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Middle East

Despite cracks, Americans remain with Israel

© Photo: Spencer Platt, AFP.

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2014-07-17

While voices critical of Israel have grown louder in the US in recent years, a survey published this week revealed that Americans remain steadfast in their support for the Jewish state amid its latest conflict with Palestinian militants.

The national survey, released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Centre, found that some 51 percent of Americans sympathise with Israel amid the current conflict.

The proportion of those sympathetic with the Palestinians reached only 14%. Three percent said they sympathise with both sides and 15 percent said they sympathise with neither.

“These views are little changed from April, before the recent outbreak of Mideast violence,” the non-partisan Washington-based group wrote in a statement, adding that conservative support for Israel had actually increased. “The share of Republicans who sympathise more with Israel has risen from 68% to 73%; 44% of Democrats express more sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians, which is largely unchanged from April (46%).”

But while numbers remain largely unchanged, some of those on the pro-Palestinian side are becoming increasingly louder in expressing their opposition to Israel’s actions against its neighbour.

“You could hardly say the word ‘Palestinian’ when I started college seven years ago,” Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi told FRANCE 24. Today, Kanazi campaigns for the Palestinian cause by highlighting initiatives to divest from Israel by, for example, several US universities.

Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi speaks at a rally calling for the boycott of Israel in Brooklyn, New York, on July 7. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

Kanazi is a member of ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’, or BDS, a movement that calls for the boycott of Israel.

The New York branch of the movement, Adalah NY, held a demonstration in the New York borough of Brooklyn last week. While those who attended were certainly passionate about their cause, they were few -- some 70 activists gathered under the Brooklyn Bridge holding banners targeting companies such as Sodastream, which operates a factory in the West Bank, and Caterpillar, which sells bulldozers to the Israeli Defence Forces. Despite the low turnout, Kanazi is convinced that the BDS movement is helping to turn the tide on what has long been unquestioned support for Israel.

Along with the divestment by universities, Kanazi says he is encouraged by the decision of prominent musicians to cancel concerts in Israel, citing singer-songwriters Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, U2 frontman Bono, and Latin rock band Santana.

“It’s baby steps, [but] those small steps create big waves,” he told FRANCE 24.

Israeli ‘apartheid’

One of the biggest steps so far came last month when the US Presbyterian Church voted, albeit narrowly, to divest from companies that provide supplies to Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied West Bank, consequently pulling millions of dollars of investments from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

The vote, which followed three hours of debate, revealed a deep rift within the church, with 310 members of the general assembly voting in favour of the divestment and 303 voting against it.

Rick Ufford-Chase, a Presbyterian peace activist and moderator of the general assembly, is one of those who voted in favour.

“The first goal for the Presbyterians is to live out a position of conscience,” he explained to FRANCE 24. “We are divested from all kinds of companies [such as producers of] tobacco and alcohol... We've also divested from companies in South Africa and Sudan and in this instance we were particularly concerned about the way these three corporations were actually supporting the military occupation.”

Demonstrators calling for a boycott of Israel hold banners under the Brooklyn Bridge on July 7. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

Ufford-Chase is not the first to draw a comparison between Israel and South Africa. Patrick Connors, who campaigns alongside Kanazi, says that Adalah NY looks to South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle for guidance.

“Israel is practicing a system of racial discrimination and separation that in many respects bears resemblance to the legal definition of apartheid,” he told FRANCE 24. “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was very much built upon and follows the lessons learnt from the successes of the movement to boycott apartheid in South Africa.”

‘Profound misunderstanding’

Supporters of Israel -- who still make up a clear majority in the United States -- dismiss the BDS movement as insignificant.

“America is an overwhelmingly pro-Israel country in good times and bad,” David Harris, who heads the New York-based American Jewish Committee, told FRANCE 24. “You have [anti-Israel] voices, but those voices are better measured in volume than in number.”

Harris said he felt “personally offended” by the Presbyterian Church’s decision to divest from West Bank-linked companies, rejecting the decision as counterproductive to the peace process and even illegal.

“What the Presbyterian Church did is fundamentally hostile to the state of Israel and reveals a profound misunderstanding of the entire situation,” he said. “It’s not only wrong, but a war crime; a violation of human rights.

“The church professes to be committed to peace, [but] the decision they took of divestment is actually a step away from peace.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and a fan of Winston Churchill, in his office in Manhattan. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

A less decided voice is that of Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev, a Jewish scholar and friend of Presbyterian peace activist Rick Ufford-Chase.

Ward-Lev stresses that while non-violence should be the focus, “another bottom line is the security and welfare of the people in Israel”.

But even some Israelis are inclined to question their own defenders’ arguments. As Kanazi and Connors demonstrated under the Brooklyn Bridge last week, an Israeli tourist stopped to listen to the activists’ pleas.

“It’s interesting because I’m not used to seeing Americans who don't support Israel,” Tom Preiss told FRANCE 24. “Usually it’s the other side, but I think most of the time people speak out of ignorance.” Preiss said that while he considered himself left-wing, he didn’t support either side.

A young woman passing by was less inclined to debate. “How about the Palestinians take responsibility?”, she shouted at the crowd.

Date created : 2014-07-17


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