In 2005, a coalition of organizations claiming to represent Palestinian civil society issued a call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. Since then, the BDS movement has acted, in church organizations, on college campuses, and elsewhere, to make Israel the equivalent of apartheid-era South Africa; a pariah state. BDS has been active in the U.S., and COMMENTARY has covered many of its individual wins and losses. But it is worth pausing every now and again to consider its overall effect on American public opinion.
At least as Gallup measures it, that effect has been zero.
In 2005, 69 percent of U.S. adults held a favorable view of Israel and 25% held an unfavorable view. Today, those numbers are 71 percent and 25 percent.
A particular target of BDS has been young people, and polling has for some time shown that young people view Israel less favorably than their elders. In the 18-29 age group 63 percent view Israel favorably and 33 percent view Israel unfavorably. But BDS has focused on college campuses. “Israeli apartheid week” is, unbelievably, a feature of the American college landscape, and divestment votes, more often than not BDS fails, took place at 50 schools from 2012-2016. It is therefore surprising that young people view Israel so favorably. In spite of the longstanding leftward lean of our campuses, college graduates and postgraduates remain on par with non-graduates in their favorable views of Israel.
This year’s results are so far similar to last year’s, though Gallup has not yet released its findings concerning how 18-29 year olds view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For U.S. adults in general, though the numbers—62 percent sympathize more with the Israelis, 19 percent more with the Palestinians—are considerably better for Israel than they were when the BDS campaign began.
Supporters of Israel should not be complacent. Not only have we learned a thing or two about trust in polls, but the polls do not altogether agree. The Pew Research Center also conducts polls on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has offered mixed results. Pew, like Gallup, shows that overall sympathy for Israel has grown since the inception of the BDS movement. But they have also been showing the gap between sympathy for Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians shrinking among millennials.
Both Gallup and Pew show that Democrats and Republicans differ dramatically when it comes to support for Israel. This January, Pew released a poll showing that the share of Democrats who sympathized more with Israel, 33 percent, was barely higher than the share of Democrats who sympathized more with the Palestinians, 31 percent. The comparable numbers from Pew were 43 percent and 29 percent just last year, and Gallup this year has them at 47 percent and 29 percent.
So Pew’s 2017 numbers may be a blip. But Gallup’s numbers for Democratic support are also down from last year, and support for Israel is increasingly becoming a partisan issue in U.S. politics. That Benjamin Netanyahu has hugged President Trump harder than nearly any world leader and that the Democratic Party has lurched to the left, is unlikely to help matters.
As far as Gallup is concerned, the BDS movement, after more than a decade of work in the U.S., has failed to move American public opinion. It has been a complete bust. But what Jonathan Rynhold has called the Israel paradox–that even as support for Israel remains close to historic highs, divisions over it are deepening–is more evident than ever.