There’s been a sea change in US opinion on the conflict

Pamela Olson’s book tour for Fast Times in Palestine took her all over the US, including to California, Oklahoma, Washington, Colorado, and many major cities on the east coast. She wrote this blogpost describing her reception. 

I resolved at the beginning not to sugarcoat anything or promote false equivalencies. In presentations and interviews, I was clear about the Wall stealing land, the horrors of “administrative detention,” and many other injustices. If people asked tough questions that required speaking about racism, oppression, and American support of a de facto apartheid situation, I answered forthrightly. (For an example, you can view my talk at the Palestine Center in DC here.)

I braced myself every time, waiting for the backlash.

To my shock, it never came.

People were receptive, interested, thoughtful, and sometimes skeptical, but almost never hostile or disbelieving. Some crowds were self-selected, but others were more mainstream, including a banquet in eastern Washington attended mostly by retirement-age pillars of the community.

At the banquet, one man asked a leading question that blamed the Palestinians for their plight, and another asked about Hamas’ charter. I answered calmly, offering historical and political context and analogies about Sinn Fein and Apartheid. The audience seemed to be nodding along with me, as if my answers made sense to them.

At the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, a woman angrily accused me of not saying the Wall was built solely for security reasons. I thanked her for bringing it up and read the part of my book that talks about the Israeli army admitting parts of the Wall were routed based on settlement expansion plans, and the Shin Bet admitting the Wall wasn’t a very good security system anyway. Hundreds of Palestinians cross every day to work in Israel without a permit. According to the Shin Bet, the reason suicide bombings stopped in 2005 was because Hamas decided to end them and pursue a democratic political course.

And that was it. Those were the two most hostile encounters in nearly 50 venues in a dozen states and two dozen cities. I didn’t encounter anything like the anger, heckling, and censorship I would have expected had I done this ten or even five years ago.

It’s hard to over-state how much the climate has changed in the past decade. A filmmaker friend summed it up: You used to need extra security to bring a pro-Palestine speaker to campus. Now you need extra security to bring a pro-Israel speaker.

At Oklahoma University, when I spoke to students in the flagship Middle East studies program, I felt utterly redundant. They already knew everything I was saying. The argument in class wasn’t whether Israelis or Palestinians were to blame, but whether Israel had totally destroyed the two-state solution. (Some of the students thanked me for being straightforward and not dancing around the issues like most “experts” did. I told them that was one benefit of not having a mainstream career to lose.)

In the most remote place I spoke — Seminole State College in a small town in Oklahoma — the faculty were fascinated and expressed gratitude that I was bringing them “the other side of the story.” The students asked not whether my stories were true but how it felt to be in the middle of them. That was as big a surprise to me as any.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. Some journalists and professors thanked me for saying things they were still too afraid to say. I can’t say who or why because I don’t want to betray any confidences. But let’s just say people with buildings named after them tend to have more sway than people who don’t.

But those in power seem to be falling behind the grassroots surge in interest and knowledge about this conflict. People seem genuinely hungry for this information, told in a way they can digest and relate to, from a non-intimidating source.

Speaking as someone who used to be incredibly intimidated by anything having to do with the Middle East (because I was terrified of stepping on sensitivities and otherwise showing myself to be an ignorant jackass, or alternatively being duped by flowery language), I have a lot of empathy for these Americans. And I believe they can be reached.

Several people asked, “Are you giving these talks in right-wing pro-Israel venues as well?” I told them I doubt I would be invited, and in any case I tend not to put my energy there. I mentioned the polls that say 65% of Americans (or whatever) support Israel while 15% (or whatever) support Palestinians, and the rest don’t know. These look like hopelessly skewed statistics.

But in fact, probably less than 20% of Americans strongly support Israel. The rest just kind of blow in the prevailing winds. My theory is that if they can be told a fuller story in a way that respects their intelligence and speaks to their sensibilities, roughly half of Americans can likely be convinced to switch sides — not against Israel, but for peace and justice based on international law and respect for human rights for all. That’s where I’m putting my efforts.

