8 fascinating trends in how American Jews think about Israel

October 3, 2013

Children of American and Canadian Jews arrive at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to immigrate to Israel. (Shaul Golan/AFP/Getty Images)

There are dozens of fascinating details in a new Pew Research study on American Jews. But a few that jumped out at me have to do with American attitudes toward Israel. While Americans remain supportive of Israel across the board, the nature of that support and the sort of Israel they envision seems to at time bifurcate between two groups, roughly split along religious lines.

On one side are the reform and secular Jews who make up 65 percent of the U.S. Jewish population, sometimes joined by the 17 percent who identify with conservative Judaism. This group is more likely to worry about or criticize Israeli policies toward Palestinians. It's less likely to claim an emotional attachment to Israel and less likely still to argue that the country was promised to Jews by God.

On the other side are the small minority of Orthodox Jews – about 10 percent of American Jews – joined by America's much larger community of white Evangelical Christians. This block is more likely to oppose an independent Palestinian state, to support settlements and to argue that Israel was promised to Jews by God. That last point is particularly important for how you view Israel-Palestine, as it could suggest that Israel should control all Palestinian land outright and permanently – and that seeing this through is a divinely mandated mission.

To be clear, both groups surely see themselves as pro-Israel. U.S. policy in the Middle East tends to be deeply supportive of Israel for many reasons, but it's no secret that one is that lots of American voters want it that way, and often that includes American Jews and Evangelical Christians. Just as within Israel itself, the nature of their support can vary widely, as can the specific policies that they believe would best serve Israel.

The hints in this Pew report of two very different views of Israel, perhaps split along religious lines, has significant ramifications for U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinian territories. The sort of pro-Israeli approach preferred by one block looks very different than that of the other – raising the question of which group gets to define what "pro-Israel" means in America's politics and thus its foreign policy.

To illustrate how and when these two groups divide (and when that division narrows or blurs), here are eight interesting trends from the report:

1. Sharp divide on whether Israel was "given to the Jewish people by God"

• 40 percent of American Jews believe the land that is now Israel was given to the Jewish people by God.

• 55 percent of American Christians believe this – far more than even most Jews – including 64 percent of Protestant Christians.

• The groups least likely to believe this are secular Jews (16 percent), reform Jews (35 percent) and Catholics (38 percent).

• This view is overwhelmingly common among Orthodox Jews (84 percent) and white Evangelical Christian (82 percent). If you've been to Israel, you have surely seen large tour groups of American Evangelical Christians.

2. Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christian share skepticism of two-state solution

• 61 percent of American Jews agree that "there a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully. Compare this to 50 percent of the American public.

• The biggest supporters of a two-state solution are secular Jews (72 percent), Conservative Jews (62 percent) and Reform Jews (58 percent).

• The biggest skeptics are Orthodox Jews (30 percent) and white Evangelical Christian (42 percent). Note the similarities between this number and the groups who believe Israel was given to the Jews by God.

3. Few trust Palestinian peace-making; Israel's efforts also viewed skeptically

• Only 21 percent of secular Jews agree that the "Israel government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement" with the Palestinians. That's a staggeringly low number.

• 61 percent of Orthodox Jews believe this, including 73 percent of Modern Orthodox. The only other religious group for which over half believe this is Conservative Jews, at 52 percent. (Data for Christians is not available on this question.)

• Among all Jews, 38 percent say they believe the Israel government is making a sincere effort.

• The Palestinian leadership scored far worse among all group. Among all American Jews, only 12 percent believe it's making a sincere effort toward peace. That's highest among Conservative Jews (14 percent) and lowest among Ultra-Orthodox (6 percent).

4. Only one in three Jews feels strong "emotional attachment to Israel"

• 30 percent of American Jews answered "very attached" when asked the level of their "emotional attachment to Israel." 39 percent said "somewhat attached" and 22 percent said "not very attached," with only 9 percent citing no attachment.

• Still, that means 69 percent feel some meaningful level of attachment to Israel. More than half of every group answered either "very" or "somewhat" attached – except for secular Jews, who selected "very" and "somewhat" by 12 and 33 percent, respectively. This group makes up 22 percent of American Jews.

• Orthodox Jews feel the strongest attachment, with 61 percent saying they feel very attached and 30 percent somewhat attached.

5. No group supports settlements, but Orthodox come closest

• 44 percent of American Jews say the ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank "hurts Israel's security." 17 percent say it helps; 29 percent say it makes no difference.

• Only 16 percent of Orthodox Jews say the settlements hurt Israeli security. 34 percent say they help (including 38 percent among Modern Orthodox) and 39 percent say it does not make a difference.

• Reform and secular Jews are most likely to say that settlements hurt Israeli security, at 50 and 55 percent, respectively.

• Conservative Jews say three-to-two that settlements hurt rather than help Israeli security (36 and 23 percent, respectively), making them the group closest to split.

6. Most Jews feel Israel gets the right amount of U.S. support

• 54 percent of American Jews say that the level of U.S. support for Israel is "about right." 11 percent say the U.S. is too supportive and 31 that it's not supportive enough.

• The general American public is more likely to skew toward wanting less support for Israel. 22 percent say their country is too supportive of Israel; 25 percent want to see more U.S. support for Israel. 41 percent say it's about right.

• Only Orthodox Jews are more likely than not to say that U.S. support for Israel is insufficient. 53 percent say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel. They are most closely followed by white Evangelical Christians, with 46 percent saying this.

• The group most likely to believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel: Americans who are not religiously affiliated, 35 percent of whom say this. Among Jews, it's secular Jews, at 27 percent (50 percent of this group sees support levels as "about right").

7. Most Jews approve of Obama's handling of Israel

• 60 percent of Jews say they approve of Obama's policy toward Israel. This is highest among Jews over 65 (at 66 percent) and Reform Jews (65 percent). Conservative Jews are also supportive (60 percent), with secular Jews a touch less so (54 percent).

• Support is lowest among Christian groups; 38 percent of American Christians support Obama's Israel policy, including just 26 percent of white Evangelical Christians.

• The most critical Jewish group is Orthodox Jews, 36 percent of whom approve of Obama's approach to Israel.

8. "Caring about Israel" not a top feature of Jewish identity

• Pew came up with nine different traits commonly associated with Jewish identity and asked Jewish respondents to answer whether each is "essential to being Jewish." Among those nine traits, "caring about Israel" was the fifth most likely to be selected. 43 percent called this essential.

• Traits more likely to be considered "essential to being Jewish" than caring about Israel, from most to least popular: Remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical and moral life, working for justice/equality, being intellectually curious.

• Among religious Jews, 49 percent called caring about Israel an essential Jewish trait. It still ranks fifth for this group.

• Among secular Jews, only 23 percent called caring about Israel an essential Jewish trait. It ranks sixth, behind "having a good sense of humor."


Taken in the aggregate, these trends from Pew's report seem to underscore the conclusions that American journalist Peter Beinart reached in his landmark 2010 piece for the New York Review of Books, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," which later became his 2012 book, "The Crisis of Zionism."

Beinart warned that, as Israeli policies divide the Jewish community in the United States, the liberal-leaning American Jews who have played such a major role in U.S. support for Israel could find themselves either turned or driven away from Zionism. From his 2010 essay:

Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. ... For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead."

As Beinart's "crisis of Zionism" plays out among young and liberal-leaning Jews, their political division from Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians could become even more pronounced. The question is which of these two blocks will get to set the agenda of American Zionism, and thus perhaps of U.S. policy toward Israel. It will surely be supportive of Israel, that much seems clear, but the nature of that support and the sorts of policies that are seen as most in Israel's interest are open questions.

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