Racial reckoning is shifting US public opinion on Palestine

An increasingly racially charged American society is rapidly changing the way it sees Palestine.

People protest against the Israeli violence against Palestinians during a rally at the Washington Monument in Washington, DC on May 15, 2021 [Reuters/Yuri Gripas]

Not since the 1960s has the United States been as racially charged as it is today. The rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is forcing Americans to confront centuries of systemic state abuse of African Americans. As a result, younger Americans no longer believe the myth that their society is colour-blind.

Like the Civil Rights Movement of five decades ago, BLM has brought to light the common causes of systemic oppression against Black people as well as Latinx, Native Americans, and Muslims. This moment of racial reckoning also encompasses a people consistently demonised in American media, politics, and textbooks: Palestinians.

Youth and progressives, who now are exposed to the voices and experiences of Palestinians through social media, no longer uncritically accept politicians’ unconditional support of Israel. They realise the Israel-Palestine “conflict” is not just complicated, it is asymmetric and racist. Progressives see the parallels between their own critique of America’s settler-colonial past and Israel’s abuse of Palestinians.

Through citizen journalism by Palestinians on the ground, Americans are forced to reckon with the reality that US military aid to Israel contributes to a systematic dehumanisation of Palestinians, just as militarisation and impunity contribute to the oppression of Black people in the US.

Thus, the current response to Israel’s forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem and bombings of civilians in Gaza brings into sharp relief the gradual shift in American public opinion.

Opinion polls conducted between 2001 to 2011 consistently showed strong public support for Israel: Gallup found that more than 50 percent of Americans had sympathies towards Israel while less than 20 percent did so towards Palestinians. When disaggregated by political party, sympathy for Israel increased to nearly 80 percent among Republicans as compared with nearly 60 percent among Democrats; just 7 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats expressed sympathy for Palestinians.

But starting in January 2018, according to a Pew Research Center poll, sympathy for Palestinians and Israelis among Democrats began to equalise at approximately 25 percent. Meanwhile, Republican voters’ sympathy for Israel remained high, at 79 percent. These numbers signalled a growing gap along partisan lines in Americans’ views on Palestinian human rights.

The timing is not coincidental. In 2018, Trump had been president for a year, during which Americans witnessed the troubling mainstreaming of far-right views. By then, more and more murders of unarmed Black men by police officers had been caught on video, debunking the age-old racist stereotypes that Black men are dangerous, violent, and aggressors.

Meanwhile, Trump’s Muslim Ban, separation of Central American refugee families at the border, and unashamedly xenophobic rhetoric breathed life into a progressive, anti-racist movement that was no longer willing to accept mainstream Democrats’ colourblind view of domestic politics.

This led to the “Blue Wave” of progressive candidates elected to Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections. These new members of the US legislature have a clear mandate from their diverse constituents: Be the voice of the oppressed and dismantle racist systems rather than merely reform around the edges.

There is also increasing pressure from their constituencies to not let Israel off the hook for its crimes against Palestinians. In a March poll, some 34 percent of all respondents and 53 percent of respondents who identified as Democrats expressed a desire to have the US government pressure Israel into making compromises on Palestine – up from 25 and 30 percent, respectively, in 2018.

These growing attitudes within the American electorate have prompted progressive members of Congress to vocally criticise unconditional US support of Israel amid the latest escalation of violence and condemn the Israeli army’s killing of civilians and disproportionate use of force in Gaza.

On May 13, House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticised President Joe Biden in her speech in Congress, bluntly stating “The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self-defence. And this is a sentiment that is echoed across this body. But do Palestinians have a right to survive? Do we believe that? And if so, we have a responsibility to that, as well.”

House Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American elected to Congress, decried the US government’s blatant disregard for Palestinian life. She asked colleagues in Congress, “How many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter,” and declared that, “The freedom of Palestinians is connected to the fight against oppression all over the world.”

Tlaib articulated the sentiment held by a growing number of young, progressive Americans of all races and religions when she stated, “We must with no hesitation demand that our country recognise the unconditional support of Israel has enabled the erasure of Palestinian life.”

Concurrent to public statements, 21 members of Congress are co-sponsoring the bill “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation”. The bill would impose more oversight and end-use restrictions on how Israel can use US aid. One of the bill’s leading co-sponsors, Betty McCollum succinctly stated the objective behind the bill, “Not one dollar more of US military aid can be used to demolish Palestinian homes, annex Palestinian lands, and torture or kill Palestinian children.”

Such rhetoric by US elected officials was unheard of just five years ago. Indeed, defending Palestinian rights was often fallaciously equated with anti-Semitism. Although this pressure still exists, changing attitudes on race and race relations have had a profound impact on attitudes towards Palestine.

A 21st-century anti-racism movement is schooling Americans on how the powerful manipulate media, politics, and economics to oppress entire groups of people, while blaming those same people for their hardships. As these lessons are increasingly applied to Palestine, the question is when, not whether, US foreign policy will finally come to value Palestinian life.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.