And I’m finding, based on limited anecdotal evidence, that folks are more ripe for it than I dared hope.

One last incredibly encouraging sign: Most of you probably remember Bob Simon’s ground-breaking piece on 60 Minutes last year about Palestinian Christians (and Michael Oren’s hilarious “rebuttal”).

Someone who works at CBS told me they’re still dealing with the fallout. After the Israel lobby failed to kill the piece, the station received 32,000 angry emails (mostly form letters mobilized by various lobby organizations such as CAMERA). And that was just the beginning. One of the worst attacks was a slanderous ad in the Wall Street Journal that potentially endangered Bob Simon’s safety. My contact said it was the biggest “sh**storm” of Simon’s long career.

The chairman of CBS was brave enough to stand behind the piece, but he did request that they stay away from the topic for a while. Busy people get sick of dealing with this kind of nonsense, and there’s still a real fear among powerful folks of the taint of being accused of anti-Semitism. It’s like being accused of spousal abuse. Even if it’s not remotely true, it can stick to you like a bad rash.

But here’s the good news: The station also received 35,000 emails thanking them for showing what life is like for Palestinian Christians. And most of the appreciative emails were from individuals, not partisan listservs.

It made me feel more hope than I had in a long time.

About Pamela Olson

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine. She blogs here.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 32 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Krauss says:

    Another key difference now from years past: mainstream academic organizations like the Association for Asian-American Studies(AAAS) taking a pro-boycott stance or academics like Stephen Hawking.

    University of California at Berkeley’s student senate voted for boycott too and their student chairmain refused to veto the bill(which they did just last year I think).

    So these are mainstream universities, organizations and famous public intellectuals.

    Give it 5 more years and we’ll really start to see some stuff happening.

  2. this is a great article pamela, thank you so much for writing it.
    several things…

    Several people asked, “Are you giving these talks in right-wing pro-Israel venues as well?” I told them I doubt I would be invited, and in any case I tend not to put my energy there.

    me neither. why waste energy on this crowd when we have the masses to reach. and it very much fits in with what Sandra Tamari and Heike Schotten communicated in their companion articles last week link to mondoweiss.net

    I mentioned the polls that say 65% of Americans (or whatever) support Israel while 15% (or whatever) support Palestinians, and the rest don’t know. These look like hopelessly skewed statistics.

    But in fact, probably less than 20% of Americans strongly support Israel.

    i totally believe those statistics are skewed myself. the perception they’re on top really matters to them, and they protect that ‘understanding of american perception’ as much as they protect their hasbara.

    the other thing i have to say is so important to me i’m putting it in a separate post so it won’t get drowned in the bottom of a comment.

    • W.Jones says:

      Annie,

      If given a choice between the two, I think generally people would pick the Israeli “side” because they generally think of it as an ally. If you know two people have a dispute, and you know one is a friend but don’t know alot about the conflict, you may pick that. At the same time, 71% of Americans think that the US should take neither side in the conflict, which is an astounding figure for the joined-at-the-hip portrayals.

      On a sidenote, a colleague told me that when Netanyahu got his standing ovations it was a joint session of the House and Senate. Can you confirm that? I thought it was only a Senate meeting with 100 senators. Having all the representatives and senators clapping for everything is much more absolute.

  3. One last incredibly encouraging sign: Most of you probably remember Bob Simon’s ground-breaking piece on 60 Minutes last year about Palestinian Christians (and Michael Oren’s hilarious “rebuttal”).

