The way young Americans perceive Israel has undergone a significant change in recent years, leading to intense debates and discussions. While many attribute this shift to platforms like TikTok, experts argue that there are multiple factors at play.
According to political scientists, pollsters, and activists on both sides of the debate, various theories attempt to explain why young Americans increasingly sympathize with Palestinians.
These theories include the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the right-wing policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, demographic changes in the United States, the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the widespread dissemination of images and videos depicting the suffering of Palestinian civilians across various social media platforms, not just TikTok.
Joshua Kertzer, a professor at Harvard University, cautions against solely blaming social media platforms for this phenomenon. He emphasizes that individuals select what they expose themselves to and that TikTok’s algorithm tends to cater to users’ interests.
The origins of this shift in young Americans’ support for the Palestinian cause are not completely understood, given the long-standing history between Israelis and Palestinians. However, there is substantial evidence of this change, with polls revealing a stark division in how different age groups in the U.S. view the situation.
For example, an NBC News national poll showed that among respondents aged 65 and older, 64% had positive feelings towards Israel, while only 12% had negative views.
In contrast, among respondents aged 18-34, 26% had positive feelings towards Israel, while 37% held negative views. Similarly, when asked about whether Israel’s military action in Gaza was justified, 61% of the older age group said it was justified, compared to 31% of the younger age group.
Although polls do not provide the reasons behind individuals’ support for one side or another, researchers have examined other evidence to shed light on this shift.
Thomas Zeitzoff, an associate professor at American University, suggests that the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement may play a role in shaping the thinking of some young people. Activists have drawn parallels between the treatment of people of color in the U.S. and the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Poll data from Quinnipiac University indicates that support for Israel has changed over time. In March 2019, registered voters of all ages tended to sympathize with Israelis over Palestinians at a ratio of 47% to 16%.
However, by May 2021, that ratio had changed to 41% to 30%, marking a net change of 20 percentage points. Various events over the past two years, such as the protests following George Floyd’s death and Israel’s airstrike on a Gaza high-rise that housed Associated Press offices, likely contributed to this shift. (It’s worth noting that opinion leaned back towards Israel immediately after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, with 61% to 13% in favor.)
The domestic politics of Israel, particularly the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu, may also play a role in shaping young Americans’ perceptions. Netanyahu’s strained relations with Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, and his leadership of a right-wing government that has expanded West Bank settlements against the objections of the Biden administration have drawn criticism.
The push to overhaul Israel’s judiciary in 2021 triggered mass protests in both Israel and among thousands of American Jews. A Pew survey conducted in August highlighted the low confidence that Americans aged 18-29 have in Netanyahu.
Lastly, experts point to a changing perception of Israel’s power in the Middle East. Older generations witnessed Israel’s struggle for independence and subsequent conflicts with Egypt, Syria, and other neighboring countries. Kertzer notes that these conflicts portrayed Israel as an underdog fighting against adversarial states seeking its elimination. However, younger generations view Israel as a nuclear power, constantly more powerful than its adversaries.
In conclusion, the reasons behind the increasing sympathy of young Americans for Palestinians are multi-faceted and extend beyond the influence of TikTok. Factors like the Black Lives Matter movement, Israeli domestic politics, demographic changes, the aftermath of wars, and altered perceptions of Israel’s power all contribute to this shift in perception. Understanding these complexities is crucial for comprehending the changing dynamics surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.