MANCHESTER, N.H. – In the last days of her New Hampshire primary campaign, Nikki Haley emphasized the ties the United States traditionally has had with Israel.
“It has never been that Israel needs America,” she told a crowd in the Doubletree Hotel ballroom. “It has always been that America needs Israel.”
There followed a customary argument: Israel is a democracy in a part of the world where democratic values aren’t honored. Israel is an island of stability in a region where stability is rare. Israel is a great ally in a dangerous part of the world. The crowd cheered. American crowds have been cheering this theme for generations.
But there is every reason to believe that this argument – heard in New Hampshire primary speeches for decades even though Jews comprise less than a single percentage point of the state’s population – may not survive to the next New Hampshire primary. Then, Joe Biden will not be on the ballot, and some of those who are in the “youth” category in political polling (those age 18 to 29) will graduate into another voting category, and when a new group of young people join the voting rolls.
One more factor: In four years, a new crop of candidates in the primary for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party – where the longtime support for Israel is eroding in its progressive wing – will be seeking the favor of a voting population that is changing dramatically and veering away from reflexive support for Israel.
And thus, a sea change is looming.
It is looming even in the Jewish community. Those under 40 support the Biden approach to the Middle East crisis at a rate of 57 percent, according to the latest National Survey of Jewish Voters from the Jewish Electorate Institute – but those over age 70 support the president at a rate of 69 percent.
“Young people are absolutely more opposed to the Biden administration policy than older Americans,” said Andrew Smith, the political scientist who heads the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “In a contested primary here and elsewhere, young people would be angry if someone with Joe Biden’s Middle East policies were the nominee. They’re not happy but they’re not so unhappy that they’ll vote for Trump, if they vote.”
The key in the short term is that, as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it, “Joe Biden is a holdover from an older Democratic Party.”
Survey data from an NBC News Poll underlines the divide.
Overall, 47 percent of Americans say they support Israel. That figure reflects the 63 percent of Americans who feel that way – but also the 27 percent of young people who don’t. The divide is even starker when it comes to support of the Palestinian cause. Only one in five Americans are supporters of the Palestinians, and only one in 10 senior citizens agree. But nearly half of those between the ages of 18 and 29 support the Palestinians.
Biden’s war policies have a similar breakdown, with about a third of Americans lining up with the president in his support of Israel. More than half of those over 65 support the Biden plan – but only a fifth of those aged 18 to 29.
These sentiments are even greater among Democrats, where a majority believes Israel has gone too far and only about a quarter believes that Israel’s military actions are justified.
“This is a very divisive issue in the Democratic Party,” Nyhan explained. “There is a stark generational divide in the Democratic Party. The people who lived at the time of the founding of Israel and its early wars have a far different view than the people who didn’t experience any of that. The young people have only experienced Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel in their time has resisted the peace process.”
Cracks in the American wall of support have been evident since the beginning of the decade. Increasing numbers of Jews have been open to the notion of restricting aid to Israel for fear that the money will support – either directly or indirectly – the creation of new settlements in the West Bank. Support for Netanyahu among American Jews has been declining for years, while support for a two-state solution has remained steady.
In the past, threats to Israel’s survival have spawned huge boosts in support for the Jewish state among Americans and, particularly, among American Jews. Not this time. To be sure, there has been a sense of rallying around the Israeli flag. But those doing the rallying tend to be older and grayer. And fewer.
The latest National Survey of Jewish Voters survey showed that 62 percent of American Jews approve of the Biden administration’s handling of the war in the Middle East – but that the exact same figure (62 percent) applies to the renewal of aid to the Palestinians.
Deconstruct the poll and the results are even starker. Younger people are not following their parents – or, perhaps, their grandparents.
Some 70 percent of Jews over age 70 profess general support for Israel – but the figure for those under 40 is far lower: 59 percent. Six in 10 American Jews support aid to Israel. But more than 8 in 10 of those over 65 do.
The threats to the survival of the State of Israel may continue. But American support is eroding. This is a new phenomenon, and it shows little evidence of abating. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.