A “possibly meaningful minority” of American Jews “is opposed to, or not strongly in favor, of a ‘Jewish’ Israel.” That’s one of the findings presented in a new study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The center, a conservative think tank, concluded that attitudes of American Jews toward Israel “may be shifting.” Irwin Mansdorf conducted a two-year study of surveys and focus groups, including two in recent months. He stated the he finds the numbers relevant, valid and troubling.
The report notes that the findings seem to indicate “that while a general ‘pro-Israel’ description for Jewish Americans may be correct, we may now have to look at what ‘pro-Israel’ means for many of them.” For those who think this term lost its coherence long ago, this question seems long overdue. Defining someone as “pro-Israel” or pro-anything is supposed to simplify complicated questions. But as I wrote more than a decade ago, the problem is that along the way the term ‘pro-Israel’ “has been used so often to describe so many conflicting positions that it has become practically meaningless, more confusing than clarifying.”
This is certainly true when among liberal Jews in America, “the concept of Israel as having a primarily ‘Jewish’ identity” is supported without reservations by “less than 28%.” Twenty-two percent either do not agree or agree only a “little bit” that Israel ought to have a a primarily Jewish identity.
Is this becoming a real thing for a meaningful minority of American Jews? Mansdorf suspects that it is. Pondering the possibility of someone calling herself “pro-Israel” while not supporting a “Jewish Israel” would be absurd. No less absurd than someone saying he is pro-democracy but opposes free elections. No less absurd than someone saying she is pro-Jewish yet opposes the freedom to study Talmud.
Can one be supportive of Israel but consistently against its policies?
The waters become murkier when American Jewish support for certain policies and priorities is examined. Can one be supportive of Israel but consistently against its policies? This is a trickier question to answer, because many of Israel’s policies are aimed at keeping it a “primarily Jewish” state and are designed to keep Jews safe in a hostile world. The real question is whether one opposes the policies because he or she thinks they would not produce the desired outcome. In this case, the debate is tactical while the goal is shared. Or maybe one opposes the policies because he or she has priorities that take precedence over keeping Israel Jewish and safe. In this case, the debate is about much more than tactics and might preclude a shared goal that we can call “pro-Israel.”
The new study proclaims that “Israel-related issues are not a deciding or ‘make or break’ factor” for Jewish American voters. It’s not the first study to reach this conclusion. And yet, the new study tested this often-ignored fact in the most contemporary way possible. The researchers asked Jewish and liberal voters what they’d do if Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) or Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — highly visible critics of Israel — ran in their district? Would they vote for them, or would they prefer a more pro-Israel moderate Republican candidate?
About one-third said they’d vote for Tlaib and Omar. Another quarter said they’d vote for “the candidate with whom I agreed most despite Israel.” About 55% of the liberal Jewish vote went to Tlaib and Omar. Tlaib has a T-shirt that erases Israel from the map. Omar singles out her opponents’ Jewish donors. Only 14% said they would vote for the moderate Republican. Still others would sit it out, or do not yet know what they’d do.
Maybe this tells us something new about American Jews and Israel. But an even likelier conclusion is that it tells us something about the state of political warfare in America.