Gaza: Losing the PR War

In today’s National Post, I look at how Israel is losing the support of diasporic Jews, particularly the young. The article can be found here or read down below:



Losing the PR war and the Diaspora

Jeet Heer, National Post Published:
Friday, January 09, 2009

Wars can be won on the battlefield while being lost in the realm of public opinion. In Vietnam, the United States army was victorious in every combat operation but the overall war was lost when the American public became convinced that the cost of fighting far outweighed any benefit. In the Middle East today, we see the same dichotomy between battlefield success and public relations failure.

Wars can be won on the battlefield while being lost in the realm of public opinion. In


Israel, one of the world’s most militarized nations with every weapon at its disposal up to the nuclear bomb, is having no problem crushing Hamas, a raggedy half-staved guerrilla force whose homemade missiles are usually as dangerous as firecrackers. The casualty numbers speak for themselves: As of Wednesday Israel had lost about a dozen lives (mostly soldiers, often due to friendly fire) while more than 600 Palestinians, including scores of women and children, had been killed.

Yet for all its tactical skills in turning Gaza into a charnel house, Israel is facing a serious strategic loss on the battlefield of public perception. As it did in earlier wars where Israel killed large numbers of civilians, global public opinion is cooling toward the Jewish state, which runs the risk of becoming an international pariah.

This shift in public opinion is most striking when we look at young Jews in North America, who are much more critical of Israel than their parents and grandparents. Given the fact that Israel has always relied heavily on support, both financial and moral, from the Diaspora, the loss of loyalty of young Jews is a dangerous trend.

Evidence of the turn against Israel by large parts of the Diaspora can be seen everywhere, from protests to comedy shows. In Toronto, a group of Jewish women briefly occupied the Israeli consulate in protest against the war. In Los Angeles, young Jews wearing keffiyehs marched outside the Israeli consulate carrying signs reading “Difference Between Warsaw Ghetto&Gaza? 70 Years.”

No TV personality has a better sense of the pulse of the young than Jon Stewart, himself Jewish and hitherto a staunch supporter of Israel. On the Daily Show when commenting on Gaza, Stewart mocked politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for criticizing the Palestinians while failing to acknowledge their legitimate grievances. The show’s studio audience laughed in agreement at Stewart’s complaint that the American media and political elite were offering a one-sided pro-Israel perspective on the conflict.

Increasing Jewish alienation from Israel is part of a long-running trend. A 2006 survey sponsored by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman philanthropies found that many young Jews were at best lukewarm about Israel. Only 48% of young Jews surveyed said that they would regard the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy, as against 77% of Jewish senior citizens. Among Jews old enough to collect a pension, 81% were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state; this number dropped dramatically to 54% among Jews in the much-coveted under 35 demographic.

Events like the war in Gaza are likely to intensify the post-Zionism of young Jews. In the public debate in America, it is striking that the strongest supporters of Israel tend to be writers like Alan Dershowitz (age 70), Marty Peretz (also 70) and William Kristol (a sprightly 56). As against this Geritol brigade, a group of young Jewish writers, many of them working for progressive think-tanks that are helping to shape the Obama administration, have been admirably sharp-witted in attacking the Gaza offensive as a moral and strategic failure.

It’s worth listening to some of these young Jewish writers. Here is Ezra Klein, age 24: “There is nothing proportionate in this response. No way to fit it into a larger strategy that leads towards eventual peace. No way to fool ourselves into believing that it will reduce bloodshed and stop terrorist attacks. It is simple vengeance. There’s a saying in the Jewish community: ‘Israel, right or wrong.’ But sometimes Israel is simply wrong.”

Spencer Ackerman, age 28: “The Jewish writers who consider Palestinian life to be worth a fraction of an Israeli life will start braying about anti-Semitism, because when Palestinian bodies are charred in the streets, the real victim is a sensitive Jew’s sense of collective guilt.”

Matthew Yglesias, age 28: “The Israeli government, seemingly dissatisfied with the results of their earlier effort to just make life as miserable as possible for residents of the Gaza strip[,] went and killed a couple of hundred people in retaliatory airstrikes.”

Dana Goldstein, age 24: “Asking young Jews to fight and die in a ground war, one whose perpetration inflames anti-Semitic sentiments, is not the best way to make Israel, or the world at large, safe for the Jewish people.”

Klein, Ackerman, Yglesias and Goldstein are among the most widely read political writers on the Internet. Their blogs have millions of readers. They’ve worked for think-tanks and magazines that have played a major role in creating the Obama presidency. For Israel to lose the support of a rising generation of Jewish intellectuals and policymakers is a grave problem. (This trend of young Jews becoming alienated from Israel has been extensively documented by Philip Weiss on his blog Mondoweiss.)

Why are young Jews so harsh in their criticism of Israel? The only honest answer is Israel‘s terrible human rights record. The wanton slaughter in Gaza is merely the latest in a long litany of Israeli atrocities, all of which help the Jewish state win some short-term victories while making long-term peace impossible. If Israel is to survive it needs to listen to these critical voices, rather than the false friends who urge a continuation of the cycle of violence and retribution. And if Israel doesn’t listen to its critics in the Diaspora, then it will face a friendless future.

