Evolving American Support for Israel

Younger Americans have a different view of Israel than do baby boomers.


By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The American spat with Israel seems notable for, as Sherlock Holmes once said, the dog that did not bark.

The United States has been fighting two wars, trying to rebuild a frayed economy, and staging a major debate over the size and content of the social safety net. Whatever room was left on the news last winter was dominated by blizzards and Afghanistan, Scott Brown, and the advent of the iPad.

In the lives of most Americans, Israel is on such a back burner as to seem irrelevant.

More stubbornness from Binyamin Netanyahu? More settlements, demanded by Israel's religious zealots? Another round of American diplomacy, met by Israeli intransigence? Anguished and angry Palestinians?

Been there, done that. It's a narrative that is decades old. Tell me something new.

Indeed, Netanyahu may want to consider this: It has been more than 60 years since the victors of World War II agreed to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East. The members of the great generation that fought and won the war are mostly gone. I bet that 100 times as many Americans could name the judges on American Idol as could identify David Ben-Gurion or Harry Truman.

The Arab-Israeli conflict seems more and more like some historical relic--like U.S. policy toward Cuba. What is its relevance for a 21-year-old American today? Is there an Israel app?

In Slate over the weekend, Jacob Weisberg wrote a compelling piece about the state of American support for Israel, touching on some of these themes. Even among American Jews and liberals, he notes, support for Israel is ebbing. It is a provocative piece, worrisome for friends of Israel, like myself, and I recommend it to you.

I'm Irish-American. I know all about religious nationalism, the scars of genocide, and how ethnic and religious ties can linger over generations. Did anyone watch the Smithsonian special on Oliver Cromwell last night? My grandmother Powers never said the word "Protestant" without the modifier "dirty." But you know what? I ended up marrying a Protestant. We get along all right. And even Northern Ireland is peaceful today. Enough is enough.

We baby boomers grew up listening to our parents talk about their searing battle with the evil of Nazism. And thanks, in part, to Hollywood, the state of Israel was portrayed throughout our childhood as a country that met the classic American definition of an underdog. But now we boomers are looking toward Social Security. The image of plucky Israel, molded by Leon Uris and Kirk Douglas, is being replaced with a far more complex portrait of a modern, powerful state, with its array of interests, virtues, and flaws. To my kids' generation, Israel is a brave democracy, but also an occupier, with tanks and jets, suppressing a displaced people, who retaliate with rioting, rocks, and suicide bombings. An apparently endless and depressing saga, all propped up by U.S. foreign aid and military assistance.

Israel can go it alone, and will, if that is what its people decide. The Israelis are nothing if not a hardy, gutsy, and determined bunch. Their belief in an expansive Zion may be too strong to give up.

But America's friendship is a valuable asset. Netanyahu may want to recalculate the cost of those settlements, and recognize that, with each passing day, there are new generations of Americans, of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, forming opinions about American-Israeli relations.

And their loyalty to Israel will be based on what happens in their time, and not so much, anymore, on memory.

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