PARIS — When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the political zeitgeist is shifting, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The new round of hostilities in the Middle East has revealed a striking inversion in the international discourse, with public sentiment in the U.S. moving notably toward the Palestinians and European governments expressing uncharacteristically loud support for Israel.
In the U.S., previous bipartisan unconditional support for Israel is being challenged by a new generation of activists, including supermodels and Hollywood stars, academics and more progressive, hard-left Democratic lawmakers, like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who called Israel an “apartheid state.”
In Europe, where there has traditionally been greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the conversation has shifted in the opposite direction, especially among some conservative politicians, like the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who have been unusually outspoken in support of Israel. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — the self-proclaimed champion of illiberal Christian democracy — has stepped in repeatedly in recent days to veto EU statements condemning the recent violence because they were viewed as too critical of Israel or not sufficiently condemning the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The seemingly inside-out public discussions on the two sides of the Atlantic illustrate how the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted — both in the U.S. and Europe — in line with the national discussions about racial and economic justice, gender equity, immigration and terrorism.
In the U.S., the supermodel sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid — whose father is Palestinian and whose mother is Dutch — have led the charge, posting a stream of Instagram pictures and stories denouncing violations of Palestinian rights. Bella’s posts drew a direct response from the Israeli government that wrongly accused her of advocating for “throwing Jews in the sea.”
Her sister Gigi seemed to capture the new mood that has infuriated the Israeli government and put U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 1970s, at risk of being out of step with the progressive base of his own Democratic Party.
Putting into words the mood of a new generation of voters — especially twentysomething supporters of the left-wing Senator Bernie Sanders — Gigi said in a post on Instagram: “One cannot advocate for racial equality, LGBT & women’s rights, condemn corrupt & abusive regimes and other injustices yet choose to ignore the Palestinian oppression. It does not add up. You cannot pick & choose whose human rights matter more.”
It’s not just woke models engaging in what some would dismiss as smartphone activism from their plush sunny lives in Los Angeles. That is the flashiest part of a larger, more profound movement in American politics pushing for social and racial justice that came to the fore in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s presidency.
In the Democratic Party, the sentiment goes beyond firebrand progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Palestinian-American Representative Rashida Tlaib — two of the six members of the so-called Squad — speaking out forcefully against Israeli policies.
This week, the Democratic leadership in Congress came close to asking to delay the Biden administration’s latest weapons sale to Israel. And people like Indiana Representative André Carson said he will “continue to use my position in Congress and my platform to champion the Palestinian people and work toward a lasting peace.”
According to a recent Gallup poll, the general U.S. population is moving in that same direction, with the highest number of Americans saying the U.S. government should exert more pressure on Israel since the poll started in 2007.
“There is a historical moment around the Black Lives Matter movement, and a left-wing discourse that sees in the Palestinian struggle a parallel cause to the racial and social justice struggle going on in the U.S.,” said Ziad Majed, associate professor of Middle East studies at the American University of Paris.
Some public figures who didn’t get the memo are being publicly chided.
Superstar Rihanna came under attack for posting a message on Instagram deploring the suffering on both sides, instead of coming out more in favor of Palestinians. Democrat Andrew Yang, who is running for mayor in New York City, drew sharp criticism, including from his own party, for statements viewed as siding with Israel that would have been boilerplate just a few years ago.
The shift in European sensibilities has been on dramatic — and extremely public — display in some national capitals in the past week.
Israeli flags were hoisted over the Austrian Chancellery building last weekend, above Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, and at the party headquarters of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Berlin.
In some countries, especially Germany, official support for Israel has been a fundamental component of accepting responsibility for the Holocaust and demonstrating contrition for atrocities committed against Jews. But even in France, where sympathies for the Palestinian cause once ran deep, the discourse on display in the U.S. has been dismissed as American “wokeism” that oversimplifies complex history.
Experts say the contrasting shifts in the U.S. and Europe reflect in part a core difference in how the societies have experienced terrorism in recent years. Major attacks that the U.S. has suffered in the last two decades — from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombing — have not been tied explicitly to the Palestinian struggle and were not overtly anti-Semitic.
In Europe, there have been more frequent attacks that explicitly targeted Jews, and claimed to be avenging Palestinians — among others, a 2012 attack in the French city of Toulouse, in which a gunman killed a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren outside a Jewish school.
That has dimmed support for Palestinians and chilled the appetite to criticize Israel, even in a country like France, which holds the defense of human rights and universal values as one of its core principles, and is also home to a large Muslim population.
“The question of Islam in France, and the other themes it has been conflated with like Islamism, terrorism or Islamo-lefitism weigh on the Palestinian issue in [a] way it doesn’t in the U.S.,” Majed said. “There’s also the criticism of any discourse on decolonialism, post-colonialism and racial issues that’s seen as contrary to French universalism.”
Europe’s recent experience with the 2015 refugee crisis and terrorist attacks has also played in Israel’s favor, especially on the right, where many see parallels between Hamas and the Islamist terrorists carrying out attacks in Europe, and Israel is regularly cited as an example of successfully rooting out knife attacks and car-ramming attacks.
France in particular has both the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe and has been battling issues related to national identity and Islamist radicalization. In trying to navigate this, French President Macron has explicitly denounced what he calls American wokeism as contrary to French republican values.
There is also a part of politics in Macron’s more pro-Israel stance, both domestically as a way to signal his strong resolve against Islamist terrorism ahead of his reelection bid, and diplomatically as a way to finagle a role in the shadow of America.
In the past week, the Elysée Palace’s statements have tilted toward Israel, eliding traditional references to the rights of Palestinians and international law, and explicitly affirming Macron’s “unwavering attachment to the security of Israel and its right to defend itself.”
The statements have also explicitly denounced “rocket firing by Hamas and other terrorist groups targeting the Israeli territory,” while avoiding explicitly linking Palestinian deaths to Israeli bombings, instead referring to “civilian Palestinian losses as a result of military operations and clashes underway with Israel.”
Not your grandparents’ Israeli-Palestinian conflict
To what extent these shifts in the public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic will fundamentally alter the long-intractable conflict remains to be seen. Core positions — including official Washington’s overwhelming pro-Israel stance and loud European demands for a two-state solution — have not changed.
But there are already signs the discussion has broken out beyond social media. Democrats have called on the Biden administration to change its tone. Representative Tlaib confronted Biden on Tuesday over his administration’s reluctance to criticize Israel despite its continuing bombardment of Gaza. “Palestinian human rights are not a bargaining chip, and must be protected, not negotiated,” Tlaib told the president. “The U.S. cannot continue to give the right-wing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government billions each year to commit crimes against Palestinians. Atrocities like bombing schools cannot be tolerated, much less conducted with U.S.-supplied weapons.”
On Wednesday, the Pentagon statement on a third call between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Israeli counterpart “lamented the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives,” mentioning the Palestinian people for the first time since the latest round of fighting began.