One constant fear in the Jewish community is that the American public will at some point turn on Israel and this will be echoed by Congress and the administration and, ultimately, result in a change in U.S. policy for the worse. The concern is that a variety of factors have already led to a diminution of support for Israel. They include: media bias, delegitimization campaigns, divestment efforts and other anti-Israel activities on college campuses, the Arab lobby, and unpopular Israeli policies. Support for Israel has particularly eroded among the younger generation which is a harbinger of trouble ahead.
Do the polls justify this fear?
The best indication of Americans' attitude toward Israel is found in the response to the most consistently asked question about the Middle East: "In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with Israel or with the Palestinians (prior to 1993 it was the Arab nations). The organization that has conducted the most surveys is Gallup. Support for Israel in Gallup Polls has remained consistently around the 50% mark since 1967. The most recent poll, reported by Gallup in February 2013 found that sympathy for Israel tied the all-time high of 64%, matching the figure during the first Gulf War. By comparison only 12% expressed support for the Palestinians.
In 84 Gallup polls, going back to 1967, Israel has had the support of an average of 47% of the American people compared to 12% for the Arab states/Palestinians. The results are similar (48%-11%) when nearly 150 polls asking similar questions are included.
Despite all the concerns mentioned above, the latest poll exceeds the level of support (56%) Israel enjoyed after the 1967 war, when many people mistakenly believe that Israel was overwhelmingly popular. Overall, support for Israel has been on the upswing since 1967. In recent years Gallup has noted that many Americans have moved from "no preference" into the pro-Israeli column. This is reflected in the growth of support for Israel each decade. In the 1970s, the average level of support for Israel was 42%; in the 1980s, it was 46%; and, in the 1990s, 50%, including the record high (64%) during the Gulf War. Since 2000, support for Israel is averaging 52% and, since 2010 (based on three polls), the figure has soared to an average of 63%.
If we include all 33 polls (i.e., including non-Gallup) conducted during President Obama's term, support for Israel has averaged 55%, continuing an upward trend since the 1980s, while sympathy for the Palestinians has sunk to 12%, continuing a downward spiral that also began in the 1980s. On average, Israel is favored by nearly 4 to 1.
What about the claim that younger Americans are turning on Israel?
Well, the data definitely has shown that in recent years support for Israel has been lower among younger voters, especially young liberal Democrats. Still, if we look at a selection of polls for which data was available, the answer may be more complex.
In 17 polls available to the author (hopefully, more will be accessible soon), including at least two from each decade from 1975 to the most recent Gallup poll in February 2013, the average level of support for Israel for the youngest cohort is 46% compared to 47% for the oldest. When most people talk about a decline in the support of the young they are usually thinking about college age; however, Gallup uses a much wider age spread and has changed the breakdown by age from 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, 65+ to 18-29, 30-49, 50+ to 18-34, 35-54, 55+ in the two most recent polls.
It may comes as a surprise that the youngest cohort in 1975 was significantly more pro-Israel (17 points) than the oldest (65+). The spread between old and young in 2013 was the reverse with those aged 50-64 16 points more pro-Israel (71%-55%) than the younger group.
Is this evidence that younger Americans are less pro-Israel?
In January 1975, 55% of respondents 18-29 supported Israel. In 2013, 55% supported Israel among those 18-34. Now consider that the youngest people in that 1975 poll are now mostly in the oldest category now (that is went from 55% to 71% support), which might indicate that people become more pro-Israel as they get older so that low support for Israel among young people today does not mean that support for Israel will decline in the future.
Averaging all 17 Gallup polls, it turns out 46% of the youngest group supported Israel, with the next oldest groups at 51%, 47%, and 40% (based on only five polls) respectively. If you look at the difference between support for Israel among the youngest and oldest cohorts, you find that older people support Israel more by only 1%. The more significant difference (still only 5 points) is between the youngest and the next oldest (depending on the poll ages 40-64, 30-49, or 35-54), which again suggests, if anything, Americans become more pro-Israel when they're older. If you compare the youngest cohort with the national average in those same polls, you find an overall difference of only minus two points.
Does all this mean there is no problem with younger Americans attitudes toward Israel?
In the long run, we don't know. There's no way to guarantee that young people will continue to get more pro-Israel when they get older, but that has been the trend. The last two polls have shown a wider gap between young and old, and between the youngest cohort and the national average, than earlier polls. Incidentally, Americans, including younger people, are not becoming more sympathetic toward the Palestinians.
The situation in other parts of the world may be different, but in the United States support for Israel has never been stronger.
Mitchell Bard is the author of The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East (HarperCollins) and Israel Matters (Behrman House).