According to recent data, US millennial support for Israel has fallen precipitously over the past decade. Recent Economist-YouGov polling data from 2018 show that only 25% of American millennials (aged 18-25) consider Israel an ally. This marks a stark contrast to overall national attitudes on Israel, which, despite continuous annual drop-off, have remained majority positive.
The data seem to underscore a central theme of the current political landscape: that traditional messages used to market Israel to the United States are no longer effective. With Israeli support becoming an increasingly partisan issue further stratified along age and gender lines, it’s important that Israeli lawmakers and image branders diagnose the reasons behind this loss of support so that potential solutions can be identified and implemented.
This article seeks to take an in-depth look at the current relationship between US millennials and the state of Israel. In doing so, we’ll examine potential reasons as to why American support for Israel is suffering. Specifically, we’ll examine how both the changing of the times and the hyper-partisanship of Trump’s America play a role in reshaping popular youth attitudes toward Israel.
Why Has Israel Lost This Support?
Lack of millennial support for the Israeli state is a multi-faceted issue that cannot be boiled down to a single root cause. In truth, there are a variety of natural and political causal contexts that have led to the decline in youth support of Israel.
Students—and the Times—Are Changing
For older Americans, it’s hard to shake the image of Israel as the underdog. Many baby boomers can still recall the Six-Day War of 1967—in which Syrian forces invaded Israel—and the 1973 Yom Kipper War. During these times, the young Israeli nation was seen as under existential threat from its Arab neighbors.
In other words, Israel was an underdog—and one that nearly all Americans were rooting for. In the context of post-war America, this could only make sense. The early years of the Israeli state coincided with decades of global conflict (fallout from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc.), in which US involvement played a significant role in reshaping philosophical and political boundaries across the world. Specifically, US involvement in world affairs was seen as a necessary good—particularly for underdog states such as Israel.
Flash forward fifty years, and today’s millennials are living in a different landscape. Currently, Israel represents one of the most developed states in the Middle East. Seen as a startup and tech giant, the nation is also known for its strong military presence—and its willingness to use it. Through the Internet, millennials can observe firsthand the damage of Israeli military strikes on opposing countries. To these millennials, Israel represents something totally different: a regional economic and military powerhouse.
Or, to put it succinctly, the opposite of an underdog.
With Israel a clear military and economic superior to rival Arab nations, data suggest that it may be harder for millennials to extend the nation the same sympathy as their parents and grandparents.
This is particularly true when considering the wealth of online information regarding the damage of Israeli military strikes. In regard to the current Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas, a whopping 29% of millennials blamed the conflict on Israel, as opposed to only 21% who blamed the conflict on Hamas.
As the only group to take an anti-Israeli stance on the issue, millennials showcase wildly different views than their parents and grandparents, who overwhelmingly backed Israel in the cause. This data indicates a generational split that echoes a single fact: that Israel is no longer the sympathetic figure from a few decades ago.
Millennials, confronted with an Israel likely unfamiliar to their parents, are responding to this quite clearly: by turning away from the nation at higher rates than ever before.
With this being said, the decline of millennial support for the Israeli state cannot be explained away so simply. Indeed, any discussion of the issue would be remiss without close examination of a stark—and dark—poll finding: that Israel has become a victim of the increasingly partisan political landscape.
In the past, US support of Israel—a monumental Middle Eastern ally—transcended party affiliation. Today, however—and increasingly since the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump—support for the nation has fractured along hyper-partisan lines.
The president, who has arguably had a polarizing effect on Americans, has potentially pushed support for Israel firmly into the right-wing sphere by strongly backing the nation and its current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To summarize, current declines in Israeli support among millennials can be condensed into a simple pattern. Namely, millennials, who largely oppose the president, now oppose Israel by extension. In effect, President Trump’s backing of the Israeli state—which includes recognition of annexed Israeli land—can be viewed as an indirect catalyst of millennial opposition to the Israeli state. Overall, millennials—and millennial students in general—appear reluctant to align themselves with any of the president’s views, even if it means bucking years of tradition.
Today, issues such as Israeli military strikes on surrounding Arab countries and perceived land grabs from other sovereign states have emerged as key talking points of an increasingly-liberal, anti-Trump platform. In this current landscape, polling data captures an interesting phenomenon: the most pro-Israel Americans are also the strongest backers of the president.
This suggests that continued millennial and Generation Z opposition to the president will only further serve to drive a wedge between American youth and Israel.
With a whopping one-third of millennials supporting a boycott of Israel according to a recent Ipsos poll, it’s clear that the president—who has recently moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and made the United States the first country to ever recognize Israeli sovereignty over the 1981 annexed Golan Heights—and younger Americans are operating on two separate planes.
And while the long-term implications of a potential “Trump Effect” are not yet clear, data indicate that Israel may need to change its message—and quickly—if it wishes to repair its relationship with future generations of Americans.
