Commentary Magazine


No Jewish Split on Israel

In the last half-dozen years alone, there have been about a dozen reputable studies of American Jewish opinion on Israel. The most recent of them include nationwide polls by such groups as the Yankelovich organization and the Los Angeles Times, both in 1988; a special survey conducted for the Israel/Diaspora Institute in 1989 by Steven M. Cohen of Queens College, the dean of Jewish pulse-takers (who has also done periodic surveys for the American Jewish Committee); and several regional polls.

The exact percentages these studies have come up with can be held suspect on the usual grounds. Different methods were used, and while the samples in each case were massive, dissimilar bodies of respondents were plumbed. Thus, some of the universes contained only connected Jews (i.e., those belonging to a Jewish institution or organization); some had an indiscriminate mix of connected and unconnected Jews; and some were made up of “leadership” (typically drawn from the boards of major Jewish organizations and agencies). Moreover, different world events were in the backdrop of the answers.

Nevertheless, in spite of all this, and contrary to the widespread impression of a growing “split” within the American Jewish community over Israel, we find an amazing similarity of responses to identical questions asked over and over again.

The first alleged split refuted by these surveys is between “doves” and “hawks.” Indeed, the results quickly confound the applicability of any dove-hawk dichotomy even between those who are mainly concerned with the “morality” of Israeli foreign policy and those more exclusively concerned with Israeli security. It is an inherently false dichotomy—but one that deserves some attention because it is so often invoked.

The truth is that most American Jews hold a complex—though not contradictory—attitude which combines “hawkish” and “dovish” elements. Thus, at least half of those Jews with opinions have been consistently willing to affirm that the Palestinians should have their own homeland, but only provided that it poses no threat to Israel. About nine out of ten American Jews invariably reject the draconian idea of expelling Arabs from the West Bank, and about half, since the intifada began, have worried that “continuing occupation will erode” Israel’s moral character. On the other hand, while “regretting” any excesses, an overwhelming majority feel that Israel’s overall police activities in the West Bank and Gaza have been appropriate to the need. “The need” is Israel’s survival. And most American Jews see Israel’s survival as a high moral imperative in itself.

As against this complex attitude shared by the great majority of American Jews, there are the simpler views of a few marginal groups like the Jewish Committee on the Middle East. This committee, allegedly endorsed by “thousands of American Jews, including professors of over 125 universities nationwide,” says in its platform that Israel has increasingly deviated “from moral values that we hold dear. . . . We can no longer condone or be associated with such Israeli behavior, nor, do we believe, should our country.” Yet all surveys show that such sentiments are unequivocally rejected by more than nine out of ten American Jews—most of whom would consider this fringe committee highly immoral in its fatal abandonment of Israel.

But if moral conviction is not a measure which can be sensibly used to divide the mainstream of American Jews into “doves” and “hawks,” neither is it useful to draw the dove/hawk dichotomy between American Jews who a re for and those who are against “exchanging some of the territories for credible peace.”

Thus, only a small percentage of American Jews would want Israel to hold forever and for “historical reasons” onto all the territories seized in the Six-Day War of 1967. Only a small percentage would want Israel to refuse to negotiate with the PLO under any possible circumstances, or to reject the idea of some Palestinian entity under any and all conditions. Most American Jews would like the Israelis to “accommodate”—i.e., enter into negotiations over the territories and their governance. In the 1988 Los Angeles Times national poll of the general Jewish population, nine out of ten chose “accommodation” over unilateral withdrawal or annexation.

At the same time, most American Jews, including many of the “accommodators,” are “hawkish” in the sense that they want very tough conditions attached to any Israeli compromise. They would want Israel to insist, for example, on the demilitarization of the exchanged territories, on a prenuptial agreement allowing the Israel Defense Forces to move in when and where necessary, and on the retention for security reasons of certain Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

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The prevailing American Jewish belief that any agreements must be backed by tough conditions, even tough military conditions, probably turns on an overwhelming distrust of the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, certainly of their leaders. For the majority of American Jews have often said that Israel can “never” trust the Arabs to make peace. The (small) sample of Jewish leaders No Jewish Split on Israel polled in 1989 were more evenly divided on that particular formulation, but by an overwhelming ratio they too affirmed that “the PLO is determined to destroy Israel.” The same group of leaders, however, also said, and again by an overwhelming ratio, that Israel should negotiate with the PLO if the PLO credibly recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism.

On both counts, the rank and file has responded to other recent surveys in about the same order: almost all believing that the Palestinians in particular and the Arabs in general are determined to destroy Israel; but most of them also believing that Israel should talk with the PLO, if the PLO reconstructs itself—i.e., ceases to be the PLO.

In other words, most American Jews think that no fruitful accommodation or peace is possible without some kind of Palestinian presence, but they also think that a genuine and reliable acceptance of Israel by the PLO or other hard-line Arabs is probably pie in the sky, and dangerous to credit.

