Why Supporting Israel Isn't All in the Family Anymore

Editorial

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Published June 23, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.
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‘There’s been a kidnapping in the family,” wrote Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, of Israel’s reaction to the ongoing agony over three missing teenagers, still gone as of this writing.

It feels that way in America, too. Whatever angst exists in the relationship between American Jews and Israel disappears in times of crisis, evidence of a bond that, while fraying, is still profound enough to awaken when an innocent family member is in trouble. This much we know.

For decades, the assumption has been that support for the State of Israel is something all Jews intuitively shared, a core impulse that in war and terror campaigns would nullify any particular criticism or complaint. And we’ve seen that again since the June 12 kidnappings.

The challenge, then, is not to rally ‘round the emergency; it’s to address the underlying and growing disconnect between American Jews and Israel that will re-emerge once the boys are brought home safely and the crisis dissipates. Until now, the antidote to this disengagement was a visit to Israel — a spot on a synagogue trip, a seat on a Taglit-Birthright bus. But as we learn from a further analysis of data from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of American Jews, conducted by Steven M. Cohen for the Forward, the first-hand experience is not enough to counter the growing political divide among American Jews that is sharply defining their attitudes toward Israel.

First, note how American Jews identify themselves politically:

Then we can see how those political preferences shape attitudes towards Israel and its relationship with the United States. Remember that this polling data was collected last year, before the “peace process” imploded, but as we will argue, it’s likely that breaking news has not altered ingrained political responses.

When asked if the Palestinian leadership was making a “sincere effort” to bring about a peace settlement, most American Jews generally agreed it is not. But there was sharp disagreement about whether the Israeli government was making its own “sincere effort.”

The divergence persisted when the Pew survey asked whether the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank helped or hurt the security of Israel.

More than half of all the Jews surveyed thought that U.S. support for Israel is “about right,” as opposed to “too much” or “not enough.” But when parsed by political identity, Jews sharply disagree.

Cohen, who analyzed the data, posits that “people are dividing according to discourse and the discourse is shaped by politics.” In today’s highly partisan atmosphere, that’s not surprising. Jews who are politically conservative are more likely to take a hawkish view on the Middle East, and are more likely to align themselves with the current Israeli government’s policies rather than with their own government’s. For liberals, the opposite is true. Self-declared moderates straddle the difference.

But these three ideologies do not represent an equal share of American Jews; this is what the communal establishment doesn’t understand, or won’t accept. So when an organization like J Street, whose views roughly reflect the majority’s, is shut out of the major Israel advocacy umbrella group, it’s no wonder increasing numbers of Jew are disengaged.

Liberalism is about more than a set of policies, however. It’s also a belief system, a way of looking at the world — which some may call naive, others aspirational. The growing gulf between America’s Jews is also reflected in their world views, starkly evident when they were asked whether a way could be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully.

When we first began to examine this data, we surmised that one way to explain the political differences is that liberals, the bunch that is at once more critical and more hopeful, had not been to Israel as frequently as other Jews. Conservatives might be tougher and more pragmatic because they’d seen the real Israel, so the argument goes.

Wrong. The surprising finding here is that there’s virtually no difference in the percentage of Jews who said they’ve visited Israel. First-hand experience does not trump the more ingrained political mindset.

Elsewhere in this study, liberals say that they are less emotionally attached to Israel than conservatives. Another trip is not going to change that. A more open, inclusive American discourse might.

We can take solace in the way the Jewish family comes together in times of crisis, but that should not obscure the underlying challenge of harnessing that positive emotion into a wider, sturdier embrace.


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