Signs That Israel Has Lost Ground
Outside of polling data, what other signs indicate that millennials are turning away from Israel? In order to answer this, it’s useful to look at a specific subsection of millennials: millennial Jews.
Surprisingly, even this sub-stratum of the millennial population has begun to turn away from Israel. Perhaps the most telling sign of this is the recent downtick in the number of those participating in Birthright Israel.
The program, founded in the 1990s, works to bring Jews from sixty-seven different countries on a ten-day trip to Israel. This heritage trips aim to reconnect Jews living globally with their religious and cultural motherland.
Though Birthright Israel officials have rejected recent reports that participation in the program has fallen, the statistics say otherwise. Though it is true that early reports may have overestimated the percent decrease in participation, the data does indicate that 2019 has seen a significant drop off in the number of participating millennials.
As reported by the Times of Israel, the true drop off in participation rates for this year actually falls somewhere closer to 7-10%. Though this does prove to be substantially lower than the initially reported 20-50%, it still indicates a distancing of millennials from Israel.
This drop in participation comes as attitudes on American college campuses continue to shift further to the political left. In their article, the Times of Israel touches on two prevailing factors that may be contributing to the loss of support among college-educated millennials—and subsequently, in the loss of participation in Birthright Israel.
While the “Trump Effect” and the liberalization of the American Left play a significant role in reshaping millennial support for Israel, the newspaper identifies one other significant factor: the rise of J Street.
J Street is a liberal nonprofit organization that seeks to end the Israeli-Arab conflict by influencing American leaders. Though the organization bills itself as “Pro-Israel,” its detractors say differently. They point to the liberal advocacy group’s position to create a pro-Palestinian state and end the current conflict between Israel and Palestine.
It’s a move that many American Jews have rejected. However, the movement has been gaining ground through their extension J Street U. This branch works to promote the group’s pro-Palestine philosophy across university campuses in the US.
Recently, J Street U created a petition that encouraged pro-Palestinian voices be included with Birthright Israel.
And they didn’t stop there. The left-wing organization in March announced plans to answer Birthright Israel by sponsoring a trip of their own. The goal of the planned excursion would be to take forty American Jews into disputed territories, presumably in the hopes of fostering more pro-Palestinian views.
J Street isn’t the only organization working to promote sympathy for Palestine, however. Other organizations, such as IfNotNow, aim to end Israel’s occupation of the West Banks.
IfNotNow remains comprised mostly of millennial Jews in the United States. Another left-wing organization, IfNotNow represents a growing rift between the beliefs of traditional and millennial Jews.
With these growing movements encouraging Jews to forsake their cultural and religious heritage—and with millennial support for Israel dropping across the board—it’s time to consider solutions to this problem
Reconciling Israel’s image with beliefs held by increasingly liberal American millennials will require effort on the part of the Israeli government. With America’s increasing political polarization, Israel will need to find ways appeal to millennial Americans without offending their political sensitivities.
To do so, Israel must follow a four-point plan that contains the following steps:
With Israel’s development into a regional power, it’s time that the government changed its tune when speaking to younger generations.
Only a few short decades ago, Israel successfully appealed to Americans by emphasizing their need for protection. Now, however, with the country’s incredible technological and military might, such arguments don’t resonate with younger audiences.
Instead, Israel should focus more on promoting the country’s opportunities for millennials.
To win over millennials, Israel will need to address allegations of human rights abuses. Additionally, they’ll need to reconcile their regional influence, military power, and West Bank occupation with modern “anti-colonial” mindsets. With many left-wing millennials focusing on narratives of victimhood and oppression, Israel must rewrite their occupation narrative in such a way that does not position Palestine as the underdog to liberal sympathizers.
Additionally, the nation should foster a relationship with diaspora millennials by leveraging the country’s power. With Israel becoming a modern day technological hub and military power, the government should focus on more proactive approaches to attract millennial Jews.
Perhaps this would best be done through the promotion of new internship programs, such as Onward Israel. Such internships would give young Jews the opportunity to experience Israel first hand, without focusing on biased and preconceived left-wing notions.
With millennial support for the Israeli state the lowest, it’s ever been and trending downwards, it’s evident that public perceptions of US-Israeli relations are in a state of upheaval. While Americans have traditionally viewed Israel as an ally and underdog nation in the Middle East, millennials do not extend the same sympathy and goodwill to the Israeli state.
Rather, hyper-partisanship and liberal radicalization over the past decade—and particularly since the start of the Trump presidency—have served to push increasingly left-wing millennials into the pro-Palestinian camp.
As a result, support for Israel among millennials and Generation Z has plummeted, begging the question: what must Israel do to engender support among younger generations of Americans? The answer seemingly lies in avoiding political controversy and in a large-scale rebranding of the nation. By playing to the views of Israel as a modern democratic state that shares American values, Israel can use its rapid development as leverage to connect with a new generation of Americans.
One thing’s for certain: with nearly every major poll citing significant drop-offs in millennial support for Israel, the country must act fast to reimagine its “brand” for current and upcoming generations.
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