What the Survey Really Says

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.
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Well, the results are in. The latest Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion was released October 2 by the American Jewish Committee, and it’s chock-full of useful information — though probably not in the way its sponsor intended. The survey doesn’t really offer much that we didn’t already know about American Jewish opinion. It reveals plenty, however, about the American Jewish Committee — and, by extension, about national organizations that presume to speak for American Jews.

The AJC’s executive director, David Harris, writing on his Jerusalem Post blog, said the survey had “No doctrinal ax to grind, no effort to tilt the questions, no desire to withhold ‘inconvenient’ results.” No, it’s an unblinking snapshot of reality showing “that the bulk of American Jews are conflicted on foreign policy — at times, leaning to the right; at other times, to the left.”

The “winner,” he wrote, “is not the right or the left, but the center.”

It’s a flattering thought, but not entirely accurate. Actually, this survey wields a pretty hefty ax, both in choice of questions and interpretation of results. It’s a marked departure from past AJC surveys. They used to be an invaluable tool for following the pulse of American Jewry. This one looks more like a public relations exercise.

The first thing to know about this survey is that it comprises just 21 questions. Previous AJC surveys, going back to 1981, averaged close to 50 questions, often including complex, multi-part queries with lists of world leaders to rate or burning issues to rank by importance. This year’s questions are basically the yes-or-no kind. AJC says it shrank the poll because of budget woes.

What’s telling is which questions survived the cut. Past surveys explored Jewish views on a range of topics from Israel and international affairs to intermarriage and religious practice to domestic issues like abortion, school prayer and affirmative action. This year it’s all about Israel and Iran, except for four “background questions” (Democrat or Republican? Orthodox, Conservative or Reform? How important is being Jewish? How close do you feel to Israel?)

Here’s the irony: The last two surveys asked what issues respondents most cared about. Domestic concerns won hands down. In 2007, fewer than one-third picked Iraq, Israel or terrorism; the rest picked domestic issues, mostly economic. In 2008, after the economy collapsed, international concerns drew a scant 14%. Comes 2009, and the survey doesn’t even ask Jews what they care about. This is about what the American Jewish Committee cares about, which apparently isn’t the same thing.

So what did the 2009 survey find? Its headline finding — Harris called it the “biggest change” from past surveys — involves views toward hypothetical American military action against Iranian nuclear sites. A hefty 56% of respondents would back an American strike; 36% disagreed (the rest were unsure). In last year’s survey, Harris noted, Jews opposed such American military action, 47% to 42%. Back in 2006, the last time the question was asked, opposition was even stronger: 54% against, 38% in favor. Presumably, Jews have now woken up to the Iranian threat.

Curiously, support for Israeli military action hasn’t changed at all. This year found 66% favoring an Israeli strike and 28% opposed. In 2006, despite strong opposition to American action, respondents favored Israeli action by 57% to 35%. American Jews, it turns out, have consistently supported military action. What’s changed is that they now support American military action.

The difference, in other words, is not how Jews view Iran but how they view Washington. Last year we had a commander-in-chief who couldn’t be trusted playing with guns. Now there’s a grown-up in charge, which changes the equation.

Am I stretching things? Not at all. The surveys are crystal clear. In 2006, respondents were asked if they “approve or disapprove of the way the United States government is handling the situation with Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” Only 33% approved; 54% disapproved. In 2009, asked about “the Obama administration’s handling” of it, 49% approved and 35% disapproved. Support for American military action, then, follows trust in the president. Blind partisanship? More likely, Jews were deterred by the previous administration’s incompetence.

The survey’s other hot statistic involves Palestinian statehood. Asked whether, “in the current circumstances,” they “support or oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state,” 49% were in favor and 41% opposed. This despite overwhelming agreement, 75% to 19%, that the “goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.”

This is what Harris meant when he said Jews are “conflicted” — they “yearn for peace,” he wrote, but “have serious doubts about Arab intentions.”

Think again. Back in 2006, Jews favored a Palestinian state by a significantly larger margin, 54% to 38%. And yet, they were far more suspicious of Arab intentions — 81% to 13%. That is, suspicion of Arab intentions declined in the last three years, but so did support for Palestinian statehood. Does this mean Jews are more conflicted, less conflicted or just confused?

Answer: none of the above. They’re more polarized. In 2006, some 13% were optimistic about Arab intentions; they presumably endorsed Palestinian statehood. Fully 81% were pessimistic, but only 38% rejected Palestinian statehood. The rest of the pessimists — 43% of all respondents — apparently recognized the threat but supported Palestinian statehood anyway. In other words, a plurality of American Jews agreed with Israel’s pragmatic middle, which favors Palestinian statehood not as a guarantee of peace with the neighbors but as a way to separate from them.

Three years later, the gauzy reading of Arab intentions has grown from 13% to 19%, leaving 75% who remain suspicious. At the other end, rejection of Palestinian statehood has grown from 38% to 41%. The pragmatic middle has shrunk from 43% to 29%.

The center isn’t winning, folks. It’s disappearing.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com, and read his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg

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