Young Americans are turning against Israel, and that’s Israel’s fault, says New York Times columnist Ezra Klein. Is he right?
In a significant January 27 op-ed, Klein pointed to a recent poll showing only 27% of Americans aged 18 to 29—known as “Gen Z”—are more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinian Arabs, as compared to 63% of Americans who are 65 or older. According to Klein, that’s because of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since young Americans “know only Netanyahu’s Israel.”
Does that mean all Gen Zers were pro-Israel when the left-of-center Yair Lapid was prime minister fourteen months ago? Hardly.
The real reason for hostility toward Israel among that age bracket is their ignorance of the history and facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not the specific policies of a particular prime minister. Israel is not to blame if many young people choose to base their views on misleading Instagram photos, biased college professors, and radical ideologies that falsely paint Israel as a “white supremacist” state.
Nor is ignorance about foreign affairs among the younger generation a new problem in America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was bothered by it, too.
In the 1930s, polls found that 63% of college students favored unilateral American disarmament, and many thousands of them signed a public pledge declaring, “We will not support the U.S. government in any war it may conduct.”
They couldn’t be bothered to read up on what was happening in Nazi Germany and the threat Hitler posed to world peace. They were worried about being drafted. They preferred sweet fantasies of peace to the reality of a world headed for war. And some just wanted to mimic “what the cool kids were doing”—they saw that many British university students were signing the Oxford Pledge, vowing that “under no circumstances” would they “fight for [their] king and country.”
In 1934, 25,000 American college students took part in a one-hour walkout from classes to demonstrate their opposition to U.S. involvement in any war. The strike mushroomed to 175,000 participants in 1935, then 500,000 in 1936— nearly half the national college student population.
The student antiwar movement began to crack when communist-aligned students changed their position—again and again—not as a result of studying the facts but out of obedience to their party. For them, ignorance was indeed bliss.
In the early 1930s, the Soviet Union preferred that America keep out of European affairs, so their followers on U.S. college campuses promoted the antiwar strike. But when the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, and the Kremlin-backed Spain’s leftwing government, its campus sympathizers suddenly dropped their calls for American isolationism. Then when the Soviets signed their nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany three years later, their followers all went back to urging America to stay out of Europe’s conflicts.
When the Soviets invaded Finland in November 1939, American communist college students defended the attack and denounced President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposal for modest financial aid to the Finns.
Not long afterward, FDR gave a previously scheduled address to thousands of activists from the American Youth Congress—including many of his communist critics. He decided to give them a piece of his mind.
The students’ claim that aid to Finland would “force America into an imperialistic war” was, the President said, “unadulterated twaddle.” He repeated that slap for emphasis. Roosevelt called their position “about the silliest thing that I have ever heard in my fifty-eight years of life.”
Note the contrast between Roosevelt’s response to his youthful critics and the recent responses by President Joe Biden to pro-Hamas protesters. On two occasions when hecklers shouted at Biden over Gaza, he responded that he was pressuring Israel to slow down its actions against Hamas and to withdraw from Gaza. He treated the protesters’ shouts as reasonable, persuasive arguments and sought to convince them he was already doing his best to implement their demands.
Not Roosevelt. He considered his pro-Soviet student critics to be ignoramuses and told them so. Despite audible boos from the crowd, he admonished the students that their positions were “based perhaps on sincerity, but, at the same time, on 90 percent ignorance” of the subject matter. “There is room for improvement in common-sense thinking and definite room for improvement in the art of not passing resolutions concerning things one doesn’t know anything about,” the President said. He characterized his student critics as “young people [who] get a smattering of the subject from two or three speakers who themselves have but a smattering on the subject.”
Has the political climate on America’s campuses changed very much since then? Whether Communist Party members then or Israel haters now, campus political activity is often steered by a handful of ideologically driven militants. Particular social, economic, or political circumstances create opportunities to attract sympathetic students—not because many students are deeply acquainted with the relevant history, but precisely because they are not. Probably very few American college students in the 1930s had read Mein Kampf; probably very few today are aware of the discovery of Arabic-language copies of Mein Kampf in Gaza.
Those members of Gen Z who are marching for Hamas or telling pollsters they oppose Israel are driven by a variety of motives. For many, old-fashioned ignorance or personal factors such as a desire to join a popular cause may determine whether they march against Israel, as their predecessors marched for isolationism in the 1930s.
Whatever their motives, however, the real-world impact of their activities must be considered. Their actions back then contributed to America’s aloofness in the face of Hitler’s outrages against the Jews and fascist aggression in Spain, Ethiopia, and China. Their actions today undermine America’s support for an ally fighting for survival.
Jeff Dunetz is editor/publisher of the blog "The Lid." and a contributor to Israel National News and The Jewish Press. He is a weekly Thursday Guest on The Schaftlein Report, a National Board Member of Herut North America and Herut Representative on The AZM Board