When Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2008, he spelled out a new doctrine in America’s relationship with Israel.
“I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel,” he said. “That can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”
His election coincided with the formation of J Street, which bills itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” who favor policies leading to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was formed in response to what some perceived as a rightward shift by AIPAC, the bipartisan lobby group created to strengthen and promote the U.S.-Israeli partnership.
The chasm that was opened — which made it increasingly difficult even to have an honest discussion about Israel in the Jewish community — focused on such issues as Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Israel’s opposition to the Obama-crafted Iranian nuclear deal. But while Obama was critical of some Israeli policies, he remained steadfast in his commitment to the Jewish state — even arranging to give Israel $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade, the largest such aid package in U.S. history.
Now, a decade after he took office and as the midterm elections loom, the former president’s nuanced approach to what it means to be pro-Israel is being reflected in the American Jewish community. A newly released poll of American Jewish voters found that although 92 percent of them call themselves pro-Israel, nearly 6 in 10 said they are critical of some or many Israeli government policies. Many observers believe that the latter sentiment has not been measured in polls to date.
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Process, said the figure “reflects that just like in the United States, people can be patriotic and still criticize this government. More American Jews are coming to the view that they can love Israel and still have criticism of government policy as well; these two ideas are not contradictory.”
He said he supports those Jews, observing: “I think we should have a more mature view of criticism. That is a good thing. Of course, there are degrees — if you are going to take your criticisms to be so wide ranging to mean that Israel does not have a right to defend itself…”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said she was “not surprised by the results.”
“I’m glad the question was asked,” she said. “It gives a little more texture in terms of American Jewish attitudes towards Israel. It makes total sense that [59 percent of] American Jews can be supportive of Israel but critical of the current extremist government that is expanding and entrenching the occupation, attacking democratic institutions and threatening the very future of the country.
“There is a clear reason that American Jews have been moving towards groups like T’ruah, J Street and the New Israel Fund, which are all organizations that are invested in Israel and therefore invested in changing the policies that are threatening it. … It is clear that most American Jews are invested in a two-state solution and understand that [President Donald] Trump’s policies — as well as his basic lack of knowledge about the politics of the area — are endangering that possibility.”
The poll, conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute, which was founded by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, found that a large majority of Jews disapprove of Trump’s handling of nearly every issue they were asked about. They gave Trump an overall job disapproval rating of 75 percent. Only 51 percent said they approved of his handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, 62 percent disapproved of American relations with Palestinians, 70 percent disagreed with his decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, and 56 percent disapproved of his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
“I think most Jews understood the Embassy move was a symbolic move meant primarily to pacify his evangelical Christian base,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “But it set back the peace process instead of moving it forward.”
But Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said he doubted the “accuracy of the poll,” saying he could not believe there is such antipathy to the U.S. move of its embassy to Jerusalem.
“I have been to AIPAC conventions and the No. 1 applause line was moving the embassy and the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” he said. “To have a poll that says the Jewish community is split on that is one I don’t believe. The rank-and-file I meet are massively supportive of it. And those at AIPAC were against the Iran deal and wanted President Trump to reimpose sanctions against Iran. For the poll to say that 70 percent disapproved of the president’s actions makes no sense whatsoever.”
What the poll did was disprove the belief that “the Jewish community is poised to desert the Democratic Party,” said pollster Mark Mellman, whose Mellman Group conducted the survey of 800 likely Jewish voters (Oct. 2-11) and which had a margin of error of 3.5 percent. “This survey should be a surprise to those people.”
The poll found that 68 percent of Jews identify as Democrats (compared with 47 percent of American voters). In addition, only 25 percent of Jews identify as Republicans, compared with 44 percent of Americans.
In addition, it found that 74 percent of Jews said they planned to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 and only 26 percent said they would vote for Trump. That is nearly the same percentage of Jews who voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“It’s the same Trump,” explained Mellman. “People knew he was pretty bad before, and they know it now. The approval rating of most presidents once they are in office improves because people believe they are doing a better job [than anticipated]. But Trump’s approval rating is not much different from where it was after he was inaugurated.” (Trump’s approval rating, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this week, is now 47 percent, the highest mark of his time in office.)
Weiss said he believes the poll was commissioned by the Democrats “to alleviate Democratic concerns over some prominent Democratic candidates who will likely be elected to the House and who are not favorable to Israel. … The poll is trying to play down the impact of that by saying that this is not such a big concern and that Jews will still support the Democratic Party.”
Weiss was referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whose congressional district covers parts of Queens and the Bronx and who has been critical of Israel’s “occupation of Palestine”), Rashida Tlaib of Michigan (who is poised to become the first Palestinian-American woman and first Muslim woman to serve in Congress and who favors a one-state solution), and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who has called Israel an “apartheid regime.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Ron Klein, chair of the JDCA, and Halie Soifer, its executive director, dismissed the influence the three women will have on what they see as the party’s support for Israel, but the candidates’ very existence speaks to how tricky the Israel question is both inside and outside of the Jewish community.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he agreed with the poll findings that 59 percent of Jews are supportive of Israel but disagree with some or many Israeli government policies. He added: “The vast majority of Americans support America and have differences [with some policies]. Having a variety of views in democracies is not a weakness but a strength as long as they have the unifying support and affinity for the state. Criticisms could come from the right or the left. You will find people who have a lot of differences with Israel, a particular party or policy. If there is someone who is hostile [to the state], that is a legitimate concern.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he too agreed that a person can be both pro-Israel and yet critical of some Israeli policies.
“I publicly condemned the Oslo disaster,” he said, referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization that was designed to pave the way for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But he cautioned that there are limits to the criticism of Israel and that he believed an American graduate student, Lara Alqasem, 22, went too far when she became the president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to destroy the Jewish state through an economic boycott.
He noted that she helped organize a “national day of action” supporting Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted of participating in a bombing that killed two men in a Jerusalem supermarket and that Alqasem “fervently supported BDS.”
Israeli authorities detained her at Ben-Gurion Airport when she arrived in the country earlier this month to attend classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, citing her SJP activities. But last week Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered her release, with one judge saying her current BDS activities are flimsy and that it appeared the state had blocked her entry due to her political views.