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Israel-Gaza war sets Biden at odds with youth of America

Since the start of Israel’s war in Gaza nearly two months ago, outraged young Americans have been at the forefront of a growing Palestinian solidarity movement.

They have led protests in Washington and across the country to demand a permanent ceasefire and to voice their disapproval of Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s military campaign, which has killed thousands of Palestinians, mostly women and children, and plunged Gaza into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Related: Muslim leaders in swing states pledge to ‘abandon’ Biden over his refusal to call for ceasefire

A generational divide on the conflict is shifting the terms of the foreign policy debate in Washington, where support for Israel has long been bipartisan and near-unanimous. And, ahead of an already contentious election year, there are signs the issue could pose a threat to Biden’s prospects of winning re-election in 2024.

“There’s something profound taking place in the way young Americans, particularly Democrats, think about the issue,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, who has studied American public sentiment on the Israeli-Palestine conflict for decades.

Shifting attitudes

There was a surge of support for Israel in the wake of the 7 October attack, when gunmen killed at least 1,200 people, roughly two-thirds of whom were civilians, and seized as many as 240 hostages, more than 100 of whom have been freed so far. But attitudes have evolved in the two months since, especially among young Americans, thousands of whom have taken to the streets in protest of Israel’s air and ground offensive, which has killed at least 17,000 Palestinians and displaced more than three-quarters of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents.

Americans overall continue to sympathize with Israel, but surveys show stark divides by party affiliation and age. Young Americans are far more likely than older Americans to express sympathy for Palestinians and to disagree with Biden’s response and strategy, a trend that is especially pronounced among Democrats.

It is the deepest shift in a short period of time that I’ve seen

Shibley Telhami

A pair of University of Maryland Critical Issues Polls, the first taken shortly after 7 October and the second taken four weeks after the attack, found that the number of young Democrats who said Biden was “too pro-Israeli” had doubled while the percentage who said they were less likely to support him in 2024 based on his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue more than doubled.

“It is the deepest shift in a short period of time that I’ve seen,” said Telhami, who is the director of the Critical Issues Poll. While public attitudes often evolve during the course of a war, he said such a significant swing suggests “this isn’t episodic”.

Among voters 18-34, a majority – 52% – said they were more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in mid-November. It marked a sharp reversal from the survey taken the previous month, after the 7 October assault, when 41% of young people said their sympathies lay with the Israelis, compared with 26% who said the Palestinians.

The poll also found young people were about equally divided between those who believe supporting Israel is in the US’s national interest – 47% – and those who don’t – 45% – compared with older cohorts who overwhelmingly said it was.

According to a recent NBC poll, a striking 70% of voters ages 18 to 34 say they disapprove of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. A Pew poll published this week charted a similar trend, with just 19% of Americans under 30 approving of the president’s response.

Watching a young, multiracial coalition champion Palestinian rights has been a glimmer of hope amid the horrors of war in Gaza and a rise in Islamophobia in the US, said Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair).

“We hope to see a break with the past,” said Awad, who is Palestinian American, “and a shift not only in the public opinion among young people but hopefully among the general public, ultimately towards a policy that reflects universal values of justice and freedom for all.”

‘What moral standing is there?’

Many Americans of Biden’s generation can remember Israel as a young, left-leaning democracy founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust – a vulnerable country in a hostile region and a place the 81-year-old president has described as an indispensable haven for Jews. Biden, who was five at the time of Israel’s founding, has said: “If there weren’t an Israel, we’d have to invent one.”

Younger Democrats, by contrast, have mostly known Israel as a military power led by the rightwing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has aligned himself closely with Republicans in the United States and is accused of undermining democratic institutions in Israel.

Those generational tensions have roiled the party, pitting young staffers against their bosses at the White House and at agencies across the administration, on Capitol Hill and at the Democratic National Committee. In letters, cables and in some cases, resignations, they have expressed their concern over the administration’s policy toward Israel.

Polling shows Biden’s support deteriorating among the nation’s youngest voters, considered a key part of the Democrats’ electoral coalition. In 2020, Biden won voters under 30 by more than 20 percentage points, according to exit polls. Recent surveys show the president competitive with or in some cases trailing Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, among young people.

What moral standing is there when you allow for more than 6,000 children to be killed?

Zohran Mamdani

Last month, a coalition of youth-centered progressive organizations signed an open letter calling on Biden to support a ceasefire, which he has resisted, and warning that his approach to the war in Gaza “risks millions of young voters staying home or voting third party next year”. Unless he changes course, they cautioned that Democrats would probably struggle to recruit the often young volunteers, organizers and staffers to work on Democratic campaigns.

“Biden ran on a promise to restore America’s moral standing in the world. What moral standing is there when you allow for more than 6,000 children to be killed?” said Zohran Mamdani, a 32-year-old Democratic state lawmaker from New York who staged a five-day hunger strike outside of the White House to protest against Biden’s handling of the war. “If the fabric of your coalition was built on promises that you are betraying, you cannot be surprised if that coalition cannot be reactivated once more.”

In the days after 7 October, Biden condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel as “sheer evil” and offered his administration’s unwavering support for Israel. The White House has argued that Biden’s strategy of standing by Israel as it wages war in Gaza has allowed his administration to push for diplomatic breakthroughs. The president has earned some praise for his administration’s efforts to restart the flow of desperately needed aid into the besieged region and to secure a week-long truce last month that saw the release of more than a hundred hostages held by Hamas.

