Obama message may not resonate with Israeli youth

President Obama receives a welcome at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

JERUSALEM — By choosing to deliver his landmark speech to Israel in an auditorium filled with students and young people, President Obama is once again turning to a core audience that has always been responsive to his message of hope and change.

But although there’s little doubt that the handpicked attendees at the Jerusalem convention center Thursday will cheer what is likely to be his tough-love call for Israel to embrace Palestinian statehood, Obama’s political magnetism may prove less effective with the broader masses of Israeli youth.

Reared on suicide bombings, failed peace initiatives and segregation from Palestinians, Israel’s younger generation is generally more conservative, more religious, less tolerant and less supportive of a two-state plan than their parents or grandparents.


That stands in marked contrast to the United States, where young people tend to be relatively liberal and where Obama enjoys his strongest support among those younger than 30. In Israel, his speech will be aimed at those who may have the hardest time accepting his call to action.

“Look, I like Obama, but I’m skeptical,” said Ariel Polak, 24, who lives with his parents in the Maale Adumim settlement outside Jerusalem and voted in January for the nationalist party Jewish Home, which rejects Palestinian peace talks and calls for the annexation of parts of the West Bank.

“Israel has already taken chances countless times before and it never made any difference,” said Polak, who hopes to study mechanical engineering.

His right-wing views weren’t inherited. In fact, he says his father was a longtime supporter of the liberal Labor Party. But Polak says he came of age in a volatile period that has given him a different perspective.

One of his earliest political memories was the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In high school, every bus trip began and ended with a call to his worried mother to assure her that he was safe from suicide bombings.

Though his father has Palestinian friends in nearby Arab villages and at work, Polak has none, largely because of security checkpoints and the separation barrier built after the uprising a decade ago.

“I don’t hate Palestinians,” he said. “But I don’t believe in a two-state solution. It just won’t work.” Like many his age, he says the best alternative is to continue allowing a degree of Palestinian autonomy, but only under Israeli military rule.

Overall, most Israelis still favor a two-state solution, but support is weakest among the young. A 2010 survey by the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith found only 40% of those ages 18 to 24 favored a Palestinian state, compared with 59% of those ages 35 to 44 and 67% of those ages 55 to 64.

“This generation doesn’t even know where the Green Line runs and wouldn’t be able to point to it on a map,” said Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, referring to Israel’s pre-1967 border. “Today’s Israelis grew up in dark, dark times. They missed the short-lived elation of the [1993] Oslo peace accords. They did not experience the hope.”

That upbringing, some say, explains why young Israelis as a whole are less tolerant of minorities, less committed to democracy and more prone to violence.

Recent studies have shown that about half of Jewish Israeli high school students don’t believe Arabs should receive equal rights, such as serving in the parliament. A 2011 survey of Israelis ages 15 to 18 found 60% preferred “strong leaders” to the rule of law and 70% said security concerns trump democratic values.

“When we saw the recent outbreak of racist acts carried out by young people, sadly these did not surprise me,” said Roby Nathanson, who helped write a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German-funded think tank that has tracked the conservative shift of Israeli youths since the 1990s. “This is the direction.”

Many Israelis were shocked in recent months by a wave of hate crimes by Jewish teenagers against Arabs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the West Bank. In August, a gang of Jewish teens nearly beat to death an Arab youth in a crowded Jerusalem pedestrian mall.

The same day, Jewish children ages 12 and 13 were accused of throwing a firebomb at a Palestinian taxi near the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin, injuring six people, police say. Because the suspects were so young, prosecutors were initially unsure how to proceed with the case.

For the old guard of Israel’s once-thriving secular, liberal elite, the views and attitudes of the coming generation are hard to understand and accept. But the growing conservatism among the young explains much of the recent success of Israel’s right-wing political parties.

In national elections in January, hawkish parties such as Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu won 40% of the vote of those ages 18 to 24, compared with about 10% who voted for left-leaning parties, such as Labor, according to an election-day poll by the Dahaf Institute.

The young are also more religious. Of Israel’s 840,523 Jewish citizens ages 15 to 24, more than 15% are identified as ultra-Orthodox, compared with about 10% of the overall population, according to government figures. Nearly a third of Jewish first-graders are ultra-Orthodox. Religious Israelis tend to be more conservative politically than those who are more secular.

This profile underscores the challenges faced by the Obama administration as it tries to persuade Israelis to take bold steps toward Palestinian statehood.

Nathanson says many younger Israelis have settled into lives in which the military occupation of the West Bank appears normal, embracing an attitude of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“They can live with the present situation just fine,” he said. “As far as they see it, Israel is strong, all is well, so why mess with the thing? They believe in the status quo.”

Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau.