American millenials are increasingly viewing Israel negatively despite the strong relationship between the two countries. Public diplomacy by the Israeli government is demonstrably insufficient and Israel must respond to criticisms from the world community instead of withdrawing and facing inwards. To respond to the increasingly negative views of Israel among American millenials, the Israeli government should acknowledge Israeli crimes and changing Israeli policy towards Palestinians and Arabs, expand the Hasbara program, and expand the Taglit program.
Only by using public diplomacy to directly address the people most disturbed by these conflicts and the horrific human rights abuses of the Israeli government can we have an open conversation with them – and that is the only way Israel can expect to change the narrative of s
ettlements and apartheid.
From March 26 to March 28, 2017, 18,000 Zionists flocked to D.C. to hear speakers such as Nikki Haley and Mike Pence attend informational panels, discussions, and presentations, and connect with people from around the country at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference.
However, it wasn’t the event itself that was widely publicized on campus and social media. Outside of the AIPAC conference, organizations such as IfNotNow and Jewish Resistance protested the Israeli government’s coziness with the Trump administration and its silence on the issue of settlements. According to Pew Research Center, 43% of millenials support Israel while 27% support Palestine, compared to previous generations, which support Israel by more than a three-to-one margin.
These numbers are a shocking departure from decades of consensus on Israel in foreign policy circles, but they mirror a larger global trend. A 2013 BBC Poll found that Israel was one of the most negatively viewed countries among global publics, beating out only North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran. Although often lampooned in media like The O’Reilly Factor, today’s young people will influence the future and are now the largest generation in America after overtaking Baby Boomers.
According to Gallup, there is an 18-point gap between older and younger Americans on Israel. This has been highly visible in increased progressive and youth activism during and after the 2016 election. This has increased the support of the BDS movement on college campuses. Other movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March highlight the Palestinian cause as an intersectional issue and an extension of their fight for justice. 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the first Jewish American to win a U.S. presidential primary and the most popular politician among young people, questioned the bipartisan consensus on the Middle East by calling for a more even-handed role for the U.S. and less military aid to Israel. Although several other factors such as increasing foreign policy political polarization and anti-Semitism absolutely play a role, the most important reason Israel is now viewed negatively by a loud 27% of millennials are the policies the Israeli government has pursued and the reaction to those policies.
Most importantly, the Israeli government needs to regain its credibility by changing both its actual policies towards Palestinians and Arabs and the messaging of those issues. None of these other issues matter if the Israeli government lacks credibility. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, during the last election, broadcast that “Arab voters are coming out to the polls in droves,” presumably so that his right-wing base would go vote out of fear. Netanyahu must see the impact of his statements on the public of the world and the United States, not just the Israeli public. Changing the tone of Israeli government messaging will take a concerted effort. Critically, the economic and military barriers preventing Palestinians equal opportunity must be eliminated before Israel can expect results. The current policy is cruel and indefensible; the onus is on Israel to change policy and regain credibility among U.S. millenials.
Another public diplomacy strategy the Israeli government can employ is educating the American public about the history of the conflict through Hasbara (explanation), which has been successful, but the program has failed to connect with a new generation. Those who understand the history could be less likely to see Israel as the villain. For example, although people still call for a unilateral withdrawal from West Bank settlements, despite the Israeli government’s attempt to do that in the Gaza Strip in 2005 in what was viewed as a disaster by even pro-withdrawal Israeli leaders and led to the election of Hamas. If young people are aware of the history of the conflict and the nuanced questions they are raising, they might be more likely to view the conflict with some subtlety.
This program would be much more credible if it explained the whole situation and not only the Israeli side. Israeli public diplomacy should support truth and historical accuracy by owning up to Israeli transgressions and encouraging those who are hostile to Israel in the world community not to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as black and white. There are also those who are blind to Israel’s atrocities and choose to be in denial. The Israeli-American public diplomacy approach should be to ask both parties to live in ‘the gray area’ and come to the table to address these issues without seeing the other side as the enemy. For those who see the conflict in stark terms of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ and aren’t exposed to the nuanced historical context of the issue, it is easy to see Israel as the villain. That narrative cannot be the dominant one in such a complex conflict.
Finally, a public diplomacy program that should be expanded is the Taglit (Birthright) program, one of the most successful cultural exchanges in the world. According to their website, Birthright is now the world’s largest educational tourism program after only being started in 1999. This program should be expanded to include more people, as it currently only allows those who moved away from Israel before the age of 12 to return for birthright. The program is also restricted to 18-29 year-olds currently but there are many younger Jews that would go on the program earlier and could spread the word about it to their peers before they go to college. The program has faced controversy at times for ignoring the Palestinian issue., The Taglit program should discuss and reflect on the history of Israel and human rights violations, including recent ones.
As shown through polling and the activism of youth in recent days, views on Israel are changing in the millennial generation. Addressing that issue should be a key goal of Israeli public diplomacy and they can begin to do that by changing the policies and messaging and through improving existing programs. Only through renewed attention to the issue and key changes in public diplomacy strategy can Israel change the existing narratives among young people.