    Someone who works at CBS told me they’re still dealing with the fallout. After the Israel lobby failed to kill the piece, the station received 32,000 angry emails (mostly form letters mobilized by various lobby organizations such as CAMERA). And that was just the beginning. One of the worst attacks was a slanderous ad in the Wall Street Journal that potentially endangered Bob Simon’s safety. My contact said it was the biggest “sh**storm” of Simon’s long career.

    after what happened on easter eve, link to mondoweiss.net , and the ensuing coverup..the fact there was NO NEWS about this is the US press….well, it was only after i wrote the article, icould not put it down, other things came to light. i realized the relationship between israel and the palestinian christians (hasbara-wise) is extremely coveted territory , outrageously so. and what’s going on there, wrt jerusalem and the holy sites, the relationship w/christians and our christian community..it couldn’t be more night and day. they may be a very small percentage of palestinians in the territory, but you go near israel’s hasbara on this and zap zap zap. this should tell us something. something very important.

    • Citizen says:

      @ Annie Robbins
      I guess you mean, since the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, barring the Hagee type, if they knew more about what’s happened to the Christian Palestinians under Israeli rule over the decades, that might be a spinal tap.

      link to haaretz.com

      • pabelmont says:

        I think Christians, as other religious folk, come in two principal flavors. One flavor is kind, generous people who care about other people and might be helpful to Palestinians and, inter alia, care about Palestinian Christians. This flavor might be, at best, SOFTLY in favor of Palestinian rights, but is quite numerous.

        The other flavor is hard-right-ideologues who (in USA) care about doctrine, support Republican care-nothingism and make-America-a-Third-World-country-ism, many of whose Christian component seem wed to the idea of destroying the world through an Arab/Israeli war at Armegeddon which will usher in the coming of Messaiah. This flavor is HARD against Palestinian rights.

    • lysias says:

      The American people also needs to be told how Syrian Christians support Assad, because they fear what would come after, and they saw what happened in Iraq after Sadddam was toppled.

  4. seafoid says:

    Great post Pamela.
    The hasbara is dying and they have nothing to reach out to decent people with.

  5. Citizen says:

    Pam, thanks for all you’ve done over the years, for your book, your book tour, and now this report on your reception across America.

  6. American says:

    Thank you Pamela…

    Yes ….the public has turned, or not so much turned, since they never thought much about Israel anyway, as they have started ‘learning about I/P- Israel and the US part….the real story.
    I have watched this change, new awareness, whatever we call it, happen bit by bit over 10 years.
    MW, you and a lot of others like annie, Weir, Grant Smith,to many to name have helped get people’s attention and educated them on this .
    Keep going!

  7. Daniel Rich says:

    @ Annie Robbins,

    In some countries you’ll be assigned a ‘minder.’ This person is there to ensure you’ll see the ‘right’ thing and nobody will tell you anything about the nonexistent ‘wrong’ thing. I don’t worry [or am not concerned] about zionists, because they are pretty much straightforward and easy to spot [mostly miles away].

    No, it’s those [Jewish] minders who pretend to be against the Apartheid Regime and [occasionally] utter [some] words that might be perceived as ‘rebellious’ and ‘anti’ this or that, but who actually care very much about the Apartheid Regime and will not hesitate to defend it and stab anyone in the back that becomes too vocal [in their eyes/mind], if they have to. I know what Dershowitz’s all about, because, again, he’s a very predictable person. It’s those dual-moralists, I’m worried about.

    Anyone who has the courage to think outside of the box and take discussions to the next [higher] level has my admiration and love.

  8. David Samel says:

    Thanks, Pamela, for your impressions. I would only add that I thought Bob Simon’s 2009 piece on the occupation was even more powerful than his one on Palestinian Christians. link to cbsnews.com
    I have no idea what the fallout was from that, but it obviously didn’t deter him from doing future pieces

    • Inanna says:

      Perhaps there was a more negative response to this piece on Palestinian Christians since Christian Zionists comprise a large part of the pro-Israeli lobbies in the US and noone wants them to start sympathising with Middle Eastern Christians?

    • Avi_G. says:

      David Samel,

      I did not like the 2009 piece on the occupation; one of the key points that stuck out like a sore thumb was an interview Bob Simon conducted with Livni. In it she stated (paraphrased) that neither the settlers nor the colonies are an obstacle to peace because Israel is a democracy and if the Israeli government deems it necessary to remove them to achieve peace then the Israeli government will do so.

