Jews Hardline, Yet Detached, In New Survey

By Steven M. Cohen

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.

More than two years of violence in Israel and the territories have hardened American Jews’ attitudes toward the Palestinians, a new survey shows. The survey also found strong majorities backing the Sharon government’s tough anti-terrorist measures and opposing American pressure to moderate Israeli actions. Fully two-thirds of respondents say Washington should allow Israel a “free hand” to take whatever actions it sees fit, including “elimination” of suspected Palestinian terrorists, which four out of five American Jews support.

However, contrary to the wishful contention of many Jewish communal leaders, the majority of American Jews 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% saying they are “more involved.” Other findings confirm that.

Indeed, when questioned on a range of specific Israeli policies, American Jews display a marked ambivalence. Fully three-fourths say they follow the news about Israel very closely, yet when asked whether Israel should expand or dismantle settlements or compromise on the Temple Mount in a peace agreement, pluralities of 40% to 45% consistently say they are “unsure.”

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 critics, but most lack any strong sense of confidence, commitment or coherence in their views. Hawks and doves alike are outnumbered by the ambivalent and unsure.

These results emerge from a nationwide survey of 1,386 American Jews I conducted in November and December. Sponsored by the Jewish Agency’s Department for Jewish-Zionist Education, in cooperation with 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 is less than 3%. Overall, respondents resemble comparable national samples with respect to region, education, income, family characteristics and Jewish identity variables.

The limited breadth of attachment to Israel emerges in responses to several questions. Asked how emotionally attached they are to Israel, just under one-third (31%) answered “very attached,” 41% said they were “somewhat attached,” 20% were “not very attached” and 8% were “not attached.” These results differ only marginally from a similar question asked in a 1997 survey.

Feelings of attachment to Israelis, by contrast, have actually declined in recent years, with just 15% saying they feel such ties “to a great extent,” compared to nearly 20% who felt such ties in a survey of a similar sample in 1989. By comparison, 34% in this survey said they feel close to non-Jewish Americans “to a great extent” and 48% felt similarly toward “other Jews.”

The decline was visible elsewhere, too. The three-fourths (74%) of Jews who said they “closely follow the news about Israel” represent a drop from 85% 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%) said they “frequently talk about Israel with Jewish friends,” down from 60% 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 deepened rank-and-file American Jews’ feelings toward Israel.

One exception is younger Jews. Those under 35 were far less likely than their elders to describe themselves as “emotionally attached” to Israel to begin with, with just 60% saying they were “very” or “somewhat” emotionally attached, compared to 81% of Jews over 65. However, the under-35s were twice as likely as older Jews (20% versus 10%) to say they had become “more involved” during the last two years. Similarly, younger Jews were far more likely than older Jews to say they were planning to visit Israel (18% versus 10%). There was no difference between older and younger Jews in the importance of being Jewish in their lives.

In a detailed analysis, we found strong relationships — some expected, others quite 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” includes writing to friends about Israel and encouraging them to visit there.

Not surprisingly, all three types 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 or more (16% of the total) score almost twice as high as those (59%) who have never visited. Those who are not affiliated to a synagogue or organization score only 6 on the public support composite, while those who are active in 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.

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. The pattern was even more pronounced in public support.

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

The survey asked numerous questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, including 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 the United States to be highly active in efforts to formulate a peace agreement (71% to 5%), to clearly support Israel’s leadership over the Palestinian leadership (61% to 8%), and not to urge Israel to exercise restraint when responding to terrorist attacks (62% versus 16%). Paradoxically, a strong plurality (47% to 19%) also wanted the United States to “remain even-handed” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But, leaving aside these and a few other questions, responses were striking for the frequency of “not sure.” Examples: allowing a token number of Palestinian refugees to move to Israel (26% in favor, 31% opposed, 43% not sure), and agreeing to international control over the Temple Mount (25% in favor, 34% opposed, 41% not sure).

To some extent the “not sure” responses reflect ignorance. In part, too, they reflect the moral diffidence of a community that identifies with Israel from afar and is loath to make judgments when Israeli lives are on the line. However, further analysis demonstrates that “not sure” responses frequently reflect genuine ambivalence. Most striking, “unsure” responses actually increase with number of visits to Israel. Such visits undoubtedly dispel ignorance, but they also deepen appreciation for the complexity of the issues.

Overall, 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.

The tendency to defer to Israel’s government is strong. In the context of a peace agreement, a majority (53% to 14%) favors the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as endorsed by Prime Minister Sharon. At the same time, they reject the removal of “nearly all” Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (19% to 38% opposed), and oppose Palestinian control over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem (16% to 44%), options favored by many on the Israeli left. Majorities support Sharon in believing Israel should insist on complete cessation of all violence before negotiations can begin (59% to 15%), and refuse to deal with Arafat as a negotiating partner (56% to 12%).

In contrast to Sharon, however, American Jews oppose continued expansion of housing in existing settlements, even to accommodate natural growth (25% in favor, 33% opposed, 42% unsure).

In a detailed analysis of policy views, we used answers to several questions to classify respondents as hawks, doves or ambivalent (many “not sure” answers). Not surprisingly, more dovish views were found among the more highly educated and politically liberal Jews. Women were slightly more hawkish than men, a trend first noted during the 1980s. Controlling for education, since men overall have higher educational achievements, we found women were more dovish than men with equal levels of education.

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

Other measures of Jewish involvement are unrelated to the hawk-dove spectrum. 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.

Finally, American Jews’ ambivalence stems at least partly from their heightened sense of Israel’s vulnerability, a factor that will be explored more deeply next week. Tellingly, more than four-fifths of American Jews, 82%, see their own community as “critical to Israel’s survival.” But only 58%, fewer than three in five, see Israel as “critical to sustaining American Jewish life.” That’s not surprising, when fully 63% emphatically believe that Israel is “a dangerous place to visit.”



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