Gaza War Divides American Opinion

With the resumption of fighting in Gaza, Americans are increasingly divided over who to blame and what they want the United States to do in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Israelis and 16,000 Palestinians.

“Polling shows Americans feel slightly more sympathy toward Israel than Palestine,” explained Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans. “But it’s not an overwhelming difference, and there are a lot of undecideds and people who are unsure.”

A poll conducted from November 25-27 by The Economist/YouGov shows 38% of Americans sympathizing with Israelis while 11% of respondents sided with Palestinians. Twenty-eight percent said they were equally sympathetic to both sides, while 23% said they weren’t sure. 

That indecision, Collins said, is rooted in the conflict’s complexity.

“Foreign wars are far more complicated to wrap one’s head around than domestic policy,” he told VOA. “Because of the fog of war, we’re limited in what information we can get, and even much of that turns out to be false a day or two later.”

Though more than half of survey respondents didn’t choose a side, many who did have strong feelings.

“Of course I’m on Israel’s side,” said Indiana lawyer Jeff Williams. “They’ve allowed the Palestinians and Hamas to live peacefully next door until being invaded and attacked, and having their residents raped and murdered. Israel has the right to respond in defense.”

Displaced in their own homeland

That same sureness is present in many of those who sympathize with Palestinians. Brooklyn Birdie is a Louisiana graduate student. 

“As the mother of a son who is part Palestinian, I feel morally obligated to speak up for those in Gaza who are being wrongfully murdered, beaten, kidnapped and arrested by Israel for simply existing,” she said. “How so many Americans support those perpetrating these horrors is beyond me.”

Rachel Lacombe manages a Pennsylvania affordable housing nonprofit. She says she grieves for the Israeli citizens killed in the October 7 attack by Hamas.

“But in my heart, my sympathy is for the Palestinian people who have had their homes stolen for seven decades, displaced and forced into refugee camps on their own land since 1948 when Israel was founded,” she told VOA. 

Lacombe says that is a difficult view to voice in America today. 

“It’s been terrifying,” she said, “watching hundreds accused of antisemitism, losing their jobs, doxed and blacklisted just for being critical of Israel’s policies. I have to be careful what I say.”

A battle for Israeli existence

“I think it’s selective to say this conflict began in 1948 because Jews have occupied the land that is now Israel for much of the thousands of years prior,” said Connecticut mother Rebecca Urrutia. “My prayers are with innocent Palestinians, too, but I sympathize with Israel first and foremost. They are defending their land and their people and have been the target of so many attacks in the past.”

One reason Americans may be more likely to side with Israel is decades of geopolitical alliance between the United States and Israel. Another reason may be that there are more Jewish Americans than there are Muslim-Americans.

According to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, Jewish Americans make up about 2.4% of the U.S. population while the Pew Research Center says Muslim Americans account for just over 1% of the total population.

Since October 7, a survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute says more American Jews report feeling emotionally attached to Israel.

“I think the Jewish community has been split since the Trump presidency, but the attacks of October 7 united us,” said Lisa Peicott, a cantor at a synagogue in Los Angeles. “Hundreds of thousands of us have come together for marches and demonstrations against antisemitism and for Israel.”

Complex and complicated

Although polls show Americans more likely to sympathize with Israel, a growing number of respondents to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said Israel’s response was “too much.” While only 26% believed that was the case on October 11, 38% believed that four weeks later when the question was asked again.

“On one hand, I am so upset and in pain to see some Americans — including liberal activists and leaders I respected — now dismissing, celebrating or even denying the violence, rape and death of Jews,” said Sophie Teitelbaum, an educator in Los Angeles. “That’s ignorant and it’s antisemitic.”

On the other hand, Teitelbaum said she is herself critical of the Israeli government, its leadership and the military response in Gaza. 

“I understand the need to defend oneself, but I also think Israel’s response was inhumane, unethical and wrong,” she told VOA. “Both sides are hurting. Both sides have a historical claim to the land. Both sides are afraid and deserve to be able to live in peace. But just because I don’t choose one side puts me at risk of being ostracized by both.”

Minnesota musician Joanna Miller shares that fear.

“I have friends who feel so passionately on both sides, and I don’t want to upset any of them,” she said. “But even not saying anything can be a problem. I have some Jewish friends on social media who compare those of us who aren’t saying anything to Nazism.”

This push against silence is coming from both sides of the debate, and it’s forcing some Americans to voice opinions that they might feel more comfortable not sharing.

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