Phil Weiss: Yesterday I wrote to the pseudonymous journalist FE Felson: I’m thankful for your contributions to this site. A true joy I’ve had in the last couple years is meeting people who are smart, Not Crazy (which a lot of folks in this Middle East line are), and brave. I love our country too much not to believe that we will prevail on this question, restoring balance…
There was one particularly interesting comment in our dialogue yesterday; someone mentioned that we seemed to be talking about two different audiences — me focusing on mass opinion, you on the elite decision-makers and opinion-shapers — and that we’re both right in our own way. I wonder if there’s something to this.
Generally, I don’t bring up the I/P stuff when I’m around “elites” (partly because this is usually in a professional setting, where trying to create a conversation about Israel wouldn’ be appropriate), but I do when I’m around less political friends and family. This is a lot of where my pessimism comes from. I had a long discussion (more like heated debate) with my father about it at Christmas ’07. He’s smart, follows current events, and knows something about the Middle East (he was stationed in the Mediterranean in his Navy days).
He sounded just like John McCain — a well-meaning neocon who thought he was standing up for a country being threatened by Nazi-like terrorists. I could see his line of thinking, and how he got there, so easily. And I know where he got it from: He’s not an academic or a scholar; he just absorbs popular media messages and reacts to them. All he’s ever heard about are Palestinian suicide bombers and Iran’s quest for nukes and the crazy shit that Ahmadinejad says. And he’s horrified by the Holocaust (when I was like 10 he sat me down with a Time-Life book on World War II and showed me concentration camp pictures so that I’d be aware of the awful things human beings could do).
He means well. I don’t think he has any idea of the number of civilians killed by Israel, of what the occupation has actually meant for everyday Palestinians, and of how marginalized Ahmadinejad actually is within the Iranian hierarchy (and how much of his Israel-bashing is designed to provoke the West to prop up his domestic political standing and take attention away from his domestic incompetence: Mission accomplished!). I tried over and over to get him to think about all of this, but he wouldn’t bend. He was fixated on the Holocaust, suicide bombers, and anti-Israel bluster from Hamas/Ahmadinejad. I think he’s typical of many Americans. He doesn’t follow I/P news regularly, but he knows the basics because he digests enough news. His sense of the history is flawed too: to him, Israel was a haven for Holocaust victims. He knows nothing about the expulsion of the Arab population. In his mind, he’s on the side of the good guys, and emotional inertia closes his mind to an alternate view and keeps him there.
I guess my hope is that it’s a generational thing. My dad may never change, and neither will most Baby Boomers. But maybe my generation’s experience has been different enough. I don’t know, though. I brought up I/P with a non-political friend from college the other day. He couldn’t see the difference between criticizing Israel and attacking Jews. He’s called me an anti-Semite twice since then, although mostly for comic effect, I think.
Note the philosemitism of Felson’s dad. My generation came of age with that! Of thee I sing! As to the conservative/middle American support for Israel, yes but: I again point to the Iraq lesson. Former terrorists are now in parliament. Americans excuse terrorism there, because we lived the occupation, now we understand occupation and murderous factional dispute in a Shia/Sunni connection. This lesson is simply too portable to Israel/Palestine for it not to be having a beneficial effect on Obama’s ability to navigate. Though I sure wish it had been a big issue in the campaign. A lot of people would have gotten educated.
There was a study a few years ago showing how voters’ party identification is generally set at a young age — in their late teens or early 20′s. There are plenty of exceptions, but as a general rule, they stick with their party for life. If you get to them early enough, they’re yours for life. If the same is true for Israel/Palestine, then I guess there’s nothing we can do about my dad’s generation. I wonder about my own. As I say, my experience with non-political friends hasn’t been encouraging (although among friends in politics/journalism, I’ve found more sympathy), but that’s hardly a scientific study. The most important element of this is mass media, and I still think the message that casual consumers of news of all ages receive is almost uniformly pro-Israel.