from Pressure Points

American Jews and Israel

November 9, 2018

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Everyone knows that American Jews are becoming increasingly distant from and disenchanted with the State of Israel. Articles and books expound on this subject regularly. And everyone knows why: Israel's right-wing government and its policy of expanding settlements, and Israel's maltreatment of non-Orthodox strains of Judaism are repeatedly mentioned as the key explanations.

But it seems that what everyone knows is simply wrong--and oddly enough we learn this from none other than the left-wing Jewish group called J Street. J Street has for several elections cycles done a post-election survey of American Jews, and this year's is found here. The poll found that Jews called themselves Democrats rather than Republicans by a 76-19 percent ratio, which is close to what many other polls have found. What did respondents say about Israel?

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The survey asked "Compared to 5-10 years ago, do you feel more positive, more negative, or about the same toward Israel?" The result: 55 percent said about the same, 26 percent said more positive, and 19 percent said more negative. Respondents were asked "Does the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank make you feel positive about Israel, negative about Israel, or have no impact on how you feel about Israel?" The result: 48 percent said not had no impact at all, 32 percent said a negative impact, and 19 percent said expansion of settlements had a positive impact on them.

Perhaps most strikingly, respondents were asked "How much have you heard about Israeli policy towards the non-Orthodox population, such as who can pray at the Western Wall, who can perform marriage ceremonies, who can grant divorces, and who can convert to Judaism?" This has been a source of constant controversy, especially with the largest denomination among American Jews, the Reform movement. Only 14 percent of respondents had heard "a great deal" about all of this, and another 21 percent said they had heard "a good amount" (whatever that actually means). But 32 percent said they had heard only "a little" about it and a remarkable 34 percent had heard nothing at all. J Street's poll adds those numbers up and notes in bold print that 35 percent say they have heard a good or great deal about the great controversy, while 65 percent have heard little or just plain nothing.

Those numbers cannot have made J Street's publicists very happy, nor can they cheer the propagandists who are constantly telling us that such Israeli actions (or more narrowly, Netanyahu policies) are simply ruining relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. But relations are not ruined and more people said they felt more positive about Israel now than said the opposite--with most saying their views had not changed. And the impact of the great brouhaha about treatment of non-orthodox Judaism turns out to be exaggerated. Of the 35 percent who have heard a lot about the matter, half say it makes them feel more negative toward Israel; the other half are divided between 22 percent who say it makes them feel more positive and 28 percent who say it doesn't matter. Do the math: while the treatment of non-Orthodox angers some American Jews,  the great majority don't know and/or don't care. 

That doesn't make any particular set of views right or wrong, but the J Street survey suggests that there is no great crisis in relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Israel does have to worry about related matters: for example, views among those most active in community affairs, views among younger generations of American Jews, and views in the largest U.S. denomination, Reform. But the results of the survey suggest that the relationship between Israel and American Jews is stronger than prophets of doom constantly suggest. 

 

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