Campuses are a natural hub for de-legitimization, as young people seeking meaning converge with radical ideologies offering easy solutions in a liberal setting. Anti-Israel elements have proven quite adept at exploiting this fertile ground to foment anti-Israel sentiment.
Indeed, the American college campus is perhaps the “one place where anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism have been tolerated,” and this has been true since the 1960s. Today, “campuses remain the most visible home of ideologues of the radical left in America. And to the extent these leftists are anti-Israel, universities offer them their highest profile platform.” 10
The danger emanating from anti-Israel activity on campuses has little to do with the immediate effect of a BDS vote, most of which fail at the student level, and to date have yet to pass the administration level. In fact, the BDS movement has, so far, largely failed to have a major economic effect on Israel. The most pressing concern is that today’s colleges will produce tomorrow’s leaders and opinion shapers and alter public perceptions. Therefore, the threat lies in the general erosion of Israel’s very legitimacy in the U.S., which could spread to the wider public opinion through constant demonization and vilification, which has become more acceptable in the mainstream. Thus, in another generation, critical American support for Israel could lessen considerably.
Eventually, and without American support in countering them, de-legitimization attempts, such as the BDS campaigns, may have a greater chance of succeeding, turning Israel into an international pariah a-la apartheid-era South Africa.11 Omar Barghouti, head of the international BDS movement, said so himself in an interview, “We are not there yet, but we are reaching our South Africa moment.”12
The Wider American Context
Despite the increasingly “pervasive negativity”13 in regards to Israel on campuses, one cannot disconnect the American college student from the greater American context. The majority of America is still hugely supportive of Israel. According to a February 2015 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans support Israel,14 with 62 percent saying they support Israel more than the Palestinians.15 And these numbers have been consistent over the years. Another Gallup poll from March 2015 shows that while conservatives support Israel more than do liberals, and 18-34 year olds less than older Americans, far more Americans still support Israel.16 And, even when support for Israel declines, it doesn’t translate necessarily into support for the Palestinians.
Moreover, despite what is often claimed, it’s not at all clear that American college students support Israel less than in the past. According to Gallup, in 1982, 49 percent of Americans aged 18-29 supported Israel, while in 2014 support among 18-29 year olds was 52 percent. In 2006, support for Israel among 18-29-year-olds reached 59 percent. What is especially interesting is that in 2014, support for Israel among Americans over 50, who were 18-29 in 1982, reached 74 percent.17
Pew Research Center data back up this trend as well. A 2014 survey shows that 51 percent of Americans sympathized with Israel while only 14% with the Palestinians. White Americans had higher support levels for Israel (55 vs. 12%) than Blacks (43 vs. 20%) and Hispanics (41 vs. 17%). Age groups and college education made a difference too. 18-29-year-olds support Israel 44 vs. 22%, and the numbers gradually rose so that those 65 and older supported Israel by a margin of 60% over 9% for the Palestinians. Among college graduates, support for Israel was highest among those with “some college” (54 vs. 12%), but even those who are “college grad +” polled at 48 vs. 18%. As expected, conservative Republicans were most overwhelmingly for Israel at 77% vs. 4% for the Palestinians. But even liberal Democrats still supported Israel by a 2-1 margin over the Palestinians (39 vs. 21%).21
Conversely, when American support for Israel was measured through the lens of assigning blame for the 2014 Gaza conflict, we see a different picture. According to Pew data, Americans largely blamed Hamas more than Israel (40 vs. 19%) in the conflict. However, here the differences between age groups and race take a turn. Whites hold Hamas responsible by a wide margin (47 vs. 14%), while Blacks (27% Israel vs. 25% Hamas), and Hispanics (35% Israel vs. 20% Hamas) see Israel as more responsible. Moreover, 18-29 year olds viewed Israel as more responsible (29% Israel vs. 21% Hamas), while older age groups increasingly viewed Hamas as the more responsible party (30-49-year-olds – 20% Israel vs. 37% Hamas; 50-64-year-olds – 14% Israel vs. 47%Hamas; 65+ – 15% Israel vs. 53% Hamas). Educated Americans viewed Hamas as more responsible for the violence than less educated Americans (college grad + –18% Israel vs. 42% Hamas; some college – 17% Israel vs. 43% Hamas; high school or less – 22% Israel vs. 35% Hamas), and as expected, Republicans (13% Israel vs. 60% Hamas) and especially conservative ones (6% Israel vs. 70% Hamas) blame mostly Hamas, while Democrats (26% Israel vs. 29% Hamas) were more balanced, with liberals equally placing blame on both sides (30% Israel vs. 30% Hamas). Independents viewed Hamas as the more responsible party (20% Israel vs. 42% Hamas).22
Thus, the overall picture we see is that the wider American context from which students emerge and to which they return is still largely pro-Israel and has been for the past few decades. This context cannot be ignored when looking at current trends. That said, we cannot take this support for granted, and none of this ensures that the anti-Israel efforts on campuses over the past decade won’t translate into reduced support for Israel among this next generation of Americans as they enter society. Indeed, certain elements of the data sets, such as those regarding non-whites, youth, and culpability assignment for the 2014 Gaza conflict, already chip away at the overall trend and should be taken into account moving forward.