Amid global outrage at the scale of the death and destruction in Gaza, the president and his administration have become more blunt in expressing their concern over Israel’s military campaign as well as Israeli settler violence in the West Bank.

“I have consistently pressed for a pause in the fighting for two reasons: to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and, two, to facilitate the release of hostages,” Biden said recently.

Many young activists, especially young Arab and Muslim Americans, say the president’s support for Israel is abetting a war that is already outpacing the bloodiest conflicts of the 21st century. They have been alarmed by some of his rhetoric, particularly his comments questioning the veracity of the casualty figures kept by health officials in the Hamas-run enclave, which struck many as dehumanizing. And they say the fatal stabbing of a six-year-old Palestinian boy and the shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont underscore the threat facing Arab and Muslim American communities.

“No amount of time will erase the last two months from our memory,” said Munir Atalla, 30, of the Palestinian Youth Movement.

Why it’s happening

Political scientists, activists and lawmakers on both sides of the debate say a range of factors are shaping the way young people perceive Israel’s war against Hamas. Social media, where young people have watched the horror of war unfold in real time on their cellphones, is one.

About a third of American adults under 30 say they regularly get their news from TikTok, where videos discussing the war have racked up billions of views.

Nerdeen Kiswani, 29, co-founder and leader of Within Our Lifetime, a Palestinian-led community organization that staged a peace protest near the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Times Square, New York, last month, said young people distrust traditional media. Instead, she said they rely on social media to hear directly from Palestinian civilians and journalists in Gaza.

“They can see with their own eyes,” she said. “Social media now has really democratized what news comes out there.”

But young people’s interest in Israel-Palestine – and the US’s approach to the conflict – is not new and the conversation is not only happening online, said Rachel Janfaza, the founder of the Up and Up newsletter that explores gen Z political culture.

“While social media is one element of where young people are getting their news and information about what’s going on between Israel and Hamas,” she said, “there’s also a robust campus conversation about the conflict that predates the existence of TikTok.”

Many leftwing activists have embraced the Palestinian cause as an extension of the racial justice movement that mobilized following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. For them, the fight for Palestinian rights is linked to domestic causes like police brutality and climate justice.

“When I go to marches, when I go to rallies, when I go on hunger strike and I look around, these are the same people that I was marching with for Black Lives Matter,” said Mamdani. “That solidarity is at the crux of why so many young people are able to stand up for justice wherever it applies.”

A searing conversation over Palestinian rights has swept college campuses and even high schools, where educators are struggling to foster civil discourse as they confront a rise in bias attacks against Arab, Muslim and Jewish students.

At protests, pro-Palestinian activists describe Israel as a “colonial” power and an oppressive, occupying force. Behind claims of anti-Israel bias, they see an effort to silence any criticism of the Israeli government, which many activists now charge with perpetrating a “genocide” against the Palestinian people.

Supporters of Israel have argued that viewing the Israel-Palestinian conflict through a lens of power and privilege often flattens the complex roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict and ignores Jewish people’s history of persecution. They say some of the slogans and rhetoric used by pro-Palestinian activists cross a line into antisemitism and denialism of the atrocities of the 7 October attacks.

“It’s one thing to criticize Netanyahu, his policies,” said Tyler Gregory, 35, CEO of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). “It’s another thing to demonize Israel in the same way that Jews have been demonized for millennia, as being the source of the world’s problems.”

Young Jewish people

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has also divided young American Jews, a group that tends to be politically liberal and secular.

A survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute conducted a month after the war began revealed a significant generational split among American Jews that mirrored the US population as a whole.

While nearly three-quarters of American Jews said they approve of Biden’s response to the conflict, it found that Jewish voters aged 18 to 35 were far more likely than their older counterparts to disapprove.

With chants of “not in our name”, young progressive Jewish activists have led several of the major ceasefire protests, some of which have drawn rebukes from prominent Jewish advocacy groups.

Meanwhile, young Jews were among the tens of thousands of demonstrators who gathered in Washington last month to show solidarity with Israel and voice support for its war against Hamas as calls for a ceasefire grow.

You cannot bomb your way to peace. That’s what young people are saying in the streets right now

Eva Borgwardt

Joe Vogel, a 26-year-old Maryland state delegate running for Congress, said it had been deeply worrying to see attempts from some on the left to “justify” the violence on 7 October.

“The only way that we’re really going to secure peace and justice for everyone in Israel and Palestine is if we move away from the binary thinking,” said Vogel, who is Jewish and describes himself as a “pro-Israel progressive”. “We have to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. We have to be pro-Jewish and pro-Muslim.”

In 2020, Eva Borgwardt worked as a Democratic field director to help elect Biden in Arizona. Now the 27-year-old is helping to lead protests against him as the national spokesperson of IfNotNow, a leftwing Jewish group demanding the president back a permanent ceasefire.

“We know that the only way this horrific violence will end is with a ceasefire. You cannot bomb your way to peace,” she said. “That’s what young people are saying in the streets right now.”

Audra Heinrichs contributed to this report from New York