Eytan Gilboa, professor of International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, spoke to a May 3 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about trends in American public opinion toward Israel over the last two decades. Gilboa's work on the topic can also be found in a publication of the Bar-Ilan's Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, and in UCLA's Currents.
Availing himself of surveys by "reputable polling agencies" in the U.S., Gilboa found that Americans' views of Israel have generally remained favorable over the last 20 years, with support fluctuating between two-thirds and three-fourths. However, the "distribution of sympathies" regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed dramatically, with Republican support growing and Democratic support declining.
The Partisan Gap
According to a major 2020 survey, the gap between Republican and Democratic support is far wider than it was 20 years ago:
- 91% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats view Israel favorably.
- 9% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats view the Palestinian Authority favorably.
- 86% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians.
According to the same survey, 44% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats favor the establishment of a Palestinian state. Republican support for the establishment of a Palestinian state increased during the Trump years, which Gilboa attributed to President Trump's inclusion of this solution in "official peace plans."
According to a 2015 poll, 3% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats supported the Iran nuclear agreement brokered by the Obama administration that year over Israel's objections. This gap was much wider than that in support for Israel, and also wider than their degree of trust that Iran would comply with its terms – 97% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats expressed "little" or no trust.
The main reason Democratic support for the agreement was so much higher is "obviously ... the fact that Obama negotiated the deal," said Gilboa. While independents have skewed closer to the Democrats on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, they skewed closer to Republicans on the Iran nuclear deal.
Gilboa attributed some of the Republican-Democratic divide on Israel to underlying "socio-demographics." Support for Israel is stronger among older Americans, whites, and those who are more religious, particularly Evangelicals.
Leftist faculty are "not really teaching" about Israel, but rather "propagating" anti-Israel bias.
Polls showed that younger Americans have a much lower level of support for Israel. Gilboa believes most have "limited knowledge" about Middle Eastern affairs and get much of their information from social media, where misinformation abounds. Furthermore, those who have attended college have been exposed to BDS activists and leftist faculty who are "not really teaching," but rather "propagating" anti-Israel bias. College campuses have become a "terrible place" for Jews who are unwilling to distance themselves from Israel.
Non-whites, particularly Hispanics and African Americans, also register lower levels of support for Israel than the general public. This may be partly a correlation with their left-leaning political views. In addition, Hispanics are less familiar with Israel and mostly Catholic, a denomination less supportive of Israel than other Christian denominations, while African Americans are influenced by the "use of the apartheid claim" by Israel's enemies, who try to "create an analogy" between the plight of African-Americans and the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
Although Gilboa emphasized that "overall trends are good" in American public opinion on Israel because decreased left-wing support is counterbalanced by increased support among conservatives, the gap between Democrats and Republicans is nevertheless deeply concerning "because Israel needs bipartisan support in Congress."
"Information warfare" against "those who are disseminating false information" is imperative.
Gilboa concluded that Israel and its supporters must combat disinformation, tout Israel's qualities, and celebrate its achievements in "technology, agriculture, medicine." The imperative is nothing less than "information warfare" against "those who are disseminating false information ... [and] trying to delegitimize and dehumanize Israel."
This is particularly important in the universities, where "the leaders of the future" are being conditioned to hate the Jewish state. It is time, he said, to "to approach donors to universities" about the "intimidation and propaganda" undermining their educational mission.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.