9 thoughts on “Gaza: Losing the PR War

  1. Could it be that public opinion is shaped the way it is based more on the style of the reporting and less on the content of the actions of the players? For example, just look at how you describe each participant in your story:

    one of the world’s most militarized nations with every weapon at its disposal up to the nuclear bomb

    and then

    a raggedy half-staved guerrilla force whose homemade missiles are usually as dangerous as firecrackers

    Knowing nothing of the history of either actor, the reader walks into the rest of the piece with the hero and the protagonist neatly defined and identified. Further evidence of this can be shown as you describe the casualties [some–forgetting to leave out the Hamas targeted civilians] suffered on both sides. Certainly there has been innocent suffering and death bore on the side of the Palestinians. How cold you expect anything less when Hamas is hiding behind and shooting through those very people they claim to be representing? If Israel is guilty of launching military actions INTO civilian locations, certainly Hamas is guilty of launching military actions from civilian locations.

    Lastly, you focus on the growing criticism of Israel from young American Jewish writers. I suspect that you are correct on this point. However, I am not convinced that this is due to the fact that all of a sudden Israel has crossed some line. There may be other reasons for this split. I am interested in what those reasons may be.

  2. Thank you for this National Post piece, letting some reality and oxygen into the mainstream media analysis.

    Yes, North Americans are figuring out that a state that links rights and citizenship to religion is a perpetual motion machine of injustice-driven conflict.

    It’s not a state, it’s a war. Impose Israel’s system anywhere in the world, and the same conflict will occur.

    Decriminalize religion – that is, remove the legal penalties that come with being the wrong religion in Israel – like South Africa decriminalized race.

    Ethnic or religious purity must be de-linked from nationality and territory. It works in North America, Asia, Europe, all over the world. Segregation regimes explode in conflict, because they compel people to fight for their basic rights and needs.

    Please keep writing on this. Please write about the legal status of wrong-religion people in Israel and its deportee camps. Americans truly don’t know these basic facts.

  3. I am disappointed by Pino’s response to Jeet’s thoughtful article. This was an opinion piece not a news article. It is perfectly acceptable for it to give a slightly opinionated account of the conflict–that is what op-eds do–and unfair of Pino to imply Jeet has failed to meet some objective standard.

    I agree that Hamas should also be criticized, and that they are hardly “good guys.” But as one of the writers Jeet quoted pointed out, the issue is one of proportion. Israel’s response is not commensurate with the force directed at it. It is not only legitimate, but necessary, to criticize Israel for the carnage it is causing.

    Jeet’s post is political, but also shows signs of research, namely all the quotes from other writers, to document a trend. Pino suggests there are “other reasons” for the same trend but does not document or even name them–as if he can’t even be bothered to give evidence for his view. I’m not sure what is accomplished other than a demonstration of close-mindedness.

  4. This was an opinion piece not a news article.

    When writing opinions, expect opinions in return.

    unfair of Pino to imply Jeet has failed to meet some objective standard.

    All I pointed out was that it’s possible public opinion may be shaped as much by the reporting as by the report. I felt I was polite and, I’ll say it, fair.

    Israel’s response is not commensurate

    Hamas is targeting Jewish civilians. What is a commensurate response? I don’t believe you mean that Israel should target civilians, but what would a commensurate response be? And where is the OUTRAGE due Hamas for launching attacks from a Mosque? A school?

    It is not only legitimate, but necessary, to criticize Israel for the carnage it is causing.

    Note the screaming absence of anything to do with the actual perpetrators; Hamas.

    Pino suggests there are “other reasons”

    I do suggest that there are other reasons. Israel is acting now the same way is has historically acted. And young Jews didn’t [I don’t think] respond in this manner.
    What I think is happening now is two things:

    1. The young Jewish man/woman has not grown up in the shadow of Nazi Germany and the creation of the Jewish State.
    2. They resonate more with being an American than with Israel.

    And lest I am accused of not researching, before I posted this I took all of 20 minutes to read some interesting studies regarding this issue. Several commentators seemed to back me up:

  5. Hi pino: Thanks for providing those links. I suspect on the specific issue of young Jewish alienation from Israel, you and Jeet are not all that far apart, since you’re both quoting the same study. And you’re absolutely right that reporting shapes opinions — it’s a perennial complaint on both left and right that the press is failing to tell the whole story. But A.M. is pointing out that in an opinion piece there’s a prior expectation that its author will quite naturally highlight those facts that strike him or her as the most important, and will not always attempt to provide a comprehensive background to the events they’re discussing. Just the other day, Marcus Gee wrote a column in the Globe and Mail that condemned Hamas for breaking the ceasefire but failed to mention even the existence of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, much less the refusal of the Israeli government to lift it. But Gee is not “reporting” on the conflict, just opining on it.

    As for the lack of “outrage” directed at Hamas, for myself I think it’s generally (I won’t speak for Jeet) a legitimate outcome of the following factors: (a) Israeli and Western governments, and plenty of pundits, are heaping no lack of blame and scorn on Hamas already; (b) Israel holds itself up as being more Western and yes, more virtuous than its Arab neighbours, so the standard of behaviour is higher; (c) Israel has infinitely greater military power than does Hamas, and so must exercise greater restraint lest it kill hundreds or thousands with its actions, as it is doing so today; (d) it is not at all clear that Israel’s actions are merely a “response” to the aggression of Hamas — not only is the responsibility for ending the recent ceasefire a matter of controversy, but the history of the broader conflict goes back decades.

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