04 August 2014

The publicity war over Gaza and a demographic shift in the U.S.

Someone put a little leaflet on the bulletin board of the coin-op laundry I use in Albany. The slip of paper called on the world, if not Israel to "Stop the Massacre" of Palestinians in Gaza. I saw something similar in a nearby pizzeria this weekend. Haven't seen anything similar urging support for Israel, though you see plenty of that in the letter columns of the local papers. Around the world, there's a perception that Israel is losing a battle for public opinion because people are focusing on the civilian victims in Gaza and rejecting the pro-Israeli argument that Hamas is to blame for them. This should be a hard one for Israel to lose because their antagonists are seen as Islamist extremists. The irony of the global picture is that the Arab neighborhood has little sympathy for Hamas. The new Egyptian government, in particular, sees Hamas as an extension of the hated Muslim Brotherhood, while Islamism itself (or "salafism," "jihadism," "takfirism," etc.) is a dirty word in many places where there's normally no love for Israel. Outside the region, however, it seems that most people don't care who governs Gaza, while the more radical sympathizers with Palestine claim that the "street" supports Gaza (if not Hamas) in spite of the region's unrepresentative governments. A humanitarian reflex responds to news of dead children and other civilians -- that leaflet was illustrated with a scene of crying kids. In many quarters, that reflex is compounded by an "anti-imperialist" or "third-worldist" impulse that regards Israel as the rich white oppressor stomping on the poor dark people and resists passing judgment on the attitudes and tactics of oppressed, presumably desperate people. It's the mirror image, I suppose, of the attitude that justifies nearly every measure taken by the Jewish State in the face of an "existential" threat from irreconcilable bigots and religious fanatics. Meanwhile, a recent survey of Americans suggests that the same demographic trends pointing toward liberal dominance in domestic politics are pointing away from this country's traditional solid support for Israel. A plurality of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 told pollsters that Israel was more to blame than Hamas for the current violence in Gaza. Since trends among younger voters are accented by greater racial and ethnic diversity, it's worth noting that blacks and Hispanics -- the latter more so than the former -- are most likely to be critical toward Israel, though in no case does a majority of any demographic group condemn the Zionist Entity. These young people have grown up with the war on terror, so again we might expect them to be suspicious of an Islamist Entity like Hamas. However, this may be the first generation to get its news more from different forms of social media than from the "mainstream" media -- liberal, corporate or otherwise.  This means they have access to other viewpoints largely absent from the major news outlets, as well as access to unfiltered actuality footage from YouTube, Facebook, etc. None of this means that people are getting a truer or less biased picture of events, but it does mean that they're seeing things outside of a previously determined narrative context of a perpetual threat to the existence of Israel and the lives of all its Jews. This trend disappoints some American observers, to the extent that it may be echoed in Washington and may ruin the best-ever opportunity, with other Arabs looking the other way, to destroy Hamas for good. Hamas itself would be no great loss, if the entity is as fanatical and cynical as claimed and can think of no better way to advance its cause than to provoke the murder of its own constituents. But as we all know by now, Hamas can't be extirpated without a level of collateral damage that fewer and fewer people around the world are willing to tolerate. They might not tolerate Hamas's agenda and its likely consequences, either, but agendas count for less than innocent lives, as long as you resist the argument for civilian responsibility for elected extremists. Whether a demographic shift in American attitudes toward the Middle East might push the region toward peace is unclear. Too few people in any group give the most obvious answer to the who's-to-blame question: "Both." Once that number goes up, something meaningful might happen.

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