Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC conference. (Cliff Owen/AP)
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University.

The conflict over the Iran deal has exposed a substantial rift between American Jews and the groups generally known as “the Jewish leadership,” “major Jewish organizations” and “influential Jewish organizations.” These leaders and groups are not, in fact, leading American Jewish opinion on the Iran deal. They are defying it. They doubtless represent the views of their board members, but those views are at odds with the majority of rank-and-file American Jews, who, in fact, support the deal more than Americans generally.

Many major Jewish organizations oppose the Iran deal. Among the most prominent are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (The Conference of Presidents explicitly states that it “advances the interests of the American Jewish community.”) Those who support the claims of AIPAC and its allies that dominate the Conference of Presidents often do not pause to note that the largest American Jewish organization to support the Iran deal, J Street, was denied membership in the otherwise inclusive umbrella body last year.

One of us (Cohen) conducted a poll last month for the Jewish Journal on the Iran accord. This is the only poll of American Jews on the subject to explicitly include Jews with no religion — those who said that, “aside from religion,” they “consider themselves Jewish.” They were asked their opinion of “an agreement . . . in which the United States and other countries would lift major economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.” Of the three-quarters who said they knew enough to offer an opinion on the deal, 63 percent supported it.

Simultaneously, the same polling agency asked the same questions of a sample of all Americans. Of those who said they knew enough, 54 percent supported the deal, while 46 percent opposed it. (Only 52 percent of this total sample said they knew enough.)

The poll asked whether Congress should “vote to approve or oppose the deal.” Jews leaned heavily toward approval, 54 percent to 35 percent, with 12 percent undecided. By contrast, the national sample divided 41 percent for vs. 38 percent against, with 21 percent undecided.

Jews support the agreement despite their mixed — even skeptical — views of its outcomes. Asked whether “this agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons over the next 10 years or so,” just 43 percent were “somewhat” or “very” confident, while 54 percent were “not so confident” or “not confident at all.”

So more than three-fifths of American Jews who express an opinion support the deal, compared with a bit more than half of Americans overall. Jews are far more sharply divided over the deal than non-Jews. The old saw “two Jews, three opinions” understates the matter.

But among the official “Jewish leaders,” this is hardly the case. AIPAC says that the deal “would facilitate rather than prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would further entrench and empower the leading state sponsor of terror.” The American Jewish Committee says the deal creates only “a temporary freeze” on Iranian nuclear weapons. The ADL agrees that it “represents a pause, not a stop to Iran’s nuclear weapons quest.” None of them offer any plausible alternative means to close the door on that quest.

Why is the “Jewish leadership” so unrepresentative of the population it claims to speak for on one of the most consequential and controversial American foreign policy decisions of our time? Why did these Jewish organizations announce plans to spend more than $20 million on advertising against the deal, while J Street raised $2 million to spend in favor?

For one thing, the dominant leadership is somewhat older and more conservative than Jews on the whole. Perhaps even more important, it disproportionately represents wealthy Jews. Contrary to age-old anti-Semitic propaganda, the wealthy are a small minority of all Jews, but among all Americans, this is a plutocratic age. Those who pay pipers call tunes. Some Democratic members of Congress, such as Sen. Charles Schumer , who objects to the deal, ignore the fact that among self-described Jewish Democrats polled, about five times as many support the deal as oppose it (62 percent vs. 13 percent). Of the 10 Jewish senators, Schumer is, at this writing, the only one to have formally voiced opposition to the deal. Five support it (Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Bernie Sanders and Brian Schatz) and the remaining four (Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal, Benjamin Cardin and Ron Wyden) have yet to declare.

What accounts for the disparity between the views of American Jews overall and the views of the Jewish establishment? As we learned by analyzing the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of Jewish Americans, those who belong to Jewish organizations (18 percent of all Jews) differ in many ways from those who do not. The affiliated are more affluent (31 percent have incomes of at least $150,000, as opposed to 24 percent among the unaffiliated), more Republican (18 percent vs. 12 percent) and less likely to identify as liberal (46 percent vs. 53 percent). Even in 2013, the organizationally affiliated were more likely to disapprove of President Obama’s handing of the Iran issue (42 percent as opposed to 33 percent).

But perhaps the most critical distinction is that the affiliated include hardly any of the large minority of Jews who profess no religion. These “Jews with no religion” (JNRs, in Pew’s lexicon) did not answer “Jewish” when asked their faith but did say they were Jewish when asked, “Aside from religion, do you consider yourself Jewish or partially Jewish, or not?” These JNRs account for 5 percent of Jewish organization members but more than five times as many (27 percent) nonmembers. In the Jewish Journal survey, while 39 percent of Jews-by-religion want Congress to reject the deal, only half as many (19 percent) of the JNRs are opposed.

While our survey technique explicitly included JNRs, other recent surveys on the views of American Jews — such as a July poll commissioned by the Israel Project, which opposes the nuclear deal — rely solely on the religion question to qualify respondents and fail to ask the follow-up: “Aside from religion, do you consider yourself Jewish or partially Jewish?” In other words, Jewish organizations are understandably populated by Jews who are more engaged in conventional Jewish life. Not so understandably, surveys that purport to delineate American Jewish opinion frequently ignore what is perhaps the fastest growing “denomination” in American Judaism: Jewish with no religion.

Plainly, the idea that American Jews speak as a monolithic bloc needs very early retirement. So does the canard that their commitment to Israel or the views of its prime minister overwhelms their support for Obama and the Iran deal. So does the idea that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads, or represents, the world’s Jews. So does the notion that unrepresentative “leaders” speak for American Jews generally on the urgent matter of nuclear arms in the Middle East. They may speak for their donors, leaders and members, but they certainly do not speak for the American Jewish public at large and, in particular, the large population of American Jewish liberals who overwhelmingly support the deal and want their senators and representatives to approve it next month.

Twitter: @toddgitlin

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