      That, however, was hogwash for several reasons. As you know, it was under successive Labor governments that the colonial project in the occupied West Bank flourished. It was under both Labor, and Likud governments that the colonists were subsidized and granted incentives. In addition, Livni took advantage of the publicity stunt that Sharon carried out when he ‘evacuated’ the colonists from the Gaza Strip. After all, Israel did resettle those colonists in the occupied West Bank and reaped the fruits of the Gaza evacuation by settling greater numbers of colonists in the West Bank than it did in preceding years with nary a condemnation from the so-called international community.

      Lastly, it was under her very own Labor government that a potential long-term peace deal with Palestinian representatives was blunted and denied. As the Palestine Papers showed, it was Livini who turned down Abbas’ concessions regarding territories in the Jerusalem area.

      That is why I did not like that particular 60 Minutes report.

      • pabelmont says:

        The “Israel is a democracy” argument is pish-tosh as an excuse for settlements. Quite the contrary.

        However, Israeli democracy does justify (so I think) BDS aimed at all Israel. Because (unlike Iraq under Saddam and Iran today, whose “democracy” was/is suspect at best), Israeli voters could turn their government around and therefore the “pain” of BDS should fall like a fine rain over the entire country. Especially on all export businesses, travel of all persons, so that all Israelis feel the general disapproval and the BDS is CLEARLY AIMED at the settlements and occupation — so the Israeli people will have a clear political path to follow to stop/satisfy the BDS.

        I’m not hopeful of a BDS aimed initially at democratization of Israel or at Return. Those would be good goals LATER when the nations have already started BDS just in regard to settlements, and world PUBLIC opinion (and education) have improved on this matter.

      • David Samel says:

        Avi, without viewing the piece again, I just don’t remember that from four years ago. I agree with your analysis of Livni, but what I recall from Simon’s report is his (attempted) interview with a Palestinian family whose house had been taken over by the IDF. That was very powerful stuff. I don’t doubt that I would disagree with some or perhaps much of Simon’s whole piece, but this portion greatly impressed me.

        • Avi_G. says:

          David,

          I agree. But for me, the difference lies in Bob Simon’s questions and rebuttals. For example, in the piece about Christian Palestinians, Bob Simon provided good rebuttals to Michael Oren’s claims by asking pointed and direct questions. By contrast, in his 2009 report about the occupation, Bob Simon took Livni’s claims at face value without challenging her. I think that’s where one sees a clear improvement in Simon’s reportage.

          Either way, I think both reports were good in the sense that they provided viewers with a different perspective than the perspective provided by the evening news programs.

  9. American says:

    This is interesting also…..that CNI has been asked to speak to Tea Party meetings.
    I don’t know how to rate the Tea Party group except the original Tea Partiers were more Libertarian at core than GOP.

    Council for the National Interest Foundation

    Dear Friend of CNI:

    excerpt…
    ”Our Executive Director Phil Giraldi and I have appeared in front of audiences ranging from the University of Chicago to a recent series of presentations I made throughout the state of Montana. I have been hosted largely by peace and justice groups and Phil has been asked to address Tea Party meetings. We are reaching out to new constituencies with the same message and principles upon which CNI was founded. ”

  10. W.Jones says:

    The biggest change I can see is in the radical left in America. Most often people I talk with from it are on board with the issue- granted there are exceptions, particularly from an older generation. Whereas I heard that in the past there was a significant element in it that believed in the State’s one-sided nature.

    Chomsky himself (an anarchist Zionist) is an example of this, working on a kibbutz in the 1950′s and aware of the Nakba, while in 2010 saying he would not live there due to its government.

    Likewise, in the 1950′s you had Isaac Deutscher saying that due to the Nazi genocide other nations could not criticize the Israeli government’s carrying out the Nakba, while in the late 1960′s he saw both groups as victims.

