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Gaza and American Popular Opinion

us-isrThere is a new poll out that asked Americans "who was to blame for the Gaza flotilla deaths?" The poll claims that 49% of Americans think that "pro-Palestinian activists" are to blame for the results of May 31's confrontation. According to this poll only 19% blame the Israelis and 32 % are not sure. It is important to note that the poll was conducted by Rasmussen Reports, a "conservative public opinion polling firm" founded by Scott Rasmussen who, among other activities, served as a paid consultant for the 2004 George W. Bush campaign.

Polls are notorious things. Like other forms of statistics, they can be manipulated quite easily. And, Rasmussen has been criticized for sometimes wording his poll questions like a courtroom attorney seeking to "lead the witness." Another poll conducted on line by Time Inc. asked the question "was Israel justified in raiding the Gaza aid flotilla?" and registered 69% saying no and 31% saying yes. Nonetheless, I must confess that the Rasmussen poll strikes me as generally accurate. I can not know that for sure, of course, but let us say the findings do not surprise me. Why do I feel that way?
 
Most people are naturally local. What I mean is that we concentrate our interests and live out our day to day lives within a relatively local sphere. For most of us it is in the local environment that we find our work, our schools, our families and friends. For these reasons we know a lot about the local environment. We can usually make reasoned judgments on issues and claims about that environment because we have first hand knowledge of it. However, the further we get from the local environment the less we know first hand. And, the less we pay attention, feel connected, or care about what is happening. That means, when it comes to events beyond our local sphere we have to depend on others for information. Those others might tell us the truth or they might not. Most often the others are made up of media and government representatives.
 
When it comes to the Middle East, Americans have been at the mercy of media and government manipulation for a very long time. That manipulation, among other factors, has long ago confirmed a majority of Americans in their pro-Israeli point of view. Thus, as late as February 24, 2010 the Gallup organization reported a poll showing "support for Israel in the U.S. at 63% record high." The good news is that "record high" claim, if true, represents an unsustainable peak. I strongly suspect that our national pro-Israeli point of view has been eroding. Perhaps the Time poll reflects this as well as that 32% unsure figure in the Rasmussen poll. In addition, the rate of erosion is likely to accelerate. Why should this be the case?
 
There are relatively few reasons why people choose to pay attention to non-local happenings, but a big one is if they believe that those events have the potential to impact their local lives. Since September 11, 2001 Americans have been focused on the Middle East for just that reason. Since that time we have been in a "war against terror." Whatever one might think about that "war," Israel’s behavior is certain to be popularly measured against that effort. Since 9/11 a series of revelations have snuck into the popular media calling in doubt the worth of our alliance with Israel and these have gotten respectable play. Jimmy Carter’s book, Peace Not Apartheid, Mersheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby, the myriad questions irresistibly raised during the Obama-McCain presidential campaign, and now the Gaza blockade culminating in the May 31 massacre. The common popular notion of Israel as a "strategic ally" is no longer an automatic assumption. Indeed, if the US-Israeli alliance ever becomes a nationwide voting issue (for more than the religiously fanatic) I do not think it will survive.
 
The concept of natural localness is not just American. It is a universal orientation. That means all peoples are subject to the same kind of media and government manipulation on issues beyond their own backyard. To what extent it works is a function of many things such as the ability to relate the propaganda message to local lives, consistency of the propaganda over time, the cultural compatibility of the positions set forth by the propaganda, the saturation level, the allowed level of debate and counter messages, etc. This way of seeing things helps explain not only America’s popular perceptions of recent events but also those of the Israelis.
 
One of the most baffling problems for those of us who support the Palestinians and the efforts to break the Gaza blockade has been what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has called "the deadly closing of the Israeli mind." We have all witnessed the official and popular Israeli refusal to accept any responsibility for what most of the world sees as an illegal assault on an humanitarian aid ship in international waters. But for the Israelis it is all self-defense. Period. This flows from a deeply inbred conviction that all Palestinians (indeed all Arabs) and anyone who allies with them are out to destroy Israel. And, therefore, the only acceptable peace requires the Palestinians to be in enclaves completely controlled by Israel – something like the Gaza ghetto.
 
This is an extreme example of natural localness wherein an entire population has become convinced that only it understands the truth and the rest of the world is deluded. Populations are particularly susceptible to this level of mass delusion during periods of collective stress, such as wartime. Israel has believed itself at war and threatened with national destruction for over sixty years. In a quite literal sense it has collectively been driven crazy in the process. Thus, it would seem that while Americans are finally breaking loose from their "Israel is just like us," and a "strategic asset" point of view, the Israelis are still tied hand and foot to an out of date worldview that is fast becoming suicidal.


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