August 18, 2005
U.S. Left May Be Turning Against Israel
For years, American Jews, including liberals, have watched in astonishment as Europe's left-wing media, academic and political elites have turned decisively against Israel and, to some extent, Jews, as well.
Now it may well be America's turn, at least according to a recent survey by pollster Frank Luntz for the Washington-based Israel Project. In a shocking review of the largely left-leaning opinion leaders from America's top colleges, Luntz found that Israel was clearly "losing the battle for the hearts and minds of America's future leaders."
For the most part, Luntz found the bulk of these young people -- 150 randomly selected products of elite Ivy League colleges, as well as such West Coast wannabes as UCLA -- viewed Israel as the unquestioned aggressor and villain of the Mideast crisis. In contrast, Palestinians were seen sympathetically as victims.
Luntz goes even further, suggesting that anti-Israel feelings are "also having a negative impact on attitudes to Jews right here in America." Such sentiments also tend to spill over into negative views about Jewish Americans, in part due to their sympathy for the Zionist cause.
Overall, Luntz concludes, Jews are being categorized as a wealthy minority unsympathetic to the needs of poor people, particularly those of nonwhite and Third World backgrounds. The Ivy League-level graduate students surveyed also considered Jews to be overly politically powerful, "over-represented" on their campuses and a clannish people, many of whom inexplicably insist on associating with and marrying each other.
As one surveyed grad student put it: "Jewish people have lots of influence on the finances of our entire political systems ... Palestinians are poor, thus they have less value to American politicians."
The problem stems in large part, Luntz believes, with the information these students are getting from the mainstream media about Israel. But much more of it has to do with what they learn from their professors.
"Someone is educating these kids, and it is not the pro-Israel community," he notes.
A studied ignorance certainly helps. Most of those surveyed by Luntz knew nothing about the circumstances of pre-1948 Palestine, including the original U.N. plan for a two-state solution, the run-up to the 1967 Six Day War or the fact that Israel, virtually alone in the region, is a functioning democracy with considerable, albeit not perfect, safeguards for civil liberties.
Fred Siegel, who teaches history at Cooper Union in New York, sees this in his own classes, and the culprit, he says, is the current left-liberal perspective shared by most academics.
"Liberalism is increasingly the politics of ignorance -- it's amazing what these kids don't know about the Middle East or about Jewish history," he suggests. "This is real trouble for Israel."
It is also means "real trouble" for those Jewish liberals who still support Israel. Luntz found that while pro-Bush students backed Israel almost unanimously, the vast majority of Kerry backers tilted toward the Palestinians.
Where this leads already can be seen in Europe, where traditionally anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiments have shifted from traditionally right-wing moorings. Today it is the left-wing academics, media and political leaders who tend to be the most vehement in their hatred of Israel.
This increasingly, one could almost say inexorably, tilts into anti-Jewish sensibility. Take, for example, the French establishment mouthpiece, Le Monde, whose publisher was recently fined by a French court for defaming the Jewish people as "a contemptuous people taking satisfaction in humiliating others." Similar damning anti-Jewish sentiments are commonplace in other media outlets like Madrid's left-wing daily, El Pais.
Even in Britain, our closest ally in the war on terror, many of those on the left are ferociously anti-Israel, and increasingly anti-Jewish as well. The left-leaning British Guardian famously ran a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian child -- it won first prize in the Political Cartoon Society's contest for 2003.
"In Britain," observed Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, "it is open season on both Israel and Jews."
As in France, anti-Semitic crime is on the rise in Britain, the majority taking place in greater London. Arguably the greatest world city, suggests Hebrew University history professor Robert Wistrich, has also become the center for "the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel."
London leftist Mayor Ken Livingstone has welcomed vicious anti-Jewish jihadis to his town, while denouncing Sharon as "a war criminal" who should be in jail. To Livingstone, Israel has conducted "crimes against humanity" and has "indiscriminately slaughtered men, women and children in the West Bank and Gaza for decades." Even after the recent Islamic terrorist bombings in his city, Livingstone continued to express his understanding for Palestinian suicide bombers since "they only have their bodies to use as weapons."
Such attitudes are seeping into America's liberal community. Indeed, respected left-wing observers like Todd Gitlin are troubled by a growing anti-Semitic tendency on U.S. campuses -- not only at elite colleges, but also places like San Francisco State. Gitlin fears what was once described by early 20th century German socialist August Bebel as, "the socialism of fools" is now "the progressivism of fools."
To be fair, so far this "progressivism of fools" has only infected the fringe of mainstream liberal politics. But the early signs are there. By backing divestment schemes against Israel, liberal churches and academics have managed to find moral equivalence among Israel and some of the most repressive, totalitarian regimes in the world. And in the liberal bastion of Seattle's King County, local Democrats have endorsed a proposal to withhold U.S. tax dollars from Israel.
Yet, over time, such expressions of openly anti-Israel sentiments will likely become more a part of liberal dogma. Many in the current generation of left-leaning politicians retain emotional links to Jews and to Israel. They were brought up in a time when, for most liberals, support for Israel was automatic and anti-Semitism was something reserved for fascists, nativists and extreme Christian fundamentalists. Their successors, brought up in the for more permissive current academic and media climate, are less likely to keep a soft spot for a people viewed as on the wrong side of the "progressive" agenda.
Over time, this means it may become increasingly difficult for self-identified Jews -- as opposed to those totally assimilated -- to be both pro-Israel and Jewish, as well as left-leaning. Such a result would be a tragic limitation on our ability to function fully both as Jews and Americans.
Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation. He is the author of "The City: A Global History" (Modern Library 2005).