  11. American says:

    The Gov is fighting the ‘sea change’…..not just on Israel but on everything, the natives are restless and the powers that be cant stand for that. Censorship, spying on journalist, newspapers that don’t toe the repub or dem or zionist line, and blogs and their readers,imprisoning whistleblowers..it’s all way out of control. I think they are sadly mistaken if they think the public will tolerate this. There might be a few who it will scare but American aren’t use to anyone telling them what they can or cant say or read or anything else. But I want them to keep trying to control us….come on Gov, come on—light our fire.

    And this is hysterical….I would love to know what ‘foreign power’ the FBI thinks Anti War is working for…lol

    ”Today the ACLU filed a lawsuit on our behalf against the Federal Bureau of Investigation, demanding the receipt of records in their possession regarding surveillance of Antiwar.com, and key editorial personnel. We know they possess such records because of documents received as a result of a third party Freedom of Information Act request, subsequently published online. A memo from FBI headquarters in Washington speculates Antiwar.com and its principals are possibly “a threat to national security” engaging in a conspiracy “on behalf of a foreign power” and recommends a more thorough investigation.”

    link to original.antiwar.com
    Antiwar.com Sues FBI After Secret Surveillance
    May 21st, 2013

  12. mcohen says:

    by Pamela Olson on May 21, 2013 18

    “There’s been a sea change”

    i like that sentence it goes well with my “a breath of fresh air”

    and then there,s “the other side of the story.” further down

    and finally “on behalf of a foreign power” (this one from american)

    nice ………….it all fits together like this

    “There’s been a sea change”…..”a breath of fresh air”…………. “the other side of the story.”………………….“on behalf of a foreign power”

    very funny -if anything 9/11 caused americans to pay attention to what is “really” happening “over there” -
    if 9/11 was a move on the board in the game of chess being played between america and china -the board being green and red -then the arab spring is a calculated domino effect- type move only the chinese could conceive off-(thats the way they play) with syria being the last piece -then now is the time for israel to strike a decisive blow to end the game before it deteriorates into a joke

    • RoHa says:

      “Sea-change” is a nice expression. From the Master, of course, like most of the good stuff.

      Ariel: Full fathom five thy father lies;
      Of his bones are coral made;
      Those are pearls that were his eyes:
      Nothing of him that doth fade
      But doth suffer a sea-change
      Into something rich and strange.

      The Tempest. Act i. Scene. 2.

  13. chinese box says:

    The only people I meet who express strong support for Israel are 1. Jewish (and obviously I don’t mean all Jews here) 2. hard right, Glenn Beck listener types 3. people who personally benefit from the status quo in some way, i.e. work in the defense industry. I believe any “support” expressed by others not in those three groups is thin at best.

    • DaBakr says:

      you must travel in very limited circles. Support for the Palestinian narrative has definitely grown but your sorely mistaken if you think your list of “3″ are “the only” people who express (and possess) strong support for Israel.

  14. ckg says:

    Nice post, Pamela. I’m sober about changing perceptions of I/P. The CUFI Facebook page has over 1 million ‘likes’. The ‘United with Israel’ Facebook page has 1.8 million ‘likes’. The Mondoweiss Facebook page has around 6 thousand ‘likes’. And the excellent ‘I Acknowledge Apartheid Exists’ page has almost 25 thousand ‘likes’. The numbers are depressing.

  15. Some journalists and professors thanked me for saying things they were still too afraid to say. I can’t say who or why because I don’t want to betray any confidences. But let’s just say people with buildings named after them tend to have more sway than people who don’t.

    This stuck with me and is more chilling than I care to admit. The subtle and not so subtle thoroughly relentless pressure skews our problem solving capicity to no end. It perpetuates our dysfunction.

    What Bob Simon should take from this is that bullies have no stronger counter-argument and should be portrayed in this light. If he can’t stand the heat, maybe he is in the wrong business