In recent years, pundits and community leaders have warned that Democrats — especially young progressives — have been moving away from Israel, threatening America’s longstanding bipartisan support for Israel.
A new poll might complicate that narrative.
While support for Israel’s government remains significantly lower among Democratic voters than among Republican voters, a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds that younger Republican voters may not be as supportive of the Netanyahu government as older Republicans.
Among adults between the ages of 18-29, just 40 percent of those who are Republicans or lean Republican have a favorable view of the Israeli government, constituting a major drop from older Republican adults. For adults ages 30-49, the number who view the Israeli government favorably rose to 56 percent; for adults ages 50-64, 63 percent; and for adults over age 65, 76 percent.
At a time when the narrative about the U.S.-Israel relationship has been one of a fracturing bipartisan consensus and Democratic distancing from Israel and its government, the new data offers a possible reframing of the story. Instead of an analysis that explains weakening public support for Israel strictly on party lines, the new data suggests the divide may be more fundamentally generational.
“The notion of David versus Goliath was the foundational narrative of people who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Steven Bayme, director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee. “But the narrative since the collapse of Oslo, certainly the one that’s portrayed by the media, is essentially a sense of there are no rights, there are no wrongs, it’s a battle between two peoples claiming the same piece of land.”
Jeff Ballabon, a former adviser to the Trump campaign, also cited a media narrative about Israel, albeit with a different conclusion. “I think what you’re seeing is the result of media narrative and political narrative over the last generation, which has gone from acknowledging that Israel is a lone bastion of freedom and democracy to demonizing Israel.”
The polling showed that Democrats of all ages largely do not view the Israeli government favorably, and that Democrats between the ages of 18-49 actually view the Palestinian government more favorably than the Israeli government. Among Democrats and those who lean Democratic, in the 18-29 age group just 21 percent said they viewed the Israeli government favorably. Among those ages 30-49, the number rose a few points to 24 percent; ages 50-64, 28 percent; over 65, 34 percent.
When it comes to public opinion of the Israeli people, Democrats and Republicans were both largely positive. Among Democrats, 57 percent viewed the Israeli people very or somewhat favorably compared to 77 percent of Republicans who said the same. The differences among the parties were far more pronounced when it came to favorable views of the Israeli government. While just 26 percent of Democrats viewed the Israeli government very or somewhat favorably and 67 percent viewed it very or somewhat unfavorably, the numbers were nearly flipped on the other side of the aisle. Among Republicans, 61 percent viewed the Israeli government very or somewhat favorably while 32 percent viewed it very or somewhat unfavorably.
While previous iterations of this Pew poll asked respondents to choose whether they sympathized more with Israelis or Palestinians, this year’s poll was updated to allow respondents to indicate favorable or unfavorable impressions of both peoples and governments. Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, noted her approval of the shift and pointed to the favorable impressions of both Palestinians and Israelis among Democrats.
“I think it’s important to not equate being pro-Israel with being supportive of every policy of the current Israeli government. Just as one can be a patriot and disagree with the policies of the Trump administration, so too can one be pro-Israel and disagree with the policies of the Netanyahu government,” said Soifer. “And I think we in the Jewish community need to ensure that there is space for expressing such views.”
For their part, Republicans say they aren’t worried about the lower support among younger Republicans. Instead, they pointed out the gap between support among Democrats and Republicans as a whole.
“Everybody wishes that younger voters might be more engaged on these kinds of things, but they’re busy and they’ve got a lot going on,” said Neil Strauss, national spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition. “As you go up the [age] scale, the number just keeps increasing. So I have no reason to think that won’t be the case for Republicans.”
In an email to The Jewish Week, Michael Celler, director of Jewish engagement at the Republican National Committee, wrote: “From moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to getting the U.S. out of the disastrous Iranian nuclear deal, President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to our friend and ally Israel. Meanwhile, Democrats have failed to singularly denounce anti-Semitism — instead downplaying hateful comments — and their refusal to act will not go unnoticed by Jewish voters and every American who has been following along.”
The trend among younger Republican adults overall reflects changes among millennial evangelicals. Though evangelicals in the millennial age group identify as Republicans at close to the same rates as older evangelicals, they tend to describe themselves as moderate at higher rates than the previous generation. According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of millennial evangelicals described themselves as conservative and 34 percent as moderate. Among the previous generation, 58 percent described themselves as conservative and just 25 percent as moderate.
While in the new poll Pew could not provide detailed data on evangelicals in the 18-29 demographic, among evangelical Republicans ages 18-49, 63 percent said they had a very or somewhat favorable view of the Israeli government compared with 79 percent of Republicans over age 50. Among non-evangelicals, the differences were slightly more pronounced, with 45 percent of Republicans ages 18-29 having a very or somewhat favorable view of the Israeli government compared to 63 percent of Republicans over age 50.
Looking at the numbers on their own side, some Democrats saw a need for increased advocacy among younger Democrats to pull them to the pro-Israel side.
“What this tells me is our need to be advocates is even greater,” said Ann Lewis, co-chair of the Democratic Majority For Israel. “As we think about our communications strategy, about our advocacy, it means thinking more carefully about how we reach young people.”
Still, several Democrats criticized Republicans for politicizing Israel for political gain and working against a bipartisan consensus.
“As this data indicates, it’s actually more of a demographic and age divide than a partisan divide,” said the JDCA’s Soifer.
“We have been warning against both Trump’s efforts to politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship and personalize the U.S.-Israel relationship, as in defining this relationship as existing solely between him and Netanyahu. That’s very dangerous because leaders and parties will come and go and this relationship has endured more than 70 years.”
“In the end,” stressed RJC’s Strauss, “the best thing for Israel is bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, and we see it as a travesty that Democrats aren’t holding up their end when it comes to making Israel a bipartisan issue.”