Teaching Tuesday: Interpreting Gallup’s worrisome Palestine & Israel poll, part 1

The occasional Teaching Tuesday posts focuses on education strategies and practices. The issue of Palestine, while of concern to a great and growing number of people, still has a long way to go before it is widely known and understood by the general public. This series tries to think through and produce tools and strategies for public education.

We got some very sobering news from Gallup this week about the state of American attitudes towards Palestine and Israel. Fully sixty-Four percent of Americans say that their sympathies are more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians, tying the high-water mark for the question, recorded in the midsts of the First Gulf War. Despite the harrowing results, I think that by placing this poll in its proper context we will see not only the need to focus on public education campaigns but also some promising avenues for achieving a shift in public perceptions.

The first thing to note is that this poll is no outlier and cannot be easily dismissed. It is consistent with a longer-term trend over the past decade of Americans shifting from the “don’t know / both / neither” category towards registering sympathy for Israelis. And other polls asking similar questions have produced similar results; a Nov. 2012 CNN/ORC poll  found 59% of Americans say their sympathies lie with the Israelis, while only 13% sympathize with Palestinians. And shortly before publication, ABC/WaPo released a poll with similar results, showing a 55/9 split.

Anyway you cut it, this is worrisome for those of us advocating for Palestine in the United States. However, in this first of two posts, I’m going to suggest a few reasons to take these results with a large grain of salt.

First, it is important to be attentive to the truly awful wording of the question. In fairness to Gallup, they have been consistently asking the questing in this way since the late ’80s and changing the phrasing now would make it impossible to accurately compare responses across time.

Still, the phrasing of the question is problematic, as it asks about sympathies towards populations (Israelis and Palestinians) rather than attitudes towards states (Israel and Palestine). Polls that have done the latter have shown less support for Israel. When asked about their opinions of Israel the state rather than Israelis, support drops a good 10 to 15 points. For example, a 2012 BBC poll asking about the Israeli state’s impact in the world found only 50% of Americans responding that it was “mainly positive” while 35% chose “mainly negative.” 

Interestingly, when asked directly about “the dispute” rather than about general attitudes, Americans’ support for Israel drops off a cliff. A 2012 YouGov poll asking “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more?” found only 36% support for Israel, a good 25 points off of that year’s Gallup numbers. Now this is just one poll and all the standard caveats apply. But it seems possible that, on some level, Americans are aware that there is something rotten in the way Israel treats Palestinians.

This last result may also help explain the huge gap between the story told by the Gallup numbers of growing sympathy for Israelis and the growing feeling among both Palestinian solidarity activists and Zionists that U.S. discourse is starting to shift, allowing more talk of “apartheid” and even of a one-state solution than ever before.

Second, results differ significantly depending on whether it asks respondents to compare Israel and Palestine or simply evaluate Israel on its own. We will explore this issue a bit more in depth next time when we look at some of the other questions these surveys asked. But for now, we ought to note that in all of these surveys support for “the Palestinians” is consistently low. If I had to guess, I think the reason for this is that Americans are looking at Palestine through the lens of a U.S. media discussion that treats the conflict like a football game between two sovereign states. Americans who equate Palestinians with the most frequent images of Palestinians in U.S. media – namely as rocket-firing terrorists – may be registering support for “the other team.” 

For this reason, the BBC, which asked only about Israel in isolation of the Palestinian Authority, also registered the highest disapproval of the state. Unlike in an election, where we can ask people what actions they will take in the future, a question about public sympathies may encompass a great deal of contradictory, inchoate, or just plain complicated evaluations on the part of the public.

Third, the poll needs to be contextualized within the broader U.S. media landscape. Israelis, the American politicians reassure us, “share our values.” This is reinforced in the media with representations of Israeli supermodels, tech firms, and even via pinkwashing. By contrast, when is the last time you saw a story in any mainstream U.S. media about a Palestinian footballer, theatre troupe, or even a really amazing Gaza cookbook? I’ll give you a minute to ponder.

For better or for worst, Israel’s soft-hasbara is having an impact. No wonder, then, that questions about sympathies to Israelis vs. Palestinians registers far higher levels of support for Israelis (20% of whom, we should note parenthetically  are also Palestinian).

So after examining the top-line results in a bit more detail, we have reason to suspect that the record-high sympathy for Israelis registered by Gallup may not be as significant as most news reporting on this poll have suggested. Still, where does this leave us?

To me, this suggests the need for a renewed focus on public education. Though I generally consider myself a supporter of BDS (I may have just broken Israeli law), one concern I have about the American campaigns is the strong focus on University and other institutional divestment votes. Though a few hard fought victories have been achieved, they have not always generated much media attention. And the biggest and most headline-grabbing divestment campaigns – like the Brooklyn food co-op or the Methodist church – have failed.

In Europe, by contrast, BDS activists have met with significantly more success, so much so that EU governments are now seriously considering punitive actions against IsraelThis success, however, taked place amidst a dramatically different landscape of public opinion. In the United Kingdom, the BBC found that 68% believed Israel’s impact to be “mostly negative.” In France, the number was 65%, in Germany 69%, and in Spain 74%. This overwhelming public disapproval for Israeli policies is a key component in the success of European BDS campaigns.

To be sure, there is a great deal of work to be done in Europe still as well. But, the successes of their BDS campaign signals the importance of public opinion in influencing corporate, university, and government policy. If American BDS activists want to do the same, it seems to me that we should concentrate more of our efforts on educating the American public.

Next time we will dive a bit deeper into the cross-tabs for some insights on how this education effort might shape up. As we dive deeper into the numbers, we will also see a broader case for optimism, so join us back here next time as we delve behind the worrisome topline toplines and into the more promising nitty-gritty!

  1. Ellen said:

    Most of all this polling highlights the silliness of dualistic thinking – your only option is to pick one “side” or the other? Classic example of values implicit in “scientific” data. Who says you can’t be sympathetic to both? Perhaps it’s time for a bit of a paradigm shift…

  2. I do agree, though “both” is also an option given on these polls. Fewer and fewer Americans have been choosing it though since the collapse of the Oslo process. Still, next time I think we’ll see great cause for skepticism that the results are as straightforward as a reading of the topline results would imply…

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