American Jews are growing sceptical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians and want limits on aid to prevent settlement growth
Mike Levinson has been pushing back for 40 years and finally thinks he might be getting somewhere.
“There’s a change and the politicians see it. I think it scares them,” said Levinson, holding a sign demanding “Stop Israeli settler violence” as he marched through New York on Thursday.
“There’s a tremendous change going on in the American Jewish community. There are a lot of Jews, especially young people, who are not so quick to automatically and unconditionally support everything that Israel does. People are accepting the fact that it’s OK to be Jewish and criticise Israel.”
Levinson, a Jewish New Yorker, began protesting against Israeli government policies during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It’s been a long and often lonely road since then as he has sought to get his fellow Americans to pay attention to decades of Israeli occupation, military assaults on the West Bank and Gaza, and the unrelenting expansion of Jewish settlements.
Through it all, however, support for Israel in Washington has remained largely undiminished.
Nothing much looked to have changed last week as Democrats and Republicans alike feted Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, during his address to Congress. The Democratic leadership distanced itself from a boycott by some progressive representatives and joined the pile-on against Pramila Jayapal, chair of the influential Democratic Progressive Caucus, after she called Israel a “racist state” before rowing back to say she meant that its government is pursuing “outright racist policies”.
The Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Hakeem Jeffries, made a pointed defense of Israel while congressional Republicans quickly engineered a resolution declaring “Israel is not a racist or apartheid state”. All but 10 members voted for it.
The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg described the backlash against Jayapal as a “hysterical overreaction” from Democrats and Republicans alike “demonstrating that, no matter how far Israel veers from liberal democratic norms, when it comes to American politics, it’s still protected by a thick lattice of taboos”.
But for all that, Levinson was upbeat as he marched last Thursday in support of proposed state legislation to block New York charities from funding illegal Israeli settlements. He said opinions about Israel have been shifting for years as increasing numbers of ordinary Americans, Jewish and not, see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the prism of civil rights.
“I hear it from them. They see social media, they’re checking out information coming from the Middle East. They don’t have to rely on the mass media here any more. They’re more sceptical about what they hear from the politicians and mainstream Jewish groups,” he said.
Opinion polls suggest Levinson is right. A Gallup survey earlier this year found that for the first time more Democrats were sympathetic to the Palestinians than the Israelis by a margin of 11%, a significant shift from a decade ago.
In 2021, a Jewish Electorate Institute poll found that 58% of American Jewish voters support restrictions on US military aid to prevent Israel using it to expand West Bank settlements. One-third agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States” and one-quarter said that “Israel is an apartheid state”, numbers that shocked some Jewish community leaders.
Part of the shift has been driven by social media and the wide circulation of videos such as Israeli assaults on Gaza and the West Bank, the large-scale forced removal of Palestinians from the South Hebron hills, and armed Jewish settlers rampaging through Palestinian towns.
In addition, the repudiation by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of a Palestinian state, and far-right members of his latest government openly advocating annexation, have undercut Israel’s longstanding defense that its policies are a response to terrorism. That has given traction to claims by Israeli and foreign human rights groups that Israel has imposed a form of apartheid on the occupied territories.
But protesters in New York on 20 July in Manhattan’s Herald Square who were protesting against Israeli settlements had no illusions that evolving public opinion is going to translate into a change in policy in Washington any time soon.
Rosalind Petchesky, a retired political science professor at the City University of New York whose family fled anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, was also marching on Thursday. She said that some politicians were uncertain how to respond to the gap between the strong pro-Israel instincts of Washington and the views of some of their constituents.
“Their response to Pramila Jayapal is a sign of weakness in the sense that they feel threatened because they’re exposed. But the mainstream Democratic leaders care about 2024 and get a lot of money from these groups and billionaires that support Israel, and that gives them power. So as long as that’s true, we are fighting an uphill battle. But we are going to win,” she said.
One way forward, said Diala Shamas, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who joined the demonstration, is to focus on aspects of Israeli policies that are hard to defend.
American politicians mostly support Israel in the broadest terms, often referring to shared democratic values with the US and speaking up for Israel’s “right to defend itself”. But it is harder to justify individual Israeli policies, particularly over the settlements.
“It is, of course, an uphill battle to climb,” said Shamas. “But we know that the numbers are moving towards consensus around opposition to Israeli settlements. When you actually look at the demands of this campaign, they are the most uncontroversial from a legal standpoint. So those who oppose it have to actually say that they actually think that it’s OK to aid and abet war crimes.”
Still, it’s one thing to win support and another to get voters to care enough about an issue that it has political impact.
The challenge was clear in Herald Square. As the protesters chanted “We are winning”, New York shoppers mostly walked by without paying attention. Except for a man who stopped and started explaining to his son who the settlers are.