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The Threat of American Public Opinion

Israel’s Dirty Little Secret

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

It’s easy enough to read in the American press about Hama’s commitment to destroying Israel, or about the endless threats Israelis suffer under the onslaught of Palestinian suicide attacks and Hezbollah’s aggression. American progressives, and anyone else who honestly looks at American media and political commentary, have long known that racist caracitures of Arabs and Muslims are the order of the day in the United States. Whether it’s racist stereotypes promulgated in films such as Disney’s Aladdin or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s True Lies, or vitriolic commentary and op-eds within elite newspapers and television, American media-political culture has long prided itself in demonizing Arabs and Muslims. Typically there is little effort to even make a distinguishment between the two. Popular images portray Arabs and Muslims as hell-bent on violence, religious fanatacism, and the destruction of the U.S. and its allies (Israel most specifically).

There is, of course, a lengthy record of academic studies committed to exposing such contempt and xenophobia in American culture. In his important work, Covering Islam: How the Media and Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, Edward Said chronicles the "highly exaggerated stereotyping and belligerent hostility" directed against Muslims within the American mainstream. In contrast, Said speaks of "Israel’s avowedly religious characteristics [as] rarely mentioned in the Western press: Only recently have there been overt references to Israeli religious fanaticism." Following Said, other scholars have focused upon media misrepresentations of Arab and Muslim peoples. In Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence, Karim Karim emphasizes how "Muslim terrorism" is often a focus of media commentary and analysis, while Israel is seen "as an island of Western values in a sea of Arab Muslim barbarism."

Although the backlash against these forms of media and political racism has begun to gain steam amongst critics of the U.S. and Israel, this has not stopped the American press from promoting a fictional American love affair amongst the American public and Israel. After 9/11, the New York Times claimed erroneously that American sympathy with Israel had risen to new highs, when in reality it was slightly less supportive (see Eric Boehlert, "The Times Misrepresents the American Public’s Support for Israel, Salon.com). In a late 2006 story, the Boston Globe reported that there has been an increase in support for outsourcing job services to Israel in light of the country’s "vast pool of highly educated workers who are native English speakers and share a cultural affinity with the West" (Matthew Kalman, "US Firms Turn to Israel as Outsourcing Alternative," November 24, 2006).

American pundits also fall back on the alleged ties of cultural affinity between Americans and Israelis. Neoconservative Daniel Pipes claims that the "special feeling" amongst Americans "for Israel translates directly into policy. While the US public dislikes foreign aid in general, polls show that ‘most Americans strongly support’ economic and military aid to Israel." Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby celebrates "staunch American support" and "solidarity" for Israel, claiming that "only someone far outside the American mainstream would insist that ‘Israel’s past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians,’ or that US policy is engineered through a Zionist ‘strangelhold on Congress.’"

Jacoby is certainly right that those within the mainstream press would not present such critical views of Israel, but he couldn’t be more wrong about the American public’s supposed support for Israel. Unconditional support for Israel is relegated primarily to American elites, who, although a tiny minority of the U.S. public, speak with the loudest voice due to their dominance of American political, economic, and media institutions. The commitment of this loud minority to demonizing those who criticize Israel (a category which could easily be defined to include the majority of Americans) is as impressive today as it has ever been.

Unequivocal elite support for Israel, while a major roadblock to serious peace efforts in the Middle East, is hardly beyond challenge or correction. Activists and progressives throughout the U.S. need to learn to better utilize their biggest strength: an American public which shares major reservations about supporting Israel and its war crimes. Taking our criticisms of Israel directly to the people is the most effective way to resist Israeli aggression and terrorism, as well as American support for such actions.

While it is true that the American public has often shown strong sympathy for Israel, such sympathy is nowhere near as supportive of Israel as American propagandists would have us believe. At best, American support for Israeli actions (such as the attack against Lebanon) has been split; at worst, it has been seriously critical. According to one poll, not more than one half (50%) of Americans questioned in mid 2006 supported the Israeli attack on Lebanon (www.pipa.org), and most blamed Israel (as well as Hezbollah) for provoking further violence. A majority felt "Israel’s military campaign" had "gone too far." A poll printed by the Los Angeles Times also showed an even split in public attitudes, as 43% saw Israel’s invasion and bombing as "justified," as opposed to 44% who felt it was either "justified but excessively harsh" or "unjustified."

Even the New York Times piece mentioned above claiming strong U.S. support for Israel after 9/11 found that just 50% of Americans sympathized with Israel (and that number had previously stood at only 45%). Such numbers are evidence of a strong schism in American public opinion toward Israel, rather than proof of "strong" or "majority" support.

