Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Pro-Palestinian college protests have not won hearts and minds

Pro-Palestinian protesters pitch tents and gather in front of George Washington University President Ellen Granberg’s house in D.C. on May 9. (Jordan Tovin for The Washington Post)

While the protests might have earned some concessions from administrators, it’s become clear that they’ve failed in one key respect: winning over the American public.

Multiple polls in recent weeks have shown relatively little sympathy for the protesters or approval of their actions. And notably, large numbers of Americans have attached the “antisemitic” label to them.

The most recent data on this come in the form of a striking poll in New York, a hotbed of the protests at Columbia University, in particular.

The Siena College poll shows residents even of that blue-leaning state — Democrats tend to sympathize more with the Palestinian cause — agreed 70 percent to 22 percent that the protests “went too far, and I support the police being called in to shut them down.”

This comes on top of other polls showing low national support for the protests.

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YouGov polling for both the Economist and Yahoo News this month showed Americans disapproved of the protests by around a 2-1 margin. Ditto a Fox News poll last week.

And a Suffolk University poll showed that 7 in 10 Americans either opposed the protests (46 percent) or sympathized with them while opposing the way the protesters conducted themselves (24 percent). Just 19 percent said they supported the protests, full stop.

The Fox News poll showed just 16 percent said the protests made them more sympathetic to Palestinians, while 29 percent said the protests made them less sympathetic. (Half said the protests made no difference.)

Perhaps most telling are the sentiments that Americans say undergird the protests.

Many pro-Palestinian activists are careful to distinguish between supporting Palestinians and supporting Hamas, a group the United States government regards as a terrorist organization. But large swaths of Americans don’t see much of a distinction in the protests.

The Suffolk poll showed 33 percent of Americans thought a majority of the protesters were pro-Hamas, compared with 43 percent who disputed that. The Fox poll showed 42 percent described the protests as pro-Hamas, while just 49 percent disagreed. Both positions were outnumbered, if not overwhelmingly.

A bit more pronounced is the view that the protests have veered into antisemitism. And that position isn’t just held on the right:

  • The Fox poll showed Americans said that “antisemitic” described the protests, 46-45.
  • The Suffolk poll showed Americans said the protests “reflect antisemitism,” 41-40.
  • And the Yahoo/YouGov survey showed 37 percent of Americans said that “all” or “most” protesters are antisemitic — more than the 30 percent who said only “few” or “none” are.

In each poll, between 25 percent and 35 percent of Democrats attached the protests to antisemitism, and fewer than 6 in 10 Democrats disputed that.

The Siena poll is again even more striking on this front.

It showed that New Yorkers agreed 61-25 that the protesters have lost sight of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis and that “it feels like these demonstrations have crossed the line into antisemitism.” Even Democrats agreed, 54-32. Even the age group most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, adults under the age of 35, agreed, 46-38.

There are two clauses in that poll question, raising the possibility that respondents agreed with one part of the question but not necessarily the other. Maybe some agreed the protesters have lost sight of Oct. 7 but are less apt to agree they’ve crossed into antisemitism.

But this is also New York, a state President Biden won by 23 points in 2020. And the fact that these numbers were so lopsided even there would seem to speak meaningfully about how these protests have played.

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