the US. Antisemitism is something all sides appear to tacitly agree on, along with more public hatred for Israel. Labour's escalating antisemitism scandal, which began on university campuses, has now swallowed dozens of councilors and Parliamentarians. Labour members have accused Jews of funding the slave trade, Zionists of colluding with Nazis, all the way up to party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been exposed as a supporter of the Israel boycott movement. These must be set against a broader British mindset of post-imperial and post-colonial guilt, which characterizes British patriotism as an outdated fetish. American patriotism appears to be suffering the same fate.
Labour's problem of "entryism" is also found in the Democratic Party where the "progressive" candidate, Bernie Sanders, has appointed Israel-loathers Cornel West and James Zogby to the platform committee, and a variety of Muslim and Jewish BDS supporters to roles in his campaign. Sanders' indifference to Israel is couched in the familiar rhetoric of "even-handedness" toward Israel and the Palestinians, but his supporters' goal of diminishing his party's historic support for Israel is so obvious that even mainstream media have been forced to take notice.
Parallel to this is the rapid rise of the xenophobic right supporting Donald Trump. Millennial support for Trump has not been analyzed but if the massive outpouring of antisemitism from Trump supporters is any indication, there may be similar antipathy toward Jews and Israel among his younger supporters. America's party politics have been fundamentally changed and, as one commentator has noted, America's Jews have already lost.
For a growing number of millennials, the Israeli 'occupation' began in 1948, not 1967.
In short, the future is not bright for Israel and millennials. It has nothing to do with "settlements" or "the occupation" except to the extent that for a growing number of young voters, these began in 1948 and not 1967. But the problem is much deeper still. The end of the Biblically-inspired Protestant cultural and political dominance in America bodes ill in many regards, since it was that particular mindset that created the country's unique institutions and values – the separation of church and state, the enshrinement of free speech and freedom of association, respect for the impartial rule of law, religious tolerance, and much more. Other cultures – and the issue is culture, not race – do not hold these values, which, tragically, are now being spurned by an increasing number of Americans.
Whether Clinton or Trump wins in November, America's foundations have been deeply shaken. Millennials and their values are no foundation for a liberal nation-state, particularly in a world where illiberal religious movements and revanchist empires threaten the very existence of the modern order. Unless the existing foundations can be quickly reinforced, Israel, American Jews, and America itself, face unprecedented peril.
Alexander H. Joffe, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, is a historian and archaeologist.