Wars can be won on the battlefield while being lost in the realm of public opinion. In Vietnam, the United States army was victorious in every combat operation but the overall war was lost when the American public became convinced that the cost of fighting far outweighed any benefit. In the Middle East today, we see the same dichotomy between battlefield success and public relations failure.
Israel, one of the world's most militarized nations with every weapon at its disposal up to the nuclear bomb, is having no problem crushing Hamas, a raggedy half-staved guerrilla force whose homemade missiles are usually as dangerous as firecrackers. The casualty numbers speak for themselves: As of Wednesday Israel had lost about a dozen lives (mostly soldiers, often due to friendly fire) while more than 600 Palestinians, including scores of women and children, had been killed.
Yet for all its tactical skills in turning Gaza into a charnel house, Israel is facing a serious strategic loss on the battlefield of public perception. As it did in earlier wars where Israel killed large numbers of civilians, global public opinion is cooling toward the Jewish state, which runs the risk of becoming an international pariah.
This shift in public opinion is most striking when we look at young Jews in North America, who are much more critical of Israel than their parents and grandparents. Given the fact that Israel has always relied heavily on support, both financial and moral, from the Diaspora, the loss of loyalty of young Jews is a dangerous trend.
Evidence of the turn against Israel by large parts of the Diaspora can be seen everywhere, from protests to comedy shows. In Toronto, a group of Jewish women briefly occupied the Israeli consulate in protest against the war. In Los Angeles, young Jews wearing keffiyehs marched outside the Israeli consulate carrying signs reading "Difference Between Warsaw Ghetto&Gaza? 70 Years."
No TV personality has a better sense of the pulse of the young than Jon Stewart, himself Jewish and hitherto a staunch supporter of Israel. On the Daily Show when commenting on Gaza, Stewart mocked politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for criticizing the Palestinians while failing to acknowledge their legitimate grievances. The show's studio audience laughed in agreement at Stewart's complaint that the American media and political elite were offering a one-sided pro-Israel perspective on the conflict.
Increasing Jewish alienation from Israel is part of a long-running trend. A 2006 survey sponsored by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman philanthropies found that many young Jews were at best lukewarm about Israel. Only 48% of young Jews surveyed said that they would regard the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy, as against 77% of Jewish senior citizens. Among Jews old enough to collect a pension, 81% were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state; this number dropped dramatically to 54% among Jews in the much-coveted under 35 demographic.
Events like the war in Gaza are likely to intensify the post-Zionism of young Jews. In the public debate in America, it is striking that the strongest supporters of Israel tend to be writers like Alan Dershowitz (age 70), Marty Peretz (also 70) and William Kristol (a sprightly 56). As against this Geritol brigade, a group of young Jewish writers, many of them working for progressive think-tanks that are helping to shape the Obama administration, have been admirably sharp-witted in attacking the Gaza offensive as a moral and strategic failure.
It's worth listening to some of these young Jewish writers. Here is Ezra Klein, age 24: "There is nothing proportionate in this response. No way to fit it into a larger strategy that leads towards eventual peace. No way to fool ourselves into believing that it will reduce bloodshed and stop terrorist attacks. It is simple vengeance. There's a saying in the Jewish community: 'Israel, right or wrong.' But sometimes Israel is simply wrong."
Spencer Ackerman, age 28: "The Jewish writers who consider Palestinian life to be worth a fraction of an Israeli life will start braying about anti-Semitism, because when Palestinian bodies are charred in the streets, the real victim is a sensitive Jew's sense of collective guilt."
Matthew Yglesias, age 28: "The Israeli government, seemingly dissatisfied with the results of their earlier effort to just make life as miserable as possible for residents of the Gaza strip[,] went and killed a couple of hundred people in retaliatory airstrikes."
Dana Goldstein, age 24: "Asking young Jews to fight and die in a ground war, one whose perpetration inflames anti-Semitic sentiments, is not the best way to make Israel, or the world at large, safe for the Jewish people."
Klein, Ackerman, Yglesias and Goldstein are among the most widely read political writers on the Internet. Their blogs have millions of readers. They've worked for think-tanks and magazines that have played a major role in creating the Obama presidency. For Israel to lose the support of a rising generation of Jewish intellectuals and policymakers is a grave problem. (This trend of young Jews becoming alienated from Israel has been extensively documented by Philip Weiss on his blog Mondoweiss.)
Why are young Jews so harsh in their criticism of Israel? The only honest answer is Israel's terrible human rights record. The wanton slaughter in Gaza is merely the latest in a long litany of Israeli atrocities, all of which help the Jewish state win some short-term victories while making long-term peace impossible. If Israel is to survive it needs to listen to these critical voices, rather than the false friends who urge a continuation of the cycle of violence and retribution. And if Israel doesn't listen to its critics in the Diaspora, then it will face a friendless future.
reprinted from THE NATIONAL POST