For Americans and for American Jews in particular, the Israel-America relationship is thought of as something special. But that special relationship has come with periods of perceived stress and strain and tension, and that is something we see reflected in the media, often with some bold headlines and in some polls which show some softening of support among more liberal Americans, such as what we find among Democrats.
The conventional wisdom out there is that Democrats, as a mostly liberal group, have a political or ideological orientation that creates at least some of the tension with what is considered currently a right wing government in Israel. And since Jews are mostly democrats, that tension would extend to them as well.
Are these perceptions accurate? Are American liberal Jews becoming alienated or disconnected with Israel? Is it accurate to say, as some polls have suggested, that concerns about Israel are a very low priority for American liberal Jews?
So, we looked for evidence by both examining data already collected in previous studies and by collecting some data of our own.
First, let’s look at some previous research on American Jews in general. The Pew study of 2013 had some key findings, which are relevant to our discussion.
First, many of you might not know that it isn’t so easy to get good, objective, scientific data on American Jews. As Pew researchers noted, it is “difficult and costly” to build a probability sample of American Jews.
Hold that thought, because we are going to get back to that in just a bit.
Pew also found that a significant amount of people identifying as Jews, about 22%, describe themselves as having no religion at all. Their identity as Jews is based entirely on what was described as “ancestry and culture.” When they looked at “millennials,” (roughly those born between the early 1980’s and around 2000) that percentage was even higher—around 32%. That is consistent with a generational trend of increasing lower identification with religion as the basis for identification as a Jew.
Now how does that relate to support and identification with Israel?
Pew found that 76% of those Jews (likely mostly older ones) who identified as “Jews by religion” (which is very different than “religious or observant” Jews) said they were “emotionally attached” in some way to Israel, while only 45% of those who said they have “no religion” felt that way.
Hold that thought as well.
In conducting our own research, we felt the key was looking at whether there is evidence for any number of impressions when it comes to American Jews in general, but American politically liberal Jews in particular. Together with my JCPA colleague Dan Diker, we set out to gather as much information we could from people whose job it is to deal with American Jews on a daily basis. We spoke with various Jewish leaders, with young activists and with community Rabbis. We tried to get an idea of what was happening and we then put together a study to take an in-depth look at how the Jewish liberal community looked at Israel, their own jewishness and a variety of other more general issues.
Our first step was to conduct two distinct focus group sessions with liberal American Jews.
Just a word on the study design—while our participants were all Jewish, they were not aware that was the criteria for participation. And since we mixed in questions about Israel and Jews as part of a larger set of questions, they did not easily identify the target of our study.
What we found was somewhat at odds both with conventional wisdom and with some of what the Jewish leaders and activists told us. And what we found was amazingly consistent in each of the two independently selected groups of liberal Jews we studied.
First, it was clear from our results that for two groups we looked at, Jewish issues carry a great deal of importance. Anti-Semitism was seen as a clear threat and an important social issue. The idea of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and the importance of a secure Israel was strongly supported. Our liberal American Jews were aware of the violence directed by Palestinians against Israel and strongly opposed it. They rejected any notion of Israel as either “racist” or “apartheid.”
Are these results surprising?
Well, for at least one non-random “convenience” sample we presented these results to, it was. Many of the Jewish leaders and activists we presented our findings to were also surprised. None of them expected liberal Jews to feel this way.
So the next question is: how representative are these results?
For sure, for any piece of data to be considered evidence of something, it needs to be repeated. Drawing conclusions from an isolated group, even from two isolated groups, needs to be done with extreme caution.
So our next step was to take a slightly different approach and try to include as many participants as we could. We took the route of an internet survey, again targeting self-defined American liberal Jews. But here, we also targeted a group a general American liberals and compared the two. We also tested two groups of Jews, one group to whom we stated that we were interested in their opinions as Jews, and another group where this criterion was not revealed. Like our initial focus group, questions about Israel and Jews were mixed in unobtrusively among the other issues we looked at.
In our next video, we will review what we found.