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'Israel's a failed democracy': American attitudes towards US ally shifting, says poll

Forty-four percent of Democrats believe Israel has segregation similar to apartheid, while 20 percent of Republicans agree
Demonstrators gather to protest against Israel, outside the US Capitol in Washington DC, on 30 April 2022.
Demonstrators gather to protest against Israel outside the US Capitol in Washington DC, on 30 April 2022 (AFP)

A new poll has found that more than 40 percent of Democrats in the US with an opinion on Israel viewed it as a state “with segregation similar to apartheid”, and a similar percentage of Democrats support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

The study comes at a time of heightened tensions between the far-right government in Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Democratic Party in the US, and appears to show a shift in American attitudes towards its longstanding ally, according to the poll's researchers.

“This is remarkable because the use of the term ‘apartheid’ in the American mainstream discourse, while increasingly heard, is still highly uncommon and even taboo in many circles,” said Shibley Telhami, director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, which conducted the survey.

In the poll, conducted from 27 March to 5 April 2023 among 1,203 respondents, Telhami fielded several questions, including: “You may have been following recent developments in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. In your opinion, which of the following is closer to describing the way Israel looks to you.”

The options that were provided included a vibrant democracy, a flawed democracy, a state with restricted minority rights, and a state with segregation similar to apartheid, or "I don't know".

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While the majority of respondents stated that they did not know, among Democrats who did express an opinion on the question, 44 percent said that Israel resembles an apartheid state. This follows 34 percent of Democrats who said that Israel is a flawed democracy.

Party divide

In terms of Republicans who answered the question, 20 percent of respondents that expressed an opinion other than "I don't know" said the country is similar to an apartheid state, and 41 percent said Israel is a vibrant democracy.

'It is clear that public attitudes about Israel are shifting. The term ‘apartheid’ appears to have become a common term among many Americans, especially Democrats'

Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland

“It is clear that public attitudes about Israel are shifting. The term ‘apartheid’ appears to have become a common term among many Americans, especially Democrats,” said Telhami, who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

“And even the BDS movement, which has faced considerable obstacles in the American mainstream, seems to have sizable support among Democrats who expressed their opinion.”

While the polling has shown that attitudes among voters are changing substantially with regard to Israel and Palestine, much of the Democratic leadership in Congress and in the current administration continue to offer major support to Israel.

In his first visit abroad as the leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries travelled to Israel where he met with Netanyahu. The visit came despite a wave of criticism towards Israel from members of the Democratic Party.

This week, Congress also passed a bill with a vote margin of 400-19 expressing support for the US-Israel relationship and celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Israel. The bill notably left out a call for a two-state solution.

Public opinion on BDS movement 

Another question that was asked in the poll was: “What is your position, if you have one, on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israel?”

The BDS movement is a non-violent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel's occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural, and academic boycotts, similar to the successful boycott campaigns of apartheid South Africa.

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Examining the results for those who offered an opinion, 65 percent of Republicans said they opposed BDS. Among Democrats with an opinion other than "I am unfamiliar" or "I don't know", 40 percent said they supported it and 20 percent said they opposed it.

While public opinion seems to be shifting, the BDS movement still faces pushback. Last month, political leaders in New Hampshire called for public support of an anti-boycott bill that would prohibit state funds from being used to contract with or invest in companies supporting the BDS movement against Israel.

Legislation against BDS currently only exists at the state level in the US, and if this bill is made into law, New Hampshire would be the 36th state to do so.

In April 2022, Tennessee became the most recent state to adopt an anti-BDS law which says all state contracts must include “a written certification that the company is not currently engaged in, and will not for the duration of the contract engage in a boycott of Israel”.

The US Supreme Court also declined to weigh in on a legal fight over an Arkansas law that requires contractors to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel.

The country's top court rejected a petition from the Arkansas Times, which was looking to challenge a lower court's ruling dismissing the newspaper's lawsuit that claimed the legislation violates free speech protections guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The newspaper said the law was "abhorrent and a violation of the Bill of Rights".

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