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Will the generational divide on support for Israel impact the presidential election?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The youth vote was a big part of President Biden's victory in 2020, but one issue among many that now has voters under 30 dissatisfied with the president is his response to the war in Gaza. Some of those young people spoke to NPR late last year while marching in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Gen Z cares so much about human rights as a movement, and to have our commander in chief not actually follow through with that and not support that is really disheartening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Joe Biden will never, ever, ever get my vote ever again.

PFEIFFER: Not all young voters told us they feel that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The far left doesn't support Israel, and Israel is an important part of, like, who I am as a person.

PFEIFFER: Still, young voters are less likely than older ones to approve of Israel's response to the October 7 attack by Hamas. And a wave of campus protests consumed the final months of the 2024 academic year.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting, inaudible).

PFEIFFER: We're focusing on war and international conflict this week as part of our series We, The Voters. I spoke about the generational divide on this issue with NPR's Elena Moore, who's been talking with young voters. And I spoke with Omar Wasow, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. We started on the question of why he thinks President Biden may be losing younger voters more than older voters on the Gaza issue.

OMAR WASOW: For an older generation, Israel is defined by the Holocaust and hard-fought wars for survival. In their eyes, Israel is really understood as as the underdog. I think for a younger generation, Israel is increasingly defined by its treatment of Palestinians, particularly under the last 20 years of right-wing governments led by Netanyahu, and for them, Israel is seen as the top dog.

PFEIFFER: That's interesting. So in a way, lived experience or maybe lack of lived experience for younger voters because they're simply younger, they don't remember so much the history of Israel that might give Israel so much support and sympathy among their elders. Is that a fair way to put it?

WASOW: I think that's exactly right. And so the contemporary issues of things like growing settlements define a younger generation's understanding of Israel and less the history of a response to the Holocaust.

PFEIFFER: I read a previous interview you did where you said that because many of today's college students were in high school during Black Lives Matter protests, they consider protests a normal part of civic participation. Do you think that's somewhat unique to this generation of young people and not true of every young generation?

WASOW: Protest movements definitely ebb and flow across generations. And so there was a peak in protest activity in the '60s and then a bit of a lull. And then we've seen, you know, during wars, or in the case of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, a resurgence. And so I think there are some generations that are more defined by protest movements than others. Importantly, also, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were among the biggest protest movements in American history. And so that really was a defining experience for people coming of age in that period.

PFEIFFER: Omar Wasow, you have studied the protests in the U.S. in the 1960s, especially civil rights protests by students. You know, interestingly, some of these college kids today may have parents who are part of those 1960s protests, but we also see some parents dismayed by their children protesting. What do you make of that?

WASOW: Part of the logic of protest is to try and disrupt the status quo, is to say some kind of inequality or injustice is no longer acceptable. And often for an older generation, those kinds of things feel normal. The status quo is what they've lived with their whole lives, and for a younger generation, it sort of becomes unacceptable. And so inherent in that is attention across generations and across, in some ways, tactics, where disruption is meant to say we no longer accept what is the current norm, but that means potentially inconveniencing or doing things that make people in positions of power or people who are more established uncomfortable.

PFEIFFER: Oh, that's interesting. Are you saying in a way their parents have maybe gotten complacent or they've gotten comfortable? They get softer as they're older and become more affluent maybe?

WASOW: I would say that as everybody ages, they, in some ways, acclimate to the status quo, and things that are potentially troubling become acceptable. And for a younger generation, there's a sense of trying to make sense of what's going on, what interpret some kind of inequality and to not necessarily accept the status quo as natural or reasonable.

PFEIFFER: That's Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of political science at UC Berkeley. Thank you for your time.

WASOW: Thank you so much.

PFEIFFER: And now we bring in NPR's Elena Moore. She covers new voters in youth politics. Hi, Elena.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: Hey there.

PFEIFFER: Elena, from all the young voters you've been talking to about Gaza and Israel, what's your sense of how much their opposition to how much Biden is handling that will sway what they do at the polls in November?

ELENA MOORE: I think it's making it a really complicated decision. I talked to one young voter in Milwaukee, Wis., not that long ago back in April. Their name's Miles Medina (ph). And it's really kind of a tough subject for them right now.

MILES MEDINA: I'm not happy with Biden's foreign policy, but at the same time, as a transgender person, I don't want my rights taken away. And I know that's something that a lot of people my age are like, what do we do?

ELENA MOORE: You heard Miles say they're a trans person. They told me they typically vote for Democrats. And, you know, as a voter in America, they argued that voting for a Democrat like Biden would make more sense for them. But on this issue of the war in Gaza, it's really holding them back, and it's making that vote in November much more complicated.

PFEIFFER: So some might not vote for Biden. Do you have a sense of how many might instead vote for Trump or a third-party candidate or not vote at all? All those scenarios could have different effects on the election.

ELENA MOORE: Right. I mean, well take Wisconsin. In a place like Wisconsin, which came down to such a small margin in 2020, they might vote for different people, but it could have a very similar effect. So any vote Biden loses is a positive for Trump in a state that's so close.

PFEIFFER: Obviously, not all young voters vote as a bloc. There are many who support Israel. They support Biden's handling of the war in Gaza. But the critics of Biden, the youth critics of Biden have gotten maybe disproportionate media coverage. How much do you think they represent the view of their generation?

ELENA MOORE: I mean, it really might depend because recent polling shows that when you ask young people, voters under 40, what their top voting issue - that once again is the economy, you know, particularly inflation. In this recent poll from University of Chicago, we saw just that. The war in Gaza is an issue on that list, but it's lower. So yes, this is an issue firing up a group of people, but to say it is encompassing an entire voting bloc is not true.

PFEIFFER: NPR political reporter Elena Moore. Thank you.

ELENA MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.