American Jews are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for Mideast peace and less willing to support the "painful compromises" that Israeli leaders say will be critical to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the same time, the gap between self-described Orthodox Jews and the non-Orthodox continues to widen on a host of Mideast questions, including the issues of Palestinian statehood and compromise on Jerusalem’s boundaries, according to the American Jewish