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There is another factor which deepens the hawkish element among American Jewish pragmatists. This is the act that the overwhelming majority of American Jews believe that it is the Israelis who must make the final judgment on their own security. Most American Jews feel that it is proper for them to get directly involved in affecting Israeli policy on the “who-is-a-Jew” issue, but only a small minority believe that it is proper for them to get directly involved in affecting Israeli policy on security issues.

This does not mean that most American Jews think the Israeli government has always made the right strategic judgments for its own security and welfare. Although, to almost all American Jews and American Jewish leaders, the major impediments to Israeli/Palestinian peace have been placed there by the hard-line Arab states and the PLO, a substantial number also say that they “have often been troubled” by Israeli government policies; and a majority has said that the Israelis have to “change some of their attitudes” if peace is to be attained and Israeli security assured.

The Israeli attitudes which the American Jewish mainstream finds strategically mistaken are those which seem to be inflexibly ideological and permanently nonconciliatory. Most American Jews have assigned such attitudes to Likud. In general, American Jews have favored Labor over Likud, at least by a ratio of 3 to 1.

But this preference, among rank and file as well as leadership, cannot be charged to Israeli foreign policy alone, or perhaps even primarily to foreign policy. For the “liberal” bias of American Jews has pushed them toward the Labor coalition. And there is a general cultural factor as well. Many American Jews have felt that most Labor spokesmen were more “America compatible” than most Likud spokesmen. When Menachem Begin took power, one survey found that American Jews were more negative about his “image” than were non-Jewish American. On the other hand, many American Jews have also been a little uneasy about some proposals from within the Labor camp which seemed not “tough” enough.

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The prevailing American Jewish criticism of some Israeli foreign policies has operated within the “halo effect” which also has characterized American public opinion in general. The Gallup organization once issued a special memo, after the 1982 incursion into Lebanon, marveling at the fact that Americans maintained their basic support of Israel, even while strongly criticizing some Israeli policies.

For different reasons of affinity, the American Jewish public seems to have maintained its basic political commitment to Israel, even when feeling critical of some Israeli policies. And if the fulcrum of favorable opinion for the American public is the conviction that Israel is an important ally, the fulcrum of favorable opinion for American Jews is Israeli security.

Of course, the “halo effect” will not necessarily last forever. Among the general American public, Israel’s cause is still preferred to the Arab cause by margins of 3 or 4 to 1, and most Americans still consider Israel a good ally—but the ratios have been subject to more fluctuations and downward dips than in the salad days. This erosion might be aggravated by changed perceptions of American national interest as well as by new ideas about foreign aid.

The commitment of American Jews to Israel cannot be that easily eroded, but some subterranean shift could be taking place. One such shift has to do with the matter of publicly criticizing Israel. If the Jewish community can be said to be split at all, it is over this issue, on which the Jewish population has been almost evenly divided on a half-dozen occasions since 1982, with about half fearing that public criticism might endanger Israel’s support in Congress, and about half fearing that silence might encourage the pursuit of what they regarded as bad policies.

Another source of possible erosion is generational. Here again, to be sure, there is no evidence of any significant difference among the age groups, young or old, with respect to Israeli foreign policy. But there is evidence that the younger Jewish cohort exhibits a somewhat weaker sense of emotional affinity to Israel than do its seniors. In the Los Angeles Times survey, about a quarter of those aged 18-40 and almost half of those 65 or older said they felt very close to Israel, with the 41-64 group falling about midway between them. Almost twice the proportion of the older group said that Israel was the chief item in their Jewish identity. Steven Cohen and others have also found some deterioration among the younger age group in feelings of affinity to Israel; this includes even “connected” Jews.

Yet again, however, this is not a problem stemming from foreign-policy differences with Israel: on the question of whether Israel’s policies had become less acceptable to them, there was absolutely no difference between the 18-40 and the 41-64 age cohorts, and very little difference for the 65-and-over cohort. Nor was there any significant difference among any of those age groups on the matter of negotiating peace for land.

Fringe Jewish groups on the Left have attempted to profit by claiming that they, not the American Jewish leadership, are in tune with younger Jews and with the rank and file of American Jewry in general. At a Tikkun conference last fall, that magazine’s editor said that, on the subject of Israel, “we are attempting to reclaim Judaism from the organized community.” But the surveys demonstrate that there is no great gap between the attitudes of Jewish leadership and those of the rank and file. There is simply no consistent difference on questions of maintaining the level of American support, distrust of the PLO, and willingness to negotiate with a reconstructed PLO that has in effect repudiated the PLO of yesterday and today. For example, even though many Jews deplore the recent government-funded Israeli settlement in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, most of them, out of their undiminished fear of Arab imperialism and Israeli vulnerability, would still strongly object to any actual economic sanctions by the U.S. in response to that action.

In short, despite debate in the American Jewish community over some Israeli strategies, any politician who thinks that a large number of Jewish voters would now look favorably upon cuts in aid to Israel, or other forms of diminished support, will soon discover that he has been misled by a false and tendentious reading of American Jewish opinion.

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