Can young voters make Palestinian rights a major issue ?

Demonstrators march in Chicago seeking justice for Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh (Max Herman)

Isaac Lozano

The Nation  /  November 3, 2022

Most Americans under 30 now feel sympathetic toward the Palestinian cause. But getting progressive politicians to support Palestine continues to be difficult.

Lara Hafez sometimes feels that she has been “robbed of her ethnicity.” After her parents were forced out of their home in the West Bank by the Israel Defense Forces, they sought refuge in America and settled in Southern California, where Hafez was born and raised. Now a junior at Stanford University, Hafez was especially moved when several students with ties to Israel reached out to thank her after she gave a speech on Palestinian politics.

Those students, Hafez says, are part of a new generation that is “willing to be understood and to understand what’s happening in Palestine.” This midterm season, they join a movement, spearheaded by young people, that is challenging the status quo on American foreign policy.

From the violence of last year’s evictions in East Jerusalem to this spring’s killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Americans are facing intense exposure to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Historically, voters in the US have shown minimal interest in foreign policy, and even less in Israel-Palestine. And with abortion rights and democracy itself on the ballot this election, Americans have increasingly little space in their cauldron of concerns. “Palestinian rights are not a voting issue for many people,” Jewish Currents Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart told me.

But for young people, this might be entirely true. According to a Pew Research Center report from July, a majority of Americans ages 18 to 29 view Israel unfavorably. An increased percentage also feel sympathetic toward Palestinians, as many young people see parallels between American social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the systemic oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli government, which receives $3.3 billion in military funding annually from the US government. College campuses, in particular, have become hotbeds of political tension as students protest for Palestinian rights in bigger numbers.

“There’s far more openness to criticism about Israel and even openness to being explicitly anti-Zionist,” says Jonathan Graubart, a political science professor at San Diego State University and author of the soon-to-be-published Jewish Self-Determination Beyond Zionism: Lessons From Hannah Arendt and other Pariahs. “[That was] just beyond the pale when I was younger.”

This month, Palestinian advocates are holding onto hope for a tumultuous midterm cycle, where organizations like AIPAC have spent millions to thwart progressive races. For activists and organizers, even getting young and progressive politicians to support Palestine continues to be difficult. Earlier this summer, 25-year-old Maxwell Frost, a strong proponent of gun control and Medicare for All, won the primary for Florida’s 10th Congressional District, and will likely become the first member of Gen Z in Congress. For Palestinian advocates, Frost’s victory carried particular importance: They had protested together in May of 2021, chanting “Free Palestine!” with microphones and Palestinian flags in the air.

But on August 11, two weeks before Frost’s primary, Jewish Insider released a position statement from Frost, in which he reversed his stance on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and expressed opposition to conditioning aid to Israel. Frost told The Intercept that he had been “naive” on the issue, stressing that his conversion was honest, rather than a strategic move to curry favor from pro-Israel lobbyists. Many in his district, though, saw something more cynical. Nushrat Nur, a graduate student at Emory University who votes in Frost’s district and had organized in Orlando alongside Frost, found his switch deeply “jarring” because it contradicted his previous activism. “All of us had a lot of hope that we poured into Maxwell,” Nur told me. “Whenever he spoke at Palestine events…there were no if, ands, or buts about it.”

Mitchell Plitnick, president of ReThinking Foreign Policy believes Frost sought to avoid drawing the ire of groups like AIPAC, which regularly runs opposition ads against candidates critical of Israel. In Ohio, the defeat of progressive favorite Nina Turner, who spoke steadfastly in favor of Palestinian solidarity, in favor of more moderate Shontel Brown came infamously after pro-Israel organizations dropped millions in ads targeting Turner.

Frost is “very interested in gun violence and other domestic social justice issues,” said Plitnick. “He has to ask himself, realistically, ‘Do I want to risk torpedoing all that in order to take on a foreign policy issue that isn’t the top of the agenda for most people?’”

But the catch, Plitnick notes, is that Frost wouldn’t seriously have imperiled his bid for Congress by siding with Palestinians. Plitnick cites Bernie Sanders’s own pro-Palestinian statements during his 2016 presidential run, which didn’t seem to hurt him. Since then, not only have the Squad won and kept their seats with generally pro-Palestinian stances, but more candidates have won races while supporting Palestine, such as Summer Lee’s primary victory in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District.

“It’s often true that big donors come out and throw money at a candidate. [But] sometimes lots and lots of small donors are raising even more money,” Plitnick said. “It’s perceived that angering the so-called Israel lobby is a political death sentence. Maybe at one time it was, but I don’t really think it is anymore.” Still, young activists face the challenge of translating recent cultural shifts around Israel-Palestine to the political arena, where “the forces that are invested in maintaining unconditional US support [for Israel] are far better organized and far better funded,” Beinart said.

Terms like “apartheid,” which was levied last year by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, remain a rare sight in all but the most progressive spaces. “I’ve met many elected officials, and I’m not aware of a single time where somebody seriously challenged our factual findings and the way we applied the law to the facts,” Israel and Palestine director at the Human Rights Watch Omar Shakir told me. “It’s instead a case where people lack the courage to call a spade a spade.”

But change often begins at the local level. Jacob Kuppermann, a recent graduate of Stanford University who uses they/them pronouns, has seen their campus evolve significantly on the issue over the past five years. During their first few years at Stanford, they would regularly see career fairs advertise tech internships in Israel and even had friends intern at offices in Tel Aviv. “That was not seen as the ethical misstep that it might be seen now, especially if you support the BDS movement,” Kuppermann told me.

As tensions around Israel-Palestine flared on campus over the years, so did public opinion. And in the spring of 2021, as evictions in Sheikh Jarrah made national news, Kuppermann found themself protesting alongside their peers. As an organizer on the Jewish left, Kuppermann spent time signing petitions, advocating to members of Congress, and speaking at rallies to build coalitions between Jewish and non-Jewish students.

Avi Mayer, who formerly served as both managing director of public affairs and senior spokesperson for the American Jewish Committee, hesitates to “draw dramatic conclusions” about young people’s trajectory on the issue and says we’ll need more long-term data on their views. “Young people in general tend to hold views that are contrary to those of their elders. That tends to evolve and self-correct in the direction of moderation as young people become older,” Mayer said.

But for Plitnick, brutality has a way of forcing clarity. Not only is Israel becoming harsher, as the country’s politics lurches rightward and the prospect of an end to the occupation seems increasingly dim, but the global visibility of the region is also transforming, thanks to social media.

“Three decades ago, you didn’t have videos on Twitter and YouTube showing the violence of of Israeli troops,” Plitnick said. “Now all of a sudden, people are seeing it. I don’t think that the people who are 20, 25, 30 years old now are going to change their view when they’re 65 years old, because…they’ll know the truth, and they will have known it all along.”

Isaac Lozano is a student at Stanford University studying political science