What is American public opinion on Israel-Palestine conflict? Pew answers

Jewish ultranationalists wave Israeli flags during the “Flags March” next to Damascus gate, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, in 2021.

Jewish ultranationalists wave Israeli flags during the “Flags March” next to Damascus gate, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

While the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seems intractable, Americans’ views on both parties is not, according to new data from Pew Research Center.

The report shows the public is increasingly warming to both parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with growing numbers reporting they view the two peoples favorably. Pew also found that more than half of America’s youngest adults view Israelis and Palestinians favorably — a departure from the views of older generations. 

“That’s a positive development, not a negative development,” said Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, who said it might suggest that young people don’t hold negative stereotypes about Muslims. 

Overall, 67% of Americans report seeing Israelis in a positive light, up three percentage points from 2019 and 52% say that they see Palestinians favorably, a 6% increase from 2019.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds, there was less of a gap: 56% reported holding favorable views of Israelis and 61% said the same of Palestinians. While, at first glance, those numbers seem to suggest that Palestinians hold an edge in the war for public opinion, Becka Alper of Pew Research Center said she wasn’t sure that the difference was large enough to be significant.

However, she added, “There’s an age story here. (Among young people) there aren’t these large gaps in their views between Palestinians and Israelis. If you look at 60 and older there’s a gap.” 

While a plurality of 18- to 29-year-olds view both peoples favorably, 17% of young American adults reported viewing the Palestinian people favorably and Israelis unfavorably while 11% of 18- to 29-year-olds reported feeling favorable towards Israelis and unfavorable towards Palestinians. 

“Compared with their elders, younger U.S. adults tend to express cooler views toward the Israeli people and warmer views toward the Palestinians,” Pew noted in the study, which was released Thursday. “For example, 56% of adults under 30 say they feel favorably toward the Israeli people, compared with 78% among those ages 65 and older. And a solid majority of those ages 18 to 29 (61%) express favorable views toward the Palestinians, compared with 46% of those 50 and older.”

This disparity in views might be accounted for by the historical events that older Americans remember, such as the 1967 and 1973 wars between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, said Saxe, noting that those episodes were largely understood at the time as attacks on Israel’s sovereignty.

“Older people who lived through the ’60s — the 1967 war, the 1973 war — and who remember what happened during the 1990s,” he said, referring to the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, “they have a different perspective.” 

While the age gap might seem to suggest a broader shift in sentiments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the horizon, experts cautioned against drawing based on the views 18- to 29-year-olds are expressing today.

“What does this mean for a longer term trend? That can be hard to say especially when public opinion is so sensitive … to historical events and how they unfold,” said Arielle Levites, managing director of George Washington University’s Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education. 

While there’s a difference in the numbers, Levites called that gap “fairly modest,” adding that “because we’re not really tracking this over a long period of time that can get confusing and can confound things — we don’t always know what is an age effect and what is a cohort effect. We know there are some attitudes and experiences that change as we age.”

It could be that views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict change as people age and that, in the future, today’s 18- to 29-year-olds will look similar to older Americans, she said.

Not only are there generational gaps in views about Israel and the Palestinians, differences show up according to political party, as well. About half of Democrats or those who lean left see both Israelis and Palestinians favorably, Pew reported. This is true of only 34% of Republicans and those who lean right.

Almost half of Republicans (44%) indicated that they viewed Israelis favorably and Palestinians unfavorably. A very small percentage of Republicans — just 3% — see Israelis unfavorably and Palestinians favorably.

For Democrats and those who lean towards the Democratic Party, these same numbers were a bit more evenly split: 12% reported viewing Israelis favorably and Palestinians unfavorably while 16% said the opposite. 

Religious affiliation also plays a role in views on the conflict. Of all the faith groups included in the survey, white evangelical Protestants were the least likely to be neutral on the issue: Only 5% viewed both Israelis and Palestinian unfavorably; 35% viewed the two sides favorably, which is about the same as Republicans. But a full half of white evangelicals — exactly 50% — professed favorable views towards Israelis and unfavorable views towards the Palestinians. Only 2% said they see Palestinians favorably and Israelis unfavorably. 

White evangelicals were the most likely of any religious group to say that God gave the land known today as Israel to the Jewish people, with 70% holding this view.

Though this study was large enough to assess Americans’ attitudes about Israelis and Palestinians, it was too small to parse those of minority groups like Muslims and Jews, researchers noted in the report. However, previous studies by Pew Research Center have found that 32% of American Jews believe God gave the Jewish people the land that is known today as Israel — less than half the rate of evangelicals. 

Researchers asked respondents about both the people involved in the conflict as well as the Israeli and Palestinian governments. While Americans hold warmer views towards both the Israeli and Palestinian governments than they did three years ago, for the most part, Americans see both peoples more positively than they do either government.

This finding was unsurprising to Saxe, who pointed out that many Americans don’t see our own government favorably. When Americans are asked how angry and frustrated they are with our government, a majority report feeling so, said Saxe, who added that Pew’s study pointed towards the public’s lack of knowledge regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Most of the respondents had not heard of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, which is a Palestinian-led campaign to put international pressure on Israel through nonviolent means. Eighty-four percent of American adults told Pew that they had heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about BDS. Further, more than a third of those surveyed said they weren’t sure what a solution to the conflict should look like. 

“It’s clear that Americans don’t have a good understanding of a really complicated situation,” said Saxe.  

Though some politicians and interest groups have claimed that American support for Israel is declining, Saxe said that this new set of data doesn’t support that claim.

“There’s no evidence of that,” he said. “I don’t take evidence of warmer views of Palestinians as more negative views of Israel.” 

Mya Jaradat

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