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Who speaks for American Jews?

A new survey of American-Jewish opinion reveals surprising views on US policy toward the Middle East

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  • Richard Silverstein


J Street, the American-Jewish peace lobby, has released its first opinion survey on the level of support among American Jews for territorial compromise and a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. There will be those who may doubt the results, given J Street's left-wing politics. But the poll actually dovetails with surveys conducted by other groups, including the American Jewish Committee.

One of the more interesting results of the J Street survey was a mixed finding. When asked whether Israel played a "big role" in their US election vote, 58% answered "yes". But when listed among a group of other issues, Israel came out in the bottom tier of issues, and only 8% noted Israel was one of their two top issues in determining their vote for president or Congress. Theoretically, Jews believe Israel is an important political issue. But when push comes to shove, there are other bread-and-butter issues like the economy and the Iraq war that are far more important. This indicates that support for the Israel lobby is actually quite shallow among the Jewish community.

It's no surprise that Jews disapprove of President Bush's job performance, though his 16% approval rating is even lower than I thought it might be. Barack Obama beat John McCain in the poll by 62% to 32%. This is a respectable showing by McCain compared to past Republican presidential races. It should be a cause of some concern to Obama, however, who is polling behind several other recent Democratic presidential candidates. In fact, in the last three successful Democratic presidential races (Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter) none captured less than 71% of the Jewish vote.

Several Jewish Democratic political strategists have told me that Obama has grounds for concern in his polling among Jews. Undoubtedly it will be a close race, and to ensure his election he should be polling higher than he is. It appears that smears on Obama's patriotism, ethnic and religious background, and commitment to Israel by the Republican far-right have struck a chord among some American Jews who have voted Democratic in past elections. It would be a shame if Islamophobia were allowed to influence the Jewish vote and the outcome of the presidential election.

Clearly, Obama's recent visit to Israel, along with the Palestinian territories, was an attempt to bolster his credibility among American Jews. His advisers realise it can't hurt to have the candidate praying at the Western Wall as his hand lovingly caresses the stones of the sacred Jewish site. But emblematic of the problems afflicting him was the right-wing heckler standing nearby taunting repetitively like a mantra: "Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale!"
Respondents to the J Street survey disapproved of Bush's Middle East policy and believe he should be much more engaged in lobbying for peace.

Sixty-one percent believe Israel is "less secure" than it was before his presidency. Only 26% believe it is more secure. When asked whether the solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict involved negotiating peace agreements or relying on military force alone to achieve security, J Street respondents endorsed the former over the latter by 50% to 34%.

Fully 75% of those polled believe that the US should play an aggressive role in promoting a negotiated peace even if it means disagreeing publicly with the positions of the parties to the conflict. Seventy percent were even willing for the US to exert "pressure" on those parties it saw as impeding progress toward a settlement. This has to be bad news for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which lamely attempts to claim every election cycle that Democrats are soft on Israel because they are more likely to support US policy saying that Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace. This poll shows that American Jews would not have a problem with any administration that took an assertive role in defending this position.

Joe Lieberman isn't going to like the following results. Only 7% of poll respondents view evangelical Zionist leader John Hagee favourably. Only 19% have a favourable impression of Christians United for Israel, and just one in four said Jewish groups should form alliances with CUFI. Finally, Holy Joe himself only earns a 37% favourable rating (48% unfavourable).

Regarding Iran, 69% said they were more likely to support a candidate who called for negotiations with Iran and resorting to sanctions if they failed. In the AJC's December 2007 opinion survey, 57% opposed US military action against Iran to prevent it from gaining a nuclear weapon.

I found several results of the J Street poll alarming. Forty-eight percent were more likely to vote for a candidate who called for supporting Israel if it launched a pre-emptive attack on Iran. Not enough American Jews understand that US national interests may diverge from Israel's.

Sixty-five percent were more likely to support a candidate who said (falsely) that Arabs have repeatedly rejected Israeli peace offers. Only 44% support the idea of declaring East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state. In the AJC poll, only 36% said "Israel [should] be willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction."

Fifty-nine percent of J Street respondents support withdrawal from "most" of the West Bank. Fifty-two percent believe the US should tell Israel to "end settlement expansion", and 58% support Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for peace with Syria. By comparison, in a June 2007 poll conducted by James Zogby for Americans for Peace Now, 63% of American Jews supported a "settlement freeze" and 81% support Israel-Syria peace negotiations (though the questions are phrased differently).

Seventy-six percent of those polled by J Street believe Israel should negotiate with Hamas on behalf of peace. Fifty-four percent believe that IDF killings of Palestinian civilians lead to more terror. Sixty-one percent are opposed to collective punishment (Israel's current policy toward Gaza).

Eighty-one percent will support "any peace deal" agreed to by Israel with its Arab neighbours. One should keep this fact in mind when listening to the geshrei from the Orthodox community, which calls any territorial compromise on Jerusalem a betrayal of the Jewish people. Only a very small minority of American Jews agree.

Quite frankly, I was shocked that Aipac itself earned only a 38% favourable rating in the J Street poll (21% unfavourable). Sixty percent said it does not bother them when American Jews disagree with Israeli government policy. When asked whether traditional Jewish groups in general do a good job of representing the community's views on Israel, 49% agreed. When asked specifically whether Aipac does a good job, that number fell to 34%.

All this again shows the weakness of Aipac when it is viewed in the context of the overall Jewish community. The hawkish policy pronouncements of the Israel lobby and specifically Aipac represent little more than themselves and their members when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict. The majority of American Jews don't agree.


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