The debate on Israel sharpens among US Jews

The debate on Israel sharpens among US Jews
6 min read
26 Jul, 2021
Opinion: A recent poll of American Jewish voters shows that many are much more progressive on the issue of Palestine than the politicians who represent them, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
The Los Angeles Nakba 73: Resistance Until Liberation rally and protest outside the Consulate of Israel on 15 May, 2021. [Getty]

A new poll of American Jewish voters has caused consternation among supporters of Israel's ongoing occupation and highlighted a sharpening divide within the Jewish community.

American Jews have always been overwhelmingly liberal, and that trend continues unabated in the latest findings. Fifty percent of those polled identified as liberal or progressive, while only 16 percent identified as conservative. US President Joe Biden registers a stunning 80 percent approval rating, one which is only slightly diminished when asked about his handling of the US relationship with Israel (74 percent).

This is all what one would expect, as is the fact that Israel was a key factor in the voting choices of very few of those polled. Out of 15 issues named, only two ranked below Israel. That also follows a long-term trend, so why the worry in the Israel lobby?

"28 percent agreed with calling Israel an apartheid state, while 22 percent said that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinian people"

Much of the concern lies in the responses to questions about what sort of criticism of Israel may be valid, or anti-Semitic. Almost one third agreed with calling Israel an apartheid state, while 22 percent said that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinian people. 

Perhaps even more telling, 34 percent said that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is similar to racism in the US, while an additional 30 percent said it was not similar, but that saying so is not anti-Semitic. 

"Below are some statements about Israel. For each one, do you agree or disagree with the statement? If you disagree, do you believe the statement is anti-Semitic or is not anti-Semitic?: 'Israel's treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the US'."

The wording of the question suggests that at least some of that latter group disagreed with the statement because they believed that the treatment of Palestinians by Israel was worse than racism in the US.

Voices

It's even more striking that these responses are coming at a time when American Jews are increasingly worried about anti-Semitism. 

Ninety percent of respondents said they were either very (54 percent) or somewhat (36 percent) concerned about rising anti-Semitism. By a ratio of three to one, they also understood that the hatred of Jews was coming from the right, not the left, which is often where the false notion that anti-Semitism is generated by support for Palestinians is believed to be centred.

The implication is clear: More and more American Jews do not support Israel's actions against the Palestinians. The most recent assault on the Gaza Strip, like its predecessors, has sharpened criticisms of Israel even among the Jewish community.

"The implication is clear: More and more American Jews do not support Israel's actions against the Palestinians"

We must not overstate the extent of that criticism. An overwhelming majority of American Jews feel attached to Israel and the one thing a clear majority agrees on is that denying Israel's "right to exist" is anti-Semitic. But, while the American Jewish community is not suddenly becoming a group of Palestine solidarity activists, there are clear shifts which put them well ahead of most Democrats in Washington.

For example, while 71 percent of American Jews say it is "important" that Israel continue to receive military aid, 58 percent support restricting its use in the West Bank and Gaza. US law, theoretically, already should do that, and the fact is that such restrictions are not likely to make Israel think twice about its human rights violations.

Yet the lobby supporting Israel's occupation, led by such groups as AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel, fights even these restrictions with unmatched ferocity. They do so out of fear that once military aid to Israel is conditioned on things like the law and human rights, eventually not only would aid be threatened, but so might the US's lock-step support of Israel's policies.

Not so long ago, the idea that Israel was an apartheid state, or even one which was racist against Palestinians was believed to be the province of the fringes of the Jewish community. In the mainstream, there was, at most, merely a debate in how far Israel's security concerns could justify its occupation and its consequent denial of Palestinian rights. The occupation itself was attributed to "Arab violence" and Israel was seen as showing restraint, which, at times, faltered.

That is no longer the case.

Substantial parts of the Jewish community now have serious problems with Israel's behaviour, even as they continue to support its existence as a Jewish state. While only a small minority of American Jews could be realistically classified as "anti-Zionist", a majority now believes that the US should, at the very least, make sure that it does not support the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and many believe it should take positive steps to end it.

Even though Israel is a minor concern as far as American Jewish voting, it is becoming a much more divisive issue within the Jewish community. A recent attempt by centre-right Jewish groups to bring a "wide tent" together for a rally in Washington against anti-Semitism fizzled out when more moderate Jewish groups balked at supporting the rally due to its organisers repeated conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

"Democrats have long appealed to the Jewish community with hawkish views and rhetoric on Israel. But the polling data clearly demonstrates that their target audience wants to hear a different message"

This increasing tension has real implications for policy, particularly among Democrats in both Congress and the White House. Democrats have long appealed to the Jewish community with hawkish views and rhetoric on Israel. But the polling data, which has been trending in this direction for years, clearly demonstrates that their target audience wants to hear a different message.

Democrats trying to justify hawkish policies on Palestine will not be able to hide behind the Jewish community for much longer. They support aid to Palestinians, they disapprove of the occupation, and they want the US to press for its end, albeit while maintaining the Jewish state and paying attention to Israel's "security concerns".

Most importantly, what we are seeing is a broadening and sharpening of the policy debate. Opinions that were once considered anathema are now part of the mainstream discourse in the Jewish community which, for better or worse, sets the tone for the US. It's a trend Joe Biden and Democrats must pay attention to as they move forward.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.