What the Survey Says About the AJC

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 14, 2010, issue of April 23, 2010.
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As strange as it sounds, there are strong echoes of Marx in the American Jewish Committee’s latest Annual Survey of American Jewish opinion. Be warned.

I’m thinking of Chico’s classic line from “Duck Soup” (often wrongly attributed to Groucho): “Who ya gonna believe — me, or your own eyes?”

The new survey was announced April 9 in a public statement headlined “AJC Survey Shows U.S. Jews Sharply Divided Over Obama Approach on Iran.” It was, as the statement noted, the eve of President Obama’s global summit on nuclear proliferation. The message was unmistakable: At this sensitive moment, with the Middle East and terrorist threats topping the world’s agenda, the president shouldn’t count on American Jews for support.

The next few paragraphs drove the point home. Two-thirds of American Jews don’t think sanctions (Obama’s chosen tactic) will stop Iran’s nuclear plans. Majorities would back American or Israeli military action. Even on domestic issues — health care, the economy, homeland security — the best the president can muster is, in the AJC’s words, “somewhat higher ratings among Jews than the general American population.” Indeed, while 78% of Jews voted for Obama in 2008, only 57% now approve his overall performance.

Sounds bad for Obama, doesn’t it? If a Democratic president can’t hold onto those liberal Jews, what’s he got left? Looking at the AJC statement, even the most ideological liberal might conclude that this president has been playing with fire, eroding his base by acting tough with Israel and soft on its enemies.

Well, think again. The actual numbers show Obama doing much (not “somewhat”) better among Jews than among Americans overall. Conducted in mid-March, the survey shows Jews backing Obama’s handling of the economy by 55% to 42%. A Gallup poll taken around the same time shows 61% of the general population disapproving Obamanomics, and only 37% approving. On health care 50% of Jews approve of the president’s handling of health care, with 48% expressing disapproval, a statistical tie. But, as has been noted elsewhere, there’s no way to know how many of the Jewish naysayers are liberals who considered the reform too timid. Regardless, it far surpasses general population’s 42%-to-54% disapproval.

Most unexpected, American Jews approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations by a 54% to 32% margin. Americans overall disapprove, 31% to 52%.

In fact, Iranian nukes are the only issue on which the president scores below 50% among Jews. Why, then, would that be the item chosen for highlighting in the headline? Why would the first three paragraphs, presumably introducing the survey’s main themes, focus on the negatives in a poll that’s mostly positive?

Let’s answer that with another question: Why is this survey appearing right now? Every past AJC annual survey, going back decades, has come out in the fall. The last one appeared in October 2009. It’s now April 2010, barely six months later. Why is this survey different?

It could be that the AJC wanted to give us something to talk about at the Seder but missed its deadline. It could also be that the goal was more straightforward: simply to take the Jewish community’s pulse and report it. But if that were the

goal, the newsiest headline would have been that amid all this U.S.-Israeli tension, most Jews still stand behind Obama.

On the other hand, perhaps the survey was intended not to illuminate American Jewish life, like past surveys, but to help Jerusalem parry American pressure. It could be that the respondents were expected to skewer Obama’s Israel policies, and when they didn’t, the fallback was to highlight his relative weakness on Iran.

That would help explain another oddity: Of the 26 questions in the survey, five ask for an opinion about “Barack Obama” or “the Obama administration” — as in, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as President?” Or the fact that “Barack Obama has approved the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan”?

During the Bush administration the survey averaged close to 40 questions yearly, yet the president was mentioned by name yearly in only one question (other than election preference): “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President George W. Bush is handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism?” The first two years, 2001 and 2002, most approved. In 2003 most disapproved. The next year, 2004, the survey dropped Bush’s name and asked how “the United States government” was handling terrorism.

Put differently, when Bush was president the survey asked what you thought of your country’s actions. Now it’s about what you think of Obama.

All told, this year’s AJC survey looks less like a research device than a poll designed to elicit a given response. Not that it made much difference. Jews gave Obama a pretty good margin, regardless.

So what’s with the AJC surveys? For one thing, as I wrote when the 2009 survey came out last October, they shrank.

Launched in 1981, conducted biennially into the 1990s and annually since then, they have been an invaluable tool for tracking American Jewish attitudes toward religion, community affairs, domestic and international politics and much more. In 2008, however, the economy collapsed. To save money, that year’s survey was cut from 38 questions to just 15, narrowly focused on top headline issues: the presidential election and Israeli security.

In 2009 the question tally jumped to 21, but the focus was now entirely on Israel and antisemitism.

Paradoxically, one of the nuggets to emerge from the slender 2008 survey was that the issues on American Jews’ minds, at least in preparing to vote, were overwhelmingly domestic, not terrorism- or Israel-related. It’s true that the 2008 survey came amid an economic crisis, which surely affected responses. But the same question was asked in 2007, and the result was the same: Interest in Israel, the Middle East and terrorism trailed far behind domestic affairs.

And yet the American Jewish Committee’s attention is trained ever more narrowly on Israel and its enemies. After a century of proudly presenting itself as the leading voice of American Jews, it’s beginning to sound like Groucho did when he said he wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would have him as a member.

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

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