Two years of violence in Israel and the territories have hardened American Jews' attitudes toward the Palestinians, with strong majorities backing the Sharon government's tough anti-terrorist measures and opposing U.S. pressure to moderate Israeli actions.
In a new survey of American Jewish opinion, conducted in November and December, fully two-thirds said Washington should allow Israel a "free hand" to take whatever actions it sees fit, including targeted "elimination" of suspected Palestinian terrorists, which is supported by nearly four out of five American Jews.
However, when asked a range of specific questions on Israeli policy, American Jews display a marked ambivalence. Fully three-fourths say they follow the news about Israel very closely, and half say they talk about Israel regularly with family and Jewish friends. Yet when asked whether Israel should expand or dismantle settlements or compromise on the Temple Mount in a peace agreement, pluralities of 40 percent to 45 percent consistently say they are "unsure."
Indeed, contrary to the wishful contention of many Jewish organizational leaders, the majority of American Jews, outside an activist core, have experienced little or no rise in attachment or deepening of involvement with Israel as a result of the tragic events of the last two years. Fully five-sixths say their involvement in Israel is "not much changed" since two years ago, with just 10 percent saying they are "more involved." And while 41 percent of American Jews have visited Israel in the past (a number confirmed by other recent surveys), fewer than 12 percent express an intention to visit under the present circumstances, a number that rises to 27 percent "if the violence stops."
The bulk of American Jewry, in fact, may be characterized as "ambivalent loyalists" when it comes to Israel. Their views are closer to those of Israel's current leadership than its dovish opposition, but most lack any strong sense of confidence, commitment or coherence in their views. Ambivalence and inconsistency are more characteristic than dovishness or hawkishness.
These results emerge from a recent nationwide survey of 1,386 American Jews I conducted this past November and December. Sponsored by the Jewish Agency's Department for Jewish-Zionist Education, with the cooperation of the Florence G. Heller / JCCA Research Center, the mail-back survey was administered to the Consumer Opinion Panel of Synovate Inc., drawing on a sample of individuals who identify Judaism as their religion. The margin of error due to sampling variability amounts to under 3 percent. Overall, the respondents resemble comparable national samples with respect to region, education, income, family characteristics, and Jewish identity variables.
The limited breadth of attachment to Israel emerges in responses to several questions. When asked how emotionally attached they are to Israel, just under one-third (31 percent) answered "very attached," 41 percent said they were "somewhat attached," 20 percent said they were "not very attached," and 8 percent were "not attached." These results differ only marginally from a similar question asked in a 1997 survey, and another asked in 2000/01.
The three-fourths (74 percent) of Jews who said they "closely follow the news about Israel" represent a decline from the 85 percent who answered yes to a similar question in 1989 ("do you pay special attention to articles about Israel when you read newspapers or magazines?"). Just over half (53 percent) said they "frequently talk about Israel with Jewish friends," down from 60 percent in 1989.
To be sure, comparisons between differently worded questions asked several years apart are inexact. But, broadly speaking, they do suggest that the events of the last two years have not substantially elevated attachment to Israel among a large number of the rank-and-file of American Jewry. One exception is younger Jews. Those under 35 were far less likely than their elders to describe themselves as "emotionally attached" to Israel, with just 60 percent saying they were "very" or "somewhat" emotionally attached, compared to 81 percent of Jews over 65. However, the under-35s were twice as likely as older Jews (20 percent versus 10 percent) to say they had become "more involved" over the past two years. Similarly, younger Jews were far more likely than older Jews to say they were planning to visit Israel (18 percent versus 10 percent).