Americans are increasingly critical of Israel

By Shibley Telhami

The firing of Professor Marc Lamont Hill as a CNN contributor after his speech at a United Nations event commemorating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People has generated considerable debate about free speech that goes beyond the case itself—what is legitimate criticism of Israel, and what constitutes anti-Semitism. A recent University of Maryland public-opinion poll indicates that many aspects of Hill’s views are widely shared among the American public—and that these views are not reflective of anti-Semitic attitudes, or even of hostility toward Israel as such. On these issues, there is a gap between the mainstream media and U.S. politicians on the one hand, and the American public on the other.

While many issues were raised about Hill, the part of his speech that received the most criticism was his call for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which was seen by some as calling for the end of Israel. Hill himself clarified almost immediately that “my reference to ‘river to the sea’ was not a call to destroy anything or anyone. It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza.” In an op-ed he penned later, he acknowledged that the language he chose may have contributed to the misperception that he was advocating violence against Jewish people—and apologized for that.

But, perceptions aside, are Professor Hill’s views exceptional?

The first issue to consider is advocacy for a one-state solution, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with equal citizenship for all, which would in effect threaten Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority state, as Arabs might soon outnumber Jews on that territory. In fact, this solution has considerable support among the American public, as revealed in a University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, fielded by Nielson Scarborough, which was conducted in September and October among a nationally representative sample of 2,352 Americans, with a 2 percent margin of error. When asked what outcome they want U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to seek in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Americans are split between one state with equal citizenship and two states coexisting side by side: 35 percent say they want a one-state solution outright, while 36 percent advocate a two-state solution, 11 percent support maintaining the occupation, and 8 percent back annexation without equal citizenship. Among those between 18 and 34 years old, support for one state climbs to 42 percent.

Furthermore, most of those who advocate a two-state solution tend to choose one state with equal citizenship if the two-state solution were no longer possible; the last time the survey asked this question, in November 2017, 55 percent of two-state solution backers said they would switch to one state in such circumstances. Bolstering this result is Americans’ views on the Jewishness and democracy of Israel: If the two-state solution were no longer possible, 64 percent of Americans would choose the democracy of Israel, even if it meant that Israel would cease to be a politically Jewish state, over the Jewishness of Israel, if the latter meant that Palestinians would not be fully equal.

When one considers that many Israelis and Palestinians, as well as many Middle East experts, already believe that a two-state solution is no longer possible, especially given the large expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it’s not hard to see why more people would be drawn to a one-state solution—or see the advocacy for two states as legitimizing the unjust status quo through the promise of something unattainable.

Second, while most Americans have probably never heard of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that Hill backs, our poll shows that a large number of Americans support imposing sanctions or more serious measures if Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to expand: 40 percent of Americans support such measures, including a majority of Democrats (56 percent). This comes as senators, including Democrats, are proposing, despite continued ACLU opposition, to delegitimize and criminalize voluntary boycotts of Israel or settlements through the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, while not differentiating between Israeli settlements in the West Bank from those in Israel proper.

Third, there is a growing sense that the Israeli government has “too much influence” on U.S. politics and policies: 38 percent of all Americans (including 55 percent of Democrats, and 44 percent of those under 35 years old), say the Israeli government has too much influence on the U.S. government, compared with 9 percent who say it has “too little influence” and 48 percent who say it has “about the right level of influence.” While the number of Jewish participants in the sample (115) is too small to generalize with confidence, it is notable that their views fall along the same lines of the national trend: 37 percent say Israel has too much influence, 54 percent say it has the right level, and 7 percent say it has too little influence.

These results indicate neither a rise in anti-Semitism nor even a rise in hostility toward Israel as such. As analysis of previous polls has shown, many who espouse these opinions base them on a principled worldview that emphasizes human rights and international law.

Keep in mind that, in a polarized America with deep political antagonism, it’s hardly surprising that Americans would have sharply divided views on Israelis and Palestinians. What many read as a rising anti-Israeli sentiment among Democrats is mischaracterized; it reflects anger toward Israeli policies—and increasingly, with the values projected by the current Israeli government.

On the question of whether Americans want the Trump administration to lean toward Israel, toward the Palestinians, or toward neither side, there is a vast difference between Republicans and Democrats in the new poll: While a majority of Republicans want Washington to lean toward Israel outright (57 percent), a substantial majority of Democrats (82 percent) want it to lean toward neither side, with 8 percent wanting it to lean toward the Palestinians and 7 percent toward Israel. Still, it’s inaccurate to label the Democrats’ even-handedness as “anti-Israel.”

It’s hardly surprising that Democrats are unhappy with the current Israeli government, which is seen to have tied itself to the Republican Party, to have intervened in Congress against a Democratic president on the critical issue of Iran, and with many of its members publicly opposing the stated aim of negotiations with the Palestinians, a two-state solution to the conflict. And there is an apparent clash of values that goes beyond occupation, into the character of Israel itself. In particular, the recent passing of the Nation-State Basic Law, which defined Israel as a Jewish state without reference to democracy, and bestowed special rights to Jewish citizens over non-Jewish ones—received much criticism, including from top Jewish-American leaders.

Americans and the U.S. government should be worried about genuine anti-Semitism. There has been a documented rise in anti-Semitic incidents. The violent massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, which left 11 people dead simply for being Jewish, was a reminder that words have consequences, and that the Trump era has emboldened and empowered racists of all types, including anti-Semites. Yet there is little evidence that the number of racists has actually expanded, and some evidence to suggest that the reaction to racist rhetoric in some cases has generated the opposite results. (Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims, for example, have improved in the Trump era, despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric.)

With regard to attitudes toward Jews specifically, Americans have strongly favorable attitudes toward Judaism and Jews. In a poll conducted in November 2015, 81 percent of Americans said they have a favorable view of the Jewish religion compared with 37 percent having a favorable view of Islam; 89 percent expressed favorable views of Jews compared to 53 percent having favorable views of Muslims. In our June 2016 poll we asked if Americans would vote for candidates of various religions. Sixty-nine percent said they would vote for a Jewish candidate, compared to 57 percent for an evangelical Christian, and 37 percent for a Muslim candidate. More Democrats (72 percent) than Republicans (67 percent) and independents (57 percent) said they would vote for a Jewish candidate. The prevalent American views toward Israel, especially among Democrats, appear to be expressions of opposition to current Israeli policies and projected values, not “anti-Israel” views, and certainly not an expression of expanding anti-Semitism.

One can agree or disagree with the wisdom of advocating one state or two states, or the desirability and effectiveness of sanctions against Israel or anyone else. These are legitimate views to be debated, and they need to be debated more than ever, as there is a sense that after years of trying, American efforts to mediate conflict are headed toward a dead end, with Palestinians remaining under occupation after 51 years, with no end in sight.

America needs speech that’s free of racism, for sure, but it also needs free speech. Whatever was behind CNN’s decision to fire Hill, it must not be allowed to restrict the mainstream conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it’s needed most.

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