Other surveys have found similar divisions and uncertainty. A Pew Research Center poll found that US sympathy for Israel ranged between 37% and 48% from late 1997 through mid 2005. A more recent study in 2006 found a divide amongst those who considered themselves either "supporters" or "strong supporters" of Israel (45%) and those who supported neither Israelis or Palestinians (40%).

If 40-50% sympathy levels for Israel is deemed serious evidence of "strong" public support, then surely similarly critical percentages suggest major reservations regarding unconditional aid to Israel. One poll conducted in November 2005 found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) felt that U.S. support for Israel is a "major reason that people around the world are unhappy with the U.S." Seventy-one percent of Americans questioned in 2002 felt that the United States should take "neither side" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surveys from a longer time period (1998-2006) find the same results: depending upon the year in question, between 52% and 78% of Americans feel that the U.S. should take neither the Palestinians or Israelis side in the conflict. This is a radical departure from U.S. foreign policy, which demonizes Palestinian leadership as either participating in, or enabling terrorism, while portraying Israeli leaders as heroically resisting a siege initiated by neighboring Arabs and Muslims.

Many are also extremely skeptical of increasing foreign aid. Polls consistently show that Americans oppose increasing aid to Israel. In light of the 2003 Iraq war, 57% of Americans opposed a proposed $12 billion aid package for Israel (as opposed to only 29% who supported it). Another survey from 2001 found that 52% of Americans felt the $2.8 billion received in aid by Israel each year was "too much."

Studies also show that a majority of Americans favor a negotiated peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. This is significant, since such support stands in marked contrast to the rejectionist positions of American and Israeli leaders, who have escalated the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are responsible for the vast majority of the civilian deaths in the conflict, and have consistently opposed a two-state solution including the formation of a sovereign Palestine and an end to the illegal 40 year occupation.

Public support for negotiations again stands in opposition to the official government stance when we look at the issue of aid to Palestinians. While supporters of Israel have long cited polls showing that Americans favor aid to Israel over Palestinians, this is a misleading portrayal. Recent surveys (from 2001 and 2002) show that between 57% and 62% of Americans feel that the U.S. should "equalize aid" between Israelis and Palestinians "if the Palestinians come to terms with Israel in a peace agreement." One would expect American leaders (at least those with even a minimal commitment to democracy) to have moved toward equalizing aid long ago, considering that Palestinian leaders from Fatah have recognized the state of Israel for over 15 years, and have engaged in negotiations for as long. Unfortunately, American political elites have long preferred to ignore the public’s will, relying on vulgar vilifications that single out the Palestinians for obstructing peace without exacting serious demands on Israeli leaders.

In the case of the election of Hamas to political power in Palestine, one might very well expect that the American public would oppose equalizing aid, even in light of negotiations. This may very well be true, but it hardly justifies further political contempt for American public opinion concerning prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. A 2006 Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans favored conducting diplomatic relations with Hamas if it recognizes Israel. This is contrary to the views of American political leaders, who insist that Fatah and Israeli leaders declare war on Hamas in order to wipe the democratically elected organization off the political map, rather than pursuing a negotiated settlement.

Exploring the gulf between American public and elite opinion is not meant to suggest that the American people’s perceptions are always correct when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the American public has fallen victim to racist stereotypes directed against Arabs and Muslims that are common in media commentary and mainstream political rhetoric. According to one 2004 study, 72% of Americans agreed with the statement that "the Palestinians have been indoctrinated by a generation of anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda; they are teching their children to hate Americans and Jews and to become terrorists." Similarly, 81% of respondents agreed that "there cannot be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians stop teaching their children to become terrorists and to hate Israel and America." While such clearly loaded and irresponsible polling questions (pursued by the pro-Israeli, Zionist "Israel Project") are enough to make any respectable social scientsists cringe, the fact that large majorities agreed with them is a disturbing revelation in-and-of-itself.

While the American public has often fallen victim to vicious and incendiary attacks against the Palestinian people, it is precisely those misperceptions that activists should be committed to challenging and defeating. If one thing is certain, there is clearly more room for changing perceptions amongst the general American public than there is amongst those American elite who shamelessly and stubbornly support Israel while ruthlessly suppressing its critics. The only hope for a just peace in the Middle East lies with the average American, not with America’s political elite.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" (forthcoming December 2007). He can be reached at adimag2@uic.edu