Social media highlights shifting perceptions of Israeli-Palestinian conflict among young Americans

·7-min read

“Understand: the U.S. is complicit,” reads an Instagram post. “The United States provides $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel every year.” Created by “So You Want to Talk About,” an Instagram account promoting progressive politics with 2.7 million followers, the post urges people to “take action” for Palestinians through petitions and donations.

It’s part of the dramatic rise in a wave of social media activism that has gravitated toward informing and organizing young people around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the deadly violence continues to escalate in the Middle East, social media in real time has illustrated the shifting perceptions of young people.

Historically, the U.S. has provided billions of dollars in aid to Israel, mostly in the form of military assistance, defending such support as critical for an underdog facing powerful enemies. Now, young left-leaning Americans are increasingly using social media to urge more support and aid for Palestinians, framing it as a human rights issue that echoes the antiracism movement from this past year.

A member of the Palestinian Civil Defence
A member of the Palestinian Civil Defense walks amid the rubble of a building in Gaza City. (Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

“I think it’s going to be very clear soon that being progressive means you’re on the side of Palestinian freedom,” said Maya Edery, a 28-year-old New Yorker who works for the pro-Palestinian organization Jewish Voice for Peace.

As violence escalates — deadly clashes have killed at least 213 Palestinians, including 61 children, and 12 people in Israel — social media posts about the conflict have become increasingly popular.

“This violence against Palestinian protesters is literal ethnic cleansing,” said Zahra Hashimee, known as @muslimthicc, to her 3 million TikTok followers. “And this ethnic cleansing is being funded by your U.S. tax dollars.” She then urged her followers to support H.R. 2590, a bill that would prevent Israel from using U.S. funding to detain or abuse Palestinian children or violate international humanitarian laws.

With last summer’s antiracism protests came a surge in online activism that’s extended to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, Instagram users flooded the site with black squares in support of Black lives, and it became common to share infographics on Instagram Stories or post TikTok videos of a protest. Now, #freepalestine has over 2 billion views on TikTok, while #standwithisrael has 28.9 million.

“Once social media came around, the whole game changed,” said Mitchell Plitnik, president of ReThinking Foreign Policy, a nonprofit.

A pro-Palestinian supporter
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator in South Africa on Tuesday protests the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to organizing, social media allows Americans to witness firsthand what’s happening on the ground through the eyes of Palestinians and Israelis, Plitnik said. Graphic footage — such as a TikTok video showing two Palestinians slapping two Orthodox Jewish teens on a train — can quickly go viral.

But that sort of online activism has its drawbacks. Misinformation is rampant — there are “rabbit holes of falsehoods,” said Plitnik. Plus, complex issues like the decades-long history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be oversimplified into memes.

One viral video investigated by the New York Times was shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, who claimed it showed Palestinians firing rockets at Israeli civilians. In reality, it was a 2018 video of an attack in Syria or Libya.

Some Palestinian activists allege that social media companies censor or remove their posts or accounts about the conflict, though Instagram and Twitter have blamed technical glitches.

Young people are also susceptible to peer pressure to post online about issues to prove that they are engaged. “I’ve heard from folks in their teens and 20s that your friends will basically come after you and accuse you of being callous, uninterested,” said Kat Rosenfield, a contributor to the current-affairs website the Spectator. “Most people sharing these things could not point to Israel on a map.”

“We’re creating our own meme-ified version of fake news,” said Rosenfield. On social media, nuanced topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are reduced to “shallow, facile” content rather than seriously explaining the issues, she said. However, she acknowledged that the posts can be an entry point for people who are driven to more deeply research an issue.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Lahore, Pakistan. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

But for some, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that clear-cut. “When we’re talking about Israeli violence against Palestinians, it’s not complex at all,” said Omar Zahzah, a pro-Palestinian organizer from California. “Ultimately it’s a cause about total freedom, justice and equality for all people."

The progressive perspectives of young Americans on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also illustrate the generational split among Americans on the issue.

“Democrats’ views on Israel have changed remarkably in the last 10 to 20 years,” said Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies. He said he’s “struck by how much change there’s been among younger people” on the issue in the past couple of decades.

“More and more younger Americans ... have grown up with a very different view of what they’re seeing of Israel-Palestine,” Plitnik said. “They’ve grown up with social media, and even before that, views of Israel as a strong, powerful state [and of] Palestinians as powerless people.”

While some of that change may relate to social media’s role in showing Americans what’s happening on the ground, younger generations also don’t necessarily view Israel as an endangered state. Nor is the trauma of the Holocaust as close to young people as it has been to previous generations.

For instance, Edery, who is Jewish and frequently traveled to Israel when she was younger, said that while her views evolved in college, some members of her family are still “very Zionist.”

Pro-Palestine protesters
Pro-Palestinian protesters in Las Vegas. (Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2020, young American Jews are less emotionally attached to Israel than older generations. Half of Jewish adults under the age of 30 described themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, while two-thirds of Jews 65 and older consider themselves very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel.

According to Plitnik, a significant political sea change was the 2020 defeat of Eliot Engel, an influential pro-Israel congressman from New York, at the hands of Rep. Jamaal Bowman. Bowman’s position on Palestinian issues was measured to avoid alienating Jewish voters, but Plitnik believes that as more young Americans vote, it’s likely that the idea that supporting Israel is a “safe” political position will change.

Khalidi believes that, in the future, conditional aid will be a litmus test for where Americans fall on Israeli-Palestinian issues. That includes Democratic Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum’s H.R. 2590, the bill supported by Hashimee, the activist popular on TikTok. Currently, it has 20 co-sponsors.

But that’s still a far cry from the three-fourths of Congress members who signed a letter in April calling for U.S. aid to Israel to be funded without conditions. “Reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance would be detrimental to Israel’s ability to defend itself against all threats,” the letter reads.

Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Americans haven’t historically made voting decisions solely based on candidates’ stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Plitnik said he’ll be watching the progress of McCollum’s bill as well as whether the issue arises at all in the 2022 midterm elections.

For young Americans, the conversation has evolved to a straightforward human rights issue, according to Plitnik.

“It’s a great shift,” he said, “a very important one.”

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