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Democrats losing moral clarity on Israel

An Israeli soldier was silhouetted as he guarded a post overlooking Bethlehem last month.REUTERS/file

The Pew Research Center last week released a new survey of American attitudes in the Middle East. The results weren’t surprising. In the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, 51 percent of Americans say they sympathize more with Israel. Only 14 percent feel greater affinity for the Palestinians.

Pew’s findings demonstrate the strength of pro-Israel feeling in the United States. The poll was conducted amid the current fighting with Hamas, but the bottom line hardly changed from Pew’s last survey in April, when it reported that in the 36 years it has been sampling public opinion, “sympathy toward Israel has never been higher.”

But below the surface, America’s Israel-friendly consensus is splitting along the same left-vs.-right fault line that has polarized so many other issues. While support for Israel is overwhelming among Republicans and conservatives, it has been shrinking among Democrats and liberals. “The partisan gap in Mideast sympathies has never been wider,” reports Pew, with 73 percent of Republicans sympathetic to Israel in the ongoing conflict, but just 44 percent of Democrats. Respondents identifying as liberal Democrats were five times as likely as conservative Republicans to sympathize more with the Palestinians.


Thus is the Democratic Party losing its way on one of the great moral issues of our time.

For roughly the first third of Israel’s existence, Democrats tended to support the Jewish state more strongly than Republicans did. In a compelling new book, “Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel,” foreign-affairs thinker Joshua Muravchik writes that during the run-up to the Six Day War in 1967, “Israel was above all a cause championed by liberals.” So heartfelt was this support that even ardent Democratic opponents of the Vietnam War, such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Eugene McCarthy, advocated US military action on Israel’s behalf.

Only over the last 25 years has support for Israel grown so much greater among Republicans than among Democrats. The reasons for the divergence are many. On the right, they include the high value Republicans have attached to Israel as a stable ally in a very unstable region, as well as the migration to the GOP of evangelical Christians, many of whom support the Jewish state as a matter of transcendent conviction.


But on the left, the Israeli-Arab dispute itself has been redefined. Liberals used to see the stakes with no illusions: A small Jewish democracy, an outpost of liberal Western values, was surrounded by brutal Arab dictatorships that denied its very right to exist. That moral clarity has eroded, partly because of facts on the ground over years of conflict — but ultimately through a skillful war of ideas, first launched on the radical left, to reframe the conflict by making Israel the villain and casting Palestinians, who had never been considered a nation, as an oppressed underdog seeking independence.

This intellectual assault began, as Muravchik details, when the Soviet Union, angered by Israel’s defeat of its Arab clients in 1967, engineered a propaganda campaign to delegitimize Zionism. Moscow embraced the PLO, assiduously promoting its significance to the global “anti-imperialist struggle.” The campaign was fought on many fronts, from academia to the United Nations to the media. Over time the anti-Israel narrative gained such traction that the Jewish state, though still a humane and liberal democracy, became one of the world’s most reviled nations.

Needless to say, Israel’s policies are always a legitimate target for honest criticism, as Israelis themselves — often among their government’s harshest critics — would be the first to assert. But critics ought to acknowledge that Israel’s choices are made by a democratic government confronting relentless security threats from an enemy sworn to its destruction. To fail to recognize that moral context is to miss what matters most — to be blind to the conflict’s essence.


Yet wherever the left holds sway, Israel is seen through jaundiced eyes. There has been an unprecedented moral inversion, illustrating the power of a noxious idea to seep from the ideological fringe to the mainstream.

The United States is not yet down to one pro-Israel party. But the seepage among Democrats continues. At the 2012 Democratic convention, a fight erupted over the deletion from the party’s platform of standard language acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It took an order from the White House to restore the pro-Israel clause, and even then it had to be gaveled through over the vocal opposition of half the convention delegates.

Not long ago, such a hostile gesture would have been unthinkable. Now, with each new poll confirming Democratic chilliness toward the Jewish state Democrats once loved, can it be anything but a precursor of worse to come?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.