2016-06-30
Reprinted from Ha'aretz with permission of the author.

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.

Emotional Attachment

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.

Feelings of attachment to Israelis have actually gone down in the past decade, with just 15 percent saying they feel such ties "to a great extent," compared to nearly 20 percent who felt such ties in a survey of a similar sample in 1989. By comparison, 34 percent in this survey said they feel close to non-Jewish Americans "to a great extent" and 48 percent felt similarly toward "other Jews."

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).

Pro-Israel Involvement

In a detailed analysis of patterns of connection, we found strong relationships - some expected, others most unexpected - between Israel involvement and major demographic characteristics. We began by dividing Israel involvement into three broad types. "Emotional attachment" refers to caring about Israel, as measured by following the news closely or expressing closeness to Israelis. "Public support" includes attending programs and rallies and lending economic support to Israel. "Interpersonal support" entails such items as writing to friends about Israel or encouraging them to visit there.

Not surprisingly, all three sorts of involvement are strongly related to prior visits to Israel and to general involvement in Jewish communal life. Measuring support for Israel on a scale of 0 to 100, those who have visited Israel twice score almost twice as high as those who have never visited. Those who are not affiliated to a synagogue or organization score only 6 on the composite measure of public support, while those who are active in Jewish communal life score 63.

The three indices of pro-Israel involvement are also related to income, with more affluent Jews expressing greater attachment and support than their lower-income counterparts.

Age Is a Factor

As in earlier studies, older people outscore younger people on emotional attachment to Israel, with those aged 65 and over achieving a mean score of 75, compared with 63 for those younger than 35. We found similar patterns with respect to public, institutionalized support of Israel, where older individuals engage in pro-Israel political and economic activity at a rate more than one and a half times as high as younger Jews.

There was no difference between old and young, however, in the extent to which they engage in more private, interpersonal acts of pro-Israel activity such as encouraging friends to visit or forwarding them e-mails about the situation in Israel. These findings are consistent with research showing that younger Americans, including younger Jews, express their group attachments through informal, personalized networks, but are less likely to engage in institutional behavior.

Nonetheless, it was striking that while young Jews scarcely differed from their elders in the importance of being Jewish in their lives, with 52 percent saying it was "very important" and 35 percent saying it was "somewhat important," they were far less likely than older Jews to say that Israel was an important component of their Jewish identity.

Settlements & Negotiations

The survey asked numerous questions about the Arab-Israel conflict, including such matters as settlements, pre-conditions for negotiations, the eventual contours of a peace agreement, and the ideal role for the United States.

Some areas were non-controversial. Definitive majorities want America to be highly active in efforts to formulate a peace agreement (71 percent to 5 percent), to clearly support Israel's leadership over the Palestinian leadership (61 percent to 8 percent), and not to urge Israel to exercise restraint when responding to terrorist attacks (16 percent versus 62 percent).

But, leaving aside these and a few other questions, one is struck by the substantial number of "Not sure" replies to numerous questions. Examples include allowing a token number of Palestinian refugees to move to Israel (26 percent in favor, 31 percent opposed, but 43 percent not sure), or agreeing to international control over the Temple Mount (25 percent in favor, 34 percent opposed, and 41 percent not sure).

To some extent the "not sure" responses reflect ignorance. To some extent they reflect the moral diffidence of a community that identifies with Israel's struggles from afar and is loath to make judgments when Israeli lives are on the line. However, further analysis demonstrates that not sure responses reflect ambivalence.

Most strikingly, "unsure" responses actually increase with number of visits to Israel. Such visits probably dispel ignorance, but they also deepen appreciation for the complexity of the issues. Indeed, Israelis themselves are unclear about such matters, as evident in the large numbers who despair of any solution to the crisis, and the large number who were unsure of their voting intentions less than a week before the Knesset elections.

With all this said, the pattern of responses seems to reflect three factors: disappointment with the failed peace process; a heightened sense of vulnerability; and deference to the decisions of the duly elected Israeli government.

Accordingly, in the context of a peace agreement, a majority favors the establishment of an independent Palestinian state (53 percent to 14 percent), a position endorsed even by right-of-center Israelis such as Prime Minister Sharon. At the same time, they reject the removal of "nearly all" Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (19 percent to 38 percent opposed), as well as rejecting Palestinian control over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem (16 percent to 44 percent), options favored by many on the Israeli left.

Supporting Sharon's position, majorities of American Jews think Israel is right to insist on complete cessation of all violence before negotiations can begin (59 percent to 15 percent), and to refuse to deal with Arafat as a negotiating partner (56 percent to 12 percent).

In contrast with Sharon, American Jews oppose the continued expansion of housing in existing settlements, even to accommodate natural growth (25 percent in favor, 33 percent opposed, 42 percent unsure). At the same time, they oppose removing settlements in Gaza, even without a peace agreement (14 percent versus 42 percent). They split evenly (29 percent/29 percent) on whether settlements constitute an obstacle to peace, and lean toward viewing them as strategic assets that help make Israel safer (34 percent agree, 21 percent disagree, with 45 percent not sure). These views on settlements would place the center of American Jewish opinion toward the right of the Israeli political map.

Washington's Role

Wherever they may fall with respect to settlements or Israel's handling of the conflict, American Jews want Washington to refrain from pressuring Israel. While they say they want Washington "to remain fairly even-handed so as to maintain reasonably good ties with both Israel and the Palestinians" (47 percent to 19 percent), they also want America to avoid all forms of pressure on the Israeli government (37 percent in favor, 25 percent opposed, and 39 percent not sure).

Hawks or Doves?

The analysis used answers to several questions to classify respondents as hawks, doves, mixed (both hawkish and dovish views), or ambivalent (many not sure answers). Not surprisingly more dovish views were found among the more highly educated and more liberal (whether defined in terms of self-identification, Democratic allegiance, previous vote for Gore, or prospective vote for Lieberman).

Overall, women are slightly more hawkish than men (consistent with findings from the 1980s). However, when controlling for education, women are more dovish than their male counterparts with equal levels of education, since men overall have attained higher levels of educational achievement.

The hawk-dove balance follows a familiar denominational gradient. Orthodox Jews are the most hawkish, followed by the Conservative Jews, Reform and the small number of Reconstructionists, who are the most dovish religious group, but are outflanked on the left by self-identified secular Jews.

Other measures of Jewish involvement are unrelated to the hawk-dove spectrum, however. Most important, higher levels of communal affiliation and Israel visits do not lead to greater hawkishness, as some might assume.

Last, consistent with the greater political conservatism reported last week, younger adult Jews are more hawkish than their elders. It appears they would be even more hawkish were it not for their higher levels of educational attainment.

The events of the past two years have shaken American Jews' views of the Middle East, if not their feelings toward Israel. Most remain emotionally attached to Israel and supportive of its policies and actions. Most want a strong alliance between Israel and America. There is, however, an ambivalence in American Jews' relationship with Israel today.

The ambivalence stems at least partly from a heightened sense of Israel's vulnerability. More than four-fifths of American Jews, 82 percent, see their own community as "critical to Israel's survival." But only 58 percent, fewer than three in five, see Israel as "critical to sustaining American Jewish life." Not surprising, when fully 63 percent emphatically believe that Israel is "a dangerous place to visit."


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