Home inFocus Israel’s Allies and Adversaries How Israel is Seen In the Mind of America

How Israel is Seen In the Mind of America

Mark Meirowitz Spring 2022
Secretary General of Amnesty International, Agnes Callamard (Center) holds a press conference in East Jerusalem on February 1, 2022. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Israel is not on America’s mind. Americans are preoccupied with coming out of the COVID pandemic, jobs, the economy, etc.

As for foreign policy, Americans have become more isolationist – this was the case with Afghanistan with the hasty U.S. pullout, and now, with Ukraine, while sympathizing with the Ukrainian struggle against Russian aggression, many Americans are more interested in how the Ukraine crisis will affect gas prices. J D Vance, a Republican running for a U.S. Senate nomination in Ohio, was quoted as saying that he didn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” Vance elaborated that, “I’m sick of Joe Biden focusing on the border of a country I don’t care about while he lets the border of his own country become a total war zone.”

As for Israel, added to the lack of interest or focus on international affairs, Americans have been susceptible to a veritable onslaught of disinformation related to what is going on in the Jewish state.

The Democratic Socialists of America made it clear that their platform includes “continued support for and involvement with the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and efforts to eliminate U.S. military aid to Israel, while resisting the ‘normalization’ of relationships between the Israeli government and other governments.” The DSA also used terms such as “ethnic cleansing,” “racism,” and “apartheid” to vilify Israel. 

Progressives, including members of Congress in the so-called “Squad,” have been strident critics of Israel and have taken action in Congress to try to limit funding of Israel’s military defensive needs, including even the Iron Dome system which has saved countless Israeli lives. One “Squad” member even falsely accused Israel of putting children in cages in the West Bank.

As reported recently in the New York Times, “[a]ccording to Gallup polling, Americans’ views of the conflict have changed significantly since 2013, with sympathy for the Israelis falling slightly and sympathy for the Palestinians more than doubling. The shift has overwhelmingly been on account of Democrats; while Republican opinion has changed little, Democrats have gone from sympathizing more with Israel by a margin of 30 points in 2002 to being more or less evenly split today.” 

There has been a veritable and palpable inversion from seeing Israel as the underdog with its survival threatened by hostile nations, to Israel being seen as an oppressor of innocents, even when Israelis have been targeted by an endless barrage of missiles seeking the annihilation of the Jewish state.

Many Americans perceive Israel as a powerful country in the Middle East with an advanced economy and incredible high-tech achievements. But on a closer look, Israel is in grave and existential danger from its adversaries, especially Iran, whose leaders have vowed to wipe it off the map. 

As many commentators have noted, Israel is now seen as Goliath, with the Palestinians as David. This image is far from the truth. 

Media coverage of Israel has been blatantly biased. According to the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), National Public Radio (NPR) “presented a one-sided, propagandistic account of demolitions in the Silwan area of Jerusalem that omitted half the story … it established a misleading narrative that blamed Israel for sparking conflict in the region.”  CAMERA also noted that other NPR reportage was lacking in providing Israeli voices and viewpoints. NGO Monitor noted that NPR coverage “[p]romoted a one-sided approach to the conflict, placing sole blame for the failure of the peace process on Israel.” 

While some journalists such as Peter Beinart, a New York Times contributor and journalism professor at City University of New York, have advocated a one-state solution for the future of Israel, Bret Stephens, also of the Times, has described this approach as “utopian in theory and would be disastrous in practice.” A one-state solution would mean the end of Israel as the one Jewish majority country.

We can scoff at ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s boycott in Israel but it has affected perceptions of the country. The founders of Ben & Jerry’s, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, stated that to allow selling their products in what they called the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” would be inconsistent “with our values”, and that this action is “a rejection of Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation.”

No matter that Israel won the territories in a defensive war in 1967 and retained them in another such conflict in 1973, and remains the obligatory military occupational authority until the Palestinian side agrees to negotiate a peace settlement. 

Amnesty International in a recent report accused Israel of “massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians [which] are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law. This system is maintained by violations which Amnesty International found to constitute apartheid as a crime against humanity, as defined in the Rome Statute and Apartheid Convention.” 

Indeed, detractors of Israel seek to link Israel to white supremacy in the United States and so-called American imperialism. One commentator was of the view that “the similarities between white supremacists in the U.S. and Zionist settlers in Israel are not coincidental.” 

All of the above have combined to undermine the perception of Israel in the thoughts and attitudes of Americans, and may well lead to further diminution in public support for, and attitudes about Israel. 

However, there is still room for optimism. Israel has friends and supporters in the world who know the real story. Bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, notwithstanding the “Squad,” has been rock solid. The majority of participants in the Evangelical Christian movement are steadfast supporters of Israel. Americans will come to learn the truth about Israel and discard the campaign of misinformation. Americans quickly saw through the tears of a “Squad” member who cried when Congress passed special legislation continuing defensive military aid for Israel. 

Also, as Walter Russell Mead has observed: 

[W]hile American ‘soft power’ goals in the region (the spread of democracy, the creation of a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state) may be out of reach even with intense American engagement, our most important security and economic goals have never been easier to achieve. For decades, Arab-Israeli tensions complicated the path of American regional diplomacy. Today, most of the Gulf states are strategically aligned with Israel. Thanks to Russian assertiveness in Ukraine, Syria and the Caucasus, Turkey seems open to a new kind of relationship with Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. Properly managed, a powerful alliance network in the Middle East will reinforce America’s global peace strategy at a reasonable cost. 

The Abraham Accords among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and later Morocco and Sudan have provided a way forward to real peace in the Middle East. Supporting this approach will require American policy makers to rethink their ideas about the region, including Israel, uninfluenced by the torrent of false information about the Jewish State. 

Hopefully, policy makers and journalists, and Americans at large will come to understand the importance of the Abraham Accords – which are a true game changer in the Middle East. It is a commentator’s view that if Israel continues to advance diplomatic relations with her Muslim neighbors, it is reasonable that they would concede the need for the Palestinians to also recognize Israel’s legitimacy and negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement. Diplomatic and even economic pressure from Arab countries at peace with Israel could serve as catalyst for positive change among the Palestinian leadership and within Palestinian society. If we are fortunate enough to arrive at that stage, the hateful rhetoric and deceitful imagery that is today the Palestinian narrative will simply lose relevance. The underdog will have wandered off.” There is a great deal of work to be done. 

Following the Russian attack on Ukraine, the structure of world politics will be unclear. Will the United States come to the defense of Israel if Israel is subjected to another war by Hamas or Hezbollah, or, most frighteningly, from Iran? With the United States on the brink of another ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran, will America back Israel in its hour of need (as it has done in the past) if Washington finalizes a deal with Iran and then the ayatollahs go nuclear, threatening Israel’s very existence? 

Israelis must stay strong and resolute and know the cause is just. Israel and its supporters must continue making its case that it is a vital democracy in the Middle East facing true existential threats. Israel must demonstrate that, despite its enemies, it will continue to exist, thrive and live according to its values. In doing so, Israel will counter the misperceptions and falsehoods meant to undermine its existence. 

Mark Meirowitz is Professor, State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College.