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Brandeis Study on American Jewry’s Attitudes Toward Israel

Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen’s Center for Modern Jewish studies is out with a survey on American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. The lengthy report is certainly worth reviewing in its entirety. I will highlight a few findings as well as some of the conclusions that the study’s authors draw. One caveat: the study as released does not break down responses by denomination (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform). I have e-mailed the center asking if such material is available and will certainly report back with the response I receive.

The study begins by telling us:

Sixty-three percent of respondents felt “very much” or “somewhat” connected to Israel. Seventy-five percent agreed that caring about Israel is an important part of their Jewish identities. The findings, when compared to earlier surveys asking similar questions, indicate overall stability in American Jewish attachment to Israel over the past quarter-century.

Respondents under age 45 were less likely to feel connected to Israel but no less likely to regard Israel as important to their Jewish identities. Insofar as age differences are not new—younger respondents have been less attached to Israel in surveys conducted at regular intervals over the past 24 years— the study attributes such differences to stages of the lifecycle rather than generational turnover.

On one hand, this completely debunks the Peter Beinarts who are convinced that Jews are becoming increasingly alienated from Israel because of the Jewish state’s recent conduct. There is no evidence of this. At all. And it is not surprising to me that as Jews age, have children, go through personal and professional challenges, and experience illnesses or the deaths of loved ones, they become more religious (in modern lingo “spiritual”) and connected to Israel. If you go to enough Purim plays, run years of kid-friendly seders, and maybe take an adult-education class when your kids are going to hadar, you’re very likely going to spend more time contemplating and worrying about Israel.

However, unlike the authors, I take no solace from the stability in the findings. If 37 percent of Jews have little or no connection to Israel, there is a problem. And the fact that there has been no improvement despite the presence of so many Jewish organizations and institutions is reason for concern. What are these groups doing?

Second, charm offensive or not, only 25 percent of American Jews approve of Obama’s handling of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Thirty-seven percent disapprove. Thirty-eight percent are not sure. This number is especially high among liberal or very liberal (49 percent) or slightly liberal (46 percent) respondents, suggesting to me that they just can’t bring themselves to disapprove of Obama. Really, 49 percent of liberals aren’t sure? No, I’d wager quite a bit that they are just afraid to say so. A whopping 86 percent of conservative or very conservative Jews disapprove of Obama’s performance, while only 24 percent of liberal or very liberal Jews do. (Unfortunately, this question was not asked: “Would you support Obama if he reversed his position on abortion?” I’m sure liberals would have an opinion about that.)

There is much more about ideology. I was surprised that the study found no difference in “attachment to Israel” between liberals and conservatives. Then I realized that this was meaningless. The authors explain:

Notwithstanding the lack of relationship between ideology and attachment, the present study showed that respondents’ general  political orientations played a large role in their perspectives on virtually all policy issues related to Israel. Conservatives were more likely than liberals to support the official Israeli version of the flotilla incident, blame pro-Palestinian activists for the outcome, and regard U.S. support for Israel as not enough. Although most respondents did not believe the flotilla incident had any effect on their general feelings about Israel, conservatives were more likely to believe the incident strengthened, and liberals to believe it weakened, their attachment to Israel. Political ideology was also a decisive factor in assessments of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the U.S.- Israel relationship and with respect to opinions about the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Thus, political ideology is a major factor in shaping opinions about specific Israeli and U.S. policies but only a minor factor—and one tied to respondents’ subjective assessment rather than objective measurement—in the determination of feelings of attachment to Israel.

To put it bluntly, liberals think they are attached to Israel, but they really aren’t in any meaningful sense. Good intentions are swell, but if that attachment consists in adopting positions at odds with Israel’s interests, then how attached are they really?

The results, like those regarding approval of Obama, are stark. For example, 82 percent of conservative or very conservative respondents blame pro-Palestinian activists for the flotilla incident, while only 16 percent blame Israel. Among those who are liberal or very liberal, only 44 percent blame the activists and a shocking 41 percent blame Israel. (But they are still “attached to Israel” — so it’s OK? No, not at all.) Asked about American support for Israel, 47 percent of conservative or very conservative Jews say the U.S. is not supportive enough, while 24 percent of liberal and very liberal respondents say so.

In future posts I will look at other findings, including opinion on settlements and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, no question was asked about Iran. I wonder why; it is, after all, the most serious threat the Jewish state has ever faced.

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