July 29, 2021

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Americans largely support Israel — but sympathy for Palestinians is on the rise

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Last weekend in Atlanta, as hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators rallied downtown, one sign stood out in particular: “We can’t breathe since 1948,” it read – a nod to the social unrest of the last year that has followed the murder of George Floyd. 

Experts say it’s a reflection of the way that American support for the Palestinian cause is growing, a trend that a recent Gallup poll showed was on the rise even before the most recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It’s not a huge surprise that a lot of non-white Americans can empathize and identify with Palestinians because of their own history of oppression and settler colonialism,” said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “The old image of Israel as David fighting the Arab Goliath, if it was ever true, is now completely obsolete. Israel is not the underdog anymore, and people realize that.”

Results of Gallup’s annual World Affairs poll, released in March, show that while most Americans still sympathize with Israel, favorable views of Palestine are on the rise. Roughly 30% of overall respondents said they had favorable views of the Palestinian Authority, up from 21% in 2018 and higher than the annual average of 19% since 2001.

Such views are increasingly partisan, with Republican support for Israel at 85%, compared to 77% of Independents and 64% of Democrats. However, the percentage of Republicans who view the Palestinian Authority favorably has risen to 19%, up from 9% in 2018.

Supporters hold up flags and posters during a rally and march in support of Palestinians in Chicago in response to ongoing fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, on Sunday, May 16, 2021. (Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHS222

That support for both Palestinians and the Black Lives Matter movement have gained support concurrently is not a coincidence, said Elgindy, director of the Washington institute’s Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs program. Both are rooted in similar anger over a lack of accountability, police brutality and systemic racism, he said, especially among young people.

As buildings fall in Gaza and whole families are wiped out, and as the United States stays largely silent about the plight of Palestinians, he said, “that contrast has not been lost on large numbers of Americans who are starting to awaken to this. For a lot of young people who were in middle school the last time this happened and not necessarily politically aware, they’re coming of age politically, and they’re horrified.”

The area encompassing Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory is home to about 6.8 million Israelis and 6.8 million Palestinians, according to Human Rights Watch. Israel exercises primary authority over the territory, which consists of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with limited Palestinian self-rule. According to the human rights organization, the discrimination and subjugation experienced by Palestinians in parts of the territory are tantamount to apartheid and persecution.

Hamas, a militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

Omar Baddar, communications director for the California-based Institute for Middle East Understanding, said that even before the most recent conflict, progressives had been increasingly critical of Israel and fired up about human rights, and “in that environment, it makes perfect sense that American support for Israeli apartheid would raise eyebrows.”

According to the Gallup poll, while more Americans still say the United States should pressure Palestine, over Israel, to resolve the conflict, those saying the onus is on Israel represent a new high of 34%, up from 27% in 2018.

At the same time, antisemitic incidents have hit record highs in recent years, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League. In all, there were 2,024 reported in the United States in 2020, the third-highest record since ADL began counting such incidents in 1979.

Baddar, who is Palestinian American, said the rising pushback against Israel has grown partly out of the United States’ dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose antagonistic relationship with President Barack Obama was followed by a much friendlier one with President Donald Trump, “who basically embraced him,” he said, as the Israeli government moved further to the right.

This week, a tenuous cease-fire marked the latest round of fighting between Israel, Palestinians and Hamas, which began May 10 when the militant group fired rockets toward Jerusalem after confrontations between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims. Aggressive police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers inflamed tensions.

Israel launched hundreds of airstrikes that it said targeted Hamas’ infrastructure. Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas have fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most others intercepted or landing in open areas.

As of Friday morning, at least 230 Palestinians had been killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes, the Associated Press reported. At least 13 Israelis were killed, Reuters reported. 

Celebrities are increasingly outspoken about Palestinian support

Last weekend, thousands demonstrated from Boston to Los Angeles in support of Palestine in dozens of rallies and marches marking the 73rd anniversary of the 1948 uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians following the creation of the state of Israel and the initial Arab-Israeli war. The event is referred to as Nakba, or catastrophe.

A demonstrator performs a backflip outside the Consulate of Israel during a demonstration in support of Palestine during the Los Angeles Nakba 73: Resistance Until Liberation rally and protest on May 15, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Among those marching in New York City’s Brooklyn borough was supermodel Bella Hadid, numerous outlets reported, one of a growing number of celebrities who have added their voices to the protest on social media and beyond. Hadid’s father is Palestinian.

“I have been told my entire life that who I am, a Palestinian woman – is not real,” Hadid wrote Sunday on Instagram. “I’ve been told my father does not have a birth place if he is from Palestine. And I am here to say . Palestine is very much real and the Palestinian people are here to stay and coexist.” 

