The Complicated Views Of Liberal Jews
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The Complicated Views Of Liberal Jews

Irwin J. Mansdorf
Irwin J. Mansdorf

Over the past number of years, there has been much discussion about a “divide” between Israel and the United States, particularly as it applies to distancing of Jews in America from what is perceived and described as a right-wing government in Israel. Since most American Jews are considered “liberal” to one degree or another, and since the current government in Israel is perceived as “right-wing,” identification with and support for Israel among the American Jewish population is said to be suffering.

While conventional wisdom may support such a conclusion, a series of inquiries into the question of the identification with Israel among American Jewish liberals shows a more nuanced picture, different from what many may think.

At the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, we chose to address the question of how American Jews, and American liberal Jews in particular, relate to Israel. We looked at any number of variables and tested the assumptions by posing the issues to different samples of American liberal Jews. Our research showed that, contrary to some opinions we heard, liberal Jews do in fact show distinct identification with and support for Israel, although things are not all that simple or clear-cut.

Overall, Jewish liberals see the importance of keeping Israel a “Jewish” state, they reject the notion of Israel as an “apartheid” state, they see Palestinian violence as an illegitimate means of protest and most see “Zionism” as a legitimate national liberation movement.

That is what the data showed. But when we spoke separately to individual Jews, including Jewish community leaders, both liberal and not-so-liberal, many were surprised. Jews on the right painted liberal Jews with a broad brush of being antagonistic towards Israel, supportive of Palestinian rights, minimizing Israeli security needs and being more concerned with global social issues than with anything Israeli or Jewish. On the left, we found people who adopted the conventional “distancing” narrative and described Israel as a country they see drifting towards authoritarian and anti-democratic rule. In short, the impressions were different from the data.

So, is the data wrong?

Possibly, but what is more likely is that people chose to bend the data according to their ideology and personal views. For example, about half of our respondents said that it was true that Zionism is a “legitimate national liberation movement,” certainly not an overwhelming statistic. But by the same token, around 70 percent felt that Israel represents the need for a “safe refuge” for Jews. Taken together, we can point to the less than enthusiastic endorsement for “Zionism,” but we can also say that in practice, Jews support Zionism’s goal, namely the need for a Jewish state.

Other issues were much clearer. Let’s take the matter of which social issue is most important to liberal Jews. It was not black lives matter or Islamophobia, which, by the way, general liberals do see as more important. The top “most important” issue for Jewish liberals (we tested three separate groups) was “anti-Semitism.” But again, these results only tell part of the story. A further look at the data raises some questions about who and what is “anti-Semitic.”

On the right, there appears to be a clear impression that the left, including the Democrats, are moving towards a less sympathetic and supportive view of Israel, and, by extension, of Jews. Our data showed that liberal Jews did not share those feelings.

When individual members of Congress talk about Jews having dual loyalty or undue financial influence, those on the right see this as anti-Semitic. They also see it as representing a problem that the Democrats as a whole may have with Jews. But when we specifically asked our samples of liberal Jews if the Democrats have a “Jewish problem” the answer was a resounding “no.” So it was “yes” to anti-Semitism being a major issue for them as American Jews, but “no” to seeing any “Jewish problem” within the Democratic Party as a whole.

So our research showed that most liberal Jews support Israel, are concerned about anti-Semitism and condemn Palestinian violence. Does that mean the impression that many more right-leaning supporters of Israel have of liberal Jews as not being concerned with Israel is incorrect?

The short answer is, yes it is, with a big “but.”

When we looked at liberal Jews in general, our results show they are solidly supportive of Israel. But when we teased out those under the age of 60, we started to see a pattern of response that began to approach, but did not reach, the lower levels of support that “general” (non-Jewish) liberal Americans showed; less supportive of Israel and Zionism and less critical of Palestinian behavior. About a quarter of the Jewish “under 60” group agreed with the “general liberals” that Israel represents a “colonialist ideology” while only about 15 percent of the overall Jewish liberal group felt that way.

Perhaps the most critical finding in our study was not what differentiated the Jewish liberal groups, but what they had in common. When it came to looking at how they define their ethnic identity, it was, consistent with previous studies, more in the cultural and social sense than in the religious sense. But what was particularly striking was our finding that despite the common concern with anti-Semitism and general support of Israel, liberal Jews did not attach much importance to either themselves or their children choosing a “life partner” from their own ethnic group. If that piece of data is accurate, what does that say about Jewish continuity? And what does it say about a “Jewish vote” in future generations?

As with any research, more study is needed, more data is needed and more patience in understanding the results is needed. Sounding the alarm on the basis of one set of data is not really justified, but ignoring what appears to be staring the American Jewish community and its leadership in the face may ultimately prove tragic.

Irwin (Yitzchak) Mansdorf is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The full report on the research discussed here appears on the JCPA website, http://jcpa.org.

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