Is Israel losing the battle for hearts and minds?
Although clearly a polarising and divisive entity Israel has for long enjoyed firm support in many parts of the Western World. After the Second World War, European governments riddled with guilt for the Holocaust and their own historic anti-Semitism were content to turn a blind eye to Israel’s misdemeanours in a quest to establish a state for a people they themselves had long persecuted. We see this particularly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) in Germany where even boycotting Israel has been banned in recent years. Britain has also supported Israel at least since 1948 if not longer.
Although, not sharing this history of persecution the US especially after 1967 became Israel’s most powerful ally. Much of this was centred on perceived shared values (such as democracy) and the power and influence of pro-Israel lobbies such as AIPAC; it also reflected the shifting power realities on the ground in the Middle East. It soon became a cross-party consensus to almost support Israel unconditionally. Even Presidents like Barack Obama-a black Chicago native who once dined out with Edward Said- felt compelled to shift unequivocally towards Israel to ensure election.
However, in recent weeks with the latest ‘flare-up’ in violence between Israel and the Palestinians for many, there seemed to be an obvious shift in attitudes towards the Palestinian cause. We witnessed large protests against Israel’s violence in cities across the World-including but not limited to-Istanbul, Melbourne, London, and many of the major US cities including New York. Further, Ireland’s parliament passed a historic motion to condemn Israel’s ‘de facto’ annexation of Palestinian land.
High profile celebrities and influencers-such as Gigi Hadid, Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid-slammed Israel for its disproportionate violence and killing, while influential members of the ‘quartet’ of Democratic congresswomen spoke out unequivocally and unreservedly against Israel. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (otherwise known as AOC) went as far as to tweet ‘Apartheid states aren’t democracies’ and Rashida Tlaib (who is of Palestinian heritage) directly confronted Joe Biden on the issue. With pressure mounting it wasn’t long before Biden was on the phone to Netanyahu calling for a ceasefire; soon after which the violence stopped.
So, what are the reasons for this ostensible change? One of course is social media and the internet. The mainstream media (MSM) and governments can no longer control narratives or the news, people now have access to often live information from across the world at their fingertips via a range of communication mediums; be it Twitter, YouTube, the internet, or Facebook. Ultimately, the facts can only be hidden for so long. As US journalist Brooke Binkowski tells me:
“I don’t know if public opinion has turned against Israel in the United States. However, I do know that social media has given a lot of people voices, faces and places in the discussion here who have never previously been a part of because it had been confined to pundits and columns.”
Consequently, in part due to alternative news sources and the abandonment of the Palestinian cause by many governments — especially its traditional allies in the Arab World- the vacuum is increasingly being filled by support from ordinary people and activists who naturally tend towards justice and empathy for the persecuted. Combined with the increasingly effective organizing of Palestinian groups and their allies and campaigns such as BDS we could be seeing as Jonathan Freedland argues:
“#Free Palestine could be on its way to joining #Me too and #BlacklivesMatters as an issue that a global generation regards as of paramount importance, championed not just by politicians but the leading lights of popular culture.”
Israel’s conduct does not help its cause. Using disproportionate violence, destroying infrastructure, killing children, targeting the press, and bombing densely populated places like Gaza whilst the world is watching is hardly going to win many sympathisers. With the globalization of human rights in the latter half of the 20th century, we now have well-resourced human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) possessing the capability to do their own research and report their findings from the ground.
In fact, after detailed research, Human Rights Watch declared earlier this year that Israel had crossed the ‘threshold’ of legally constituted apartheid in the Palestinian territories. Similarly, Israel’s own Human Rights organisation BTSelem declared earlier this year that Israel ‘is a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: this is apartheid’. As global correspondent for the Byline Times CJ Werleman tells me:
“With its violent raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque, violent expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem and the bombing of civilians in Gaza along with the accusations by well-respected human rights organization that it is operating a system of apartheid…Israel has lost its ability to make the rest of the World disbelieve what it sees with its very own eyes. This spells trouble for the Zionist dream.’
There are also generational and demographic shifts that do not bode well for Israel. The research of ‘revisionist’ Israeli historians’-chief amongst them the likes of Ilan Pappe-has led to questioning long-held myths about the creation of Israel. Jewish led groups such as If Not Now and J Street are also active in challenging the Zionist agenda in the US. Further, as the Times of Israel reports support for Israel among young American evangelical Christians-long considered a vital backbone-is increasingly dwindling. As Professor Motti Inbari of North Carolina University tells the paper ‘It has become evident that Israel is developing a public relations problem with younger Americans. We see it with evangelicals as with American Jews and other groups.’
Although support for Israel remains firm in power centres such as Washington DC, there are clearly strong undercurrents of change. Without US support it perhaps wouldn’t be long before Israel is Internationally isolated. The question is for how long can supposedly democratic leaders ignore these trends, movements, and voices?