Israel: Losing Hearts and Minds

Opinion polls in the United States regarding Israel-Palestine are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they reflect the dominant narrative in the West that at turns defends and denies Israel’s racist policies toward Palestinians. On the other, they show disgust with the periodic mass killings of the virtually imprisoned Palestinians, punctuated in people’s minds by last year’s massacre of 9 humanitarian aid activists—murdered at sea in cold blood—their only weapons of defense: deck chairs and cucumber knives.

Two years ago, according to Zogby, 71 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of Israelis; by March 2010, 65 percent did. A plurality, 40 percent versus 34 percent, believe Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories are wrong.

Even before the killings on the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla and the recent uprisings across the Middle East that have popularly humanized Arabs as democracy- and freedom-seeking people, 84 percent believed the Palestinians deserved equal rights, 67 percent supported a Palestinian state.

When Israel bombed 1.5 million trapped Gazans on the eve of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, killing more than 1,400 Palestinians (almost all civilians; 13 Israelis died, 9 were soldiers), Americans winced. Forty-four percent supported the assault, versus 41 percent who opposed it, according to Rasmussen. Ordinary Democrats—unlike their party’s leadership—were appalled, only 31 percent could muster any support for it.

But, as always, polls don’t tell the whole story. These last months, the U.S. city with the greatest concentration of Jews and Arabs living side-by-side, New York, has been host to literally dozens of events where hundreds of people have turned out each time to learn about and advocate Palestine solidarity.

Whether listening to Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald exposing the legal myths about Israel, Professor Rashid Khalidi recounting the tales of Israel’s terrorist birth pangs or Omar Barghouti making an ironclad case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of the apartheid state, crowds have been large and defenders of Israel have been cowed and mostly passive.

These rooms, it should be noted, are almost always at least half Jewish. Not surprising, as Peter Beinart’s excellent article exposed last year that:

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Even the Zionist J Street poll shows 53 percent of American Jews are not at all bothered by open criticisms of Israel by other Jews.

Opinions have changed drastically. In the late 1980s, when I began speaking on Palestine in NYC, universities like NYU would insist on metal detectors at the door to deter kooks who called in death threats. Small clutches of students would attend meetings, but at least half the room would rise up in protest at any acknowledgment of the indisputable facts of Israel’s ethnic cleansing. Zionists marched through the room a couple of times waving the Israeli flag and singing their anthem, Hatikva, The Hope.

To be an anti-Zionist in the U.S. in those years, or simply a vocal critic of its policies, was to be among a tiny minority, usually made up of socialists.

Most Americans today remain profoundly confused about the history and politics of Israel-Palestine, but they are increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians’ demands and rights.

One clear example was seen these last two weeks. It’s Gay Pride month and in New York each of the city’s boroughs hosts its own parade, culminating in Manhattan’s megabash of hundreds of thousands of revelers marching toward the Stonewall Inn where the modern movement was born in a riot. For the first time ever, pro-Palestine contingents marched in the NYC parades in response to Israel’s attempt to sell itself as a gay paradise, known as “pinkwashing,” as well as the Manhattan LGBT Center’s ban on Palestine solidarity organizing.

Thousands of people cheered the Queers Against Israeli Apartheid contingent at both the Brooklyn and Queens Gay Pride parades over the past two weekends. Chants of “We’re here, we’re queer, and we support Palestine!” were met with fist pumps, nods and smiles of agreement and sympathetic curiosity.

This is expressive of a significant ideological shift taking place across the country. Apartheid Israel is, finally, losing hearts and minds in the nation that funds its power in return for political and military services no other Middle Eastern state can reliably supply.

That said, we should not equate Israel’s growing unpopularity in the States with either a shift in U.S. policy or a relaxation of the virulent attacks on critics of Israel. U.S. policy remains fiercely pro-Zionist and billions continue to flow, despite minor clashes over semantics when Obama recently uttered what amounts to a repetition of long-held policy positions.

The attempt to deny playwright Tony Kushner his honorary degree at CUNY—and the massive response that overturned that denial—provides a glimpse of battles to come.

Israel has only just begun to respond to the growing BDS movement and they are likely to ratchet up the rhetoric, lies and slanderous attacks on all of its critics. The pinkwashing campaign is only one part of a multimillion dollar effort to win back American progressives.

Our side will need to rise to the ideological and organizational challenges of a well-funded campaign that has U.S. government support, including a police state approach to spying on and interrupting constitutionally protected activities.

The best place for folks who want to prepare themselves for the Zionists’ inevitable attacks is at Socialism 2011: Revolution in the Air, July 1–4 in Chicago, where electronicintifada.net’s Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti, Glenn Greenwald and many others, myself included, will be taking on the myths of Zionism and helping to arm this new generation of solidarity activists with the knowledge and organizational wherewithal to take the next steps.

4 responses to “Israel: Losing Hearts and Minds

  1. What an important article, Sherry. My anecdotal experience corresponds with what you are saying.

  2. Pingback: 3. Turning Away from Israel « Tikkunista!

  3. I’ve been to Israel, and you have no idea what you’re talking about.

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