According to a new poll of US Jewish voters, 25 percent consider Israel to be an apartheid state, and another 22% aren’t certain one way or another. In the same survey, taken two weeks ago and published Tuesday, 22% said “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,” and a further 16% weren’t sure if we are or not.
Commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, the survey was carried out against the background of May’s 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups, which triggered a major spike in incidents of antisemitism in North America and elsewhere.
We can agonize and argue over the value of opinion polls in general and this one in particular, which questioned 800 people with a 3.5% margin of error, and posed what might be termed leading questions: “Israel is an apartheid state,” it stated, for instance, then asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed.
But the findings should not be nitpicked away. That more than a fifth of US Jews in the poll accuse Israel of genocide cannot be shrugged off.
The survey was taken in the aftermath of a conflict against Hamas, an Islamist terrorist organization that is not engaged in a territorial dispute with Israel, but rather avowedly seeks our state’s destruction; that killed its own people in seizing power in Gaza after Israel withdrew from the territory; that has a despicable history of carrying out suicide bombings throughout Israel directed at civilians; that uses Gazans as human shields against Israel’s efforts to thwart its rocket fire and assault tunnels, and that redirects any and every relevant Gaza resource to its war against Israel at the expense of its citizenry.
Weeks after Israel faced off against this blatantly amoral terrorist army, a sizable proportion of the world’s largest Diaspora community, citizens of our closest and most important ally, has nonetheless apparently drawn a radically skewed picture of what is going on here.
Understanding the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does require a little bit of effort. You have to care enough to look deeper than headlines that highlight relative death tolls and maps that display tiny Gaza alongside larger Israel. There’s history and context and dueling narratives and hitherto irreconcilable claims to the same territory.
For all my concerns about where we may be headed if we cannot find a secure means of separating from most of the Palestinians, I find it hard to believe that anyone with genuine intellectual honesty can definitively brand Israel an apartheid state — though I know people who do. And I truly do not see how anybody who has invested the smallest modicum of effort in understanding our realities can determine that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. Yet that’s what lots of American Jews apparently now consider to be the case.
A multitude of factors, some of them far beyond Israel’s control, have led to poll findings such as these. But self-evidently, Israel would help its standing if it explained itself more effectively. It’s no panacea; there are limits to even the most adept public diplomacy. But Israel appears to have given up even trying, as highlighted by its staggering ineptitude in the course of the latest conflict and its aftermath.
Hobbling Israel’s public diplomacy
Israel’s abiding inability to articulate its own case to the global public is so entrenched, and has been so long a cause of despair to its supporters, that many who agitated over the years to prioritize this second battlefield have long since given up. But the seeming determination by successive governments to undermine Israel’s cause by neglecting and hobbling the country’s public diplomacy, notably but not exclusively in the United States, would appear to have plumbed new depths of late.
The latest conflict found prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu without an experienced English-language spokesperson, indeed without anyone at all willing and able to appear regularly in international media to discuss what, from Israel’s point of view, was unfolding regarding Gaza. Broadly speaking, it was left to the IDF, and its Spokesperson’s Unit, to explain the war.
But the IDF’s prime focus was not on detailing for an international audience the context in which Israel had resorted to a widescale response to Hamas’s initial rocket barrage at Jerusalem and the ongoing rocket barrages at much of the country. Rather, it was seeking to deter Hamas and Gaza’s other terror groups, by impressing upon them the IDF’s might and potentially devastating capabilities.
Its fundamental unfitness for the purpose of international media outreach was emblemized both by its attempts to deceive world media, and thus Hamas, with false information about a ground offensive early in the conflict, and by its inability to quickly produce compelling public evidence of why it was deemed necessary to destroy an entire Gaza high-rise that it said was a Hamas military asset but where the world’s largest news agency, the Associated Press, also had its offices.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Israel’s two main, immensely demanding diplomatic posts — ambassador to the US and ambassador to the UN — were filled, absurdly, by one man, Gilad Erdan, who avoided almost all of an avalanche of interview requests, apparently because he was concerned that his English, though serviceable, is not entirely up to the task. The office of consul general in New York was unfilled (a new appointment was made in late June). Other major international diplomatic posts, including the ambassadors to Canada, France and Australia, were also vacant.
Netanyahu’s governments for years marginalized the Foreign Ministry as part of the prime minister’s centralization of control and, most recently, were so preoccupied with survival and electioneering as to widely neglect international public diplomacy — ironically so, given Netanyahu’s articulacy and worldliness. Preoccupied with endless domestic bickering, Israel’s political leadership did not internalize and still does not seem to have internalized how problematically the most recent Gaza-Israel conflict played out internationally, notably including the wave of antisemitism it unleashed.
The bickering and point-scoring has, sadly and unsurprisingly, continued into the era of the new, Naftali Bennett-led coalition — with the PM and his predecessor trading blame and accusations over Iran, COVID-19 and just about everything else — and so too, thus far, the neglect of international public diplomacy. A month in office, the prime minister has no English-language spokesperson. Erdan has stepped down as ambassador to the United States but has not been replaced, and other key ambassadorial positions have yet to be filled.
Taking charge of his ministry last month, Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid lamented that, in recent years, Israel had “abandoned the international arena. And then we woke up one morning to find that our international standing has been weakened.” The Jewish Electorate Institute survey offers alarming evidence of this process, this crisis.
The poll indicates that a substantial proportion of even our own worldwide Jewish nation is reaching false conclusions about the modern Jewish state. The Israeli leadership must urgently help provide the tools for a better understanding of what goes on here — with a properly staffed and resourced public diplomacy establishment. That won’t produce an immediate sea-change in international public sentiment, but it will help. As May’s mini-war dismally showed, currently, in the space where Israel should be setting out its case, there is mainly a vacuum.
** This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.