Entertainers Rihanna, Zayn Malik and Rage Against the Machine also posted Palestinian support on Instagram, while actors Mark Ruffalo, Susan Sarandon and Viola Davis took to Twitter to condemn Israeli aggression.

Last year, actor Seth Rogen made waves in a podcast interview in which he said he was “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” growing up as a Jewish boy, with his elders omitting information about Palestinian displacement.

The violence has raised tensions within the United States as well: In Los Angeles, a brawl broke out outside a sushi restaurant Tuesday between sidewalk diners and a group of men passing by in cars waving Palestinian flags. And in Michigan, where President Joe Biden’s visit this week to a Ford plant in heavily Arab American Dearborn was met with protest over U.S. support of Israel, organizers of an annual Muslim-Jewish dialogue event in Detroit chose to postpone it to ride out the friction.

“Things are too heated up,” said Wayne State University history professor Howard Lupovitz, among the dialogue’s scheduled participants. “It’s a civil discourse that’s not appropriate at a time when emotions are running this high.”

A supporter holds up a flag during a rally and march in support of Palestinians in Chicago, May 16, 2021.

That Americans are increasingly sympathetic with Palestine, he said, is more about the civilians caught in the conflict than about the Palestinian Authority. 

“You have to feel bad for Palestinians in Gaza,” he said, citing Hamas militants who he said embed themselves among the population, effectively using civilians as shields. “They’re trapped, they’re frightened of the Israelis and they’re also frightened of their own leaders.”

That point was echoed by the Middle East Institute’s Elgindy, who said there’s a growing belief that Palestinian leadership is increasingly irrelevant and unable to respond to the crisis.

“At least part of the sympathy comes not just from the human rights abuses but a sense that they have incompetent leadership,” Elgindy said. “That’s part of what makes their story compelling; Palestinians have it pretty hard in facing an oppressive occupation, but they’re also kind of political orphans.”

Louise Cainkar, a social welfare and justice professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who has studied Palestinians, Arabs and Muslim-Americans in the United States after 9/11, said the Israeli government’s actions in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank have produced increasing dissent among American Jews. The dissent has spawned efforts such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which opposes oppression and supports self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians.

“While many of these Jews support the state of Israel created in 1948, they oppose the territorial expansions, land confiscations and human rights violations,” Cainkar said.

Secondly, Cainkar said, Black and indigenous people in the United States are increasingly seeing similarities between their own experience and that of Palestinians under occupation.

Some see similarities between struggles of Palestinians and Black community in US

When the most recent conflict began, the Black Lives Matter chapter in Paterson, New Jersey issued a statement expressing Palestinian solidarity.

“Our deep roots of solidarity are part of a rich tradition of mutual support and exchange between Palestine and U.S.-based liberation movements” the statement read.

Baddar said the link between the struggles of Palestinians and Black Americans — a concept scholars call Black-Palestinian transnational solidarity — dates to the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson ran for president with a platform that included demands for Palestinian human rights. The years since have produced many other comparisons in terms of discriminations and militarized police response, he added.

In 2015, Baddar noted, a group of Black activists traveled to Palestine with a program called Dream Defenders to better understand the Palestinian struggle and its similarities, “and that has caused the solidarity to really blossom.”

“A huge reason we have rising social consciousness in America is driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, and that leads to similar demands for foreign policy as well,” Baddar said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (L), D-Mich., high-fives Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn in an undated photo taken at an event for supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Experts also attribute Americans’ rising support of Palestine to the rise of social media and an increasingly diverse Congress – including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, its first Palestinian American member — that, while still overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, now flashes hints of resistance.

For instance, said Lupovitz, who also directs Wayne State’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies, an “uncompromisingly supportive” Congress that has regularly approved U.S. aid to Israel now faces more voices of dissent, prompting growing concerns within the American Jewish community.

Lupovitz said Palestinian support “is on an upward arc, no question. Palestinian Americans have been organizing and mobilizing, and I think they’re also torn between their national aspirations and what Hamas does. But it’s not something that’s going away; they will have more influential people in Washington, and if nothing else, it’s a cautionary note to those on the pro-Israel side that it’s going to be difficult to sustain this conflict.”

Baddar, of California’s Institute for Middle East Understanding, agreed.

“I definitely think it reflects something more long-lasting,” Baddar said. “The public is more educated, and that’s why celebrities are more supportive and why more members of Congress are demanding more accountability… The Israeli government is moving farther to the right and as the disregard for human rights is becoming more overt, it gets harder and harder to defend.”

With reporting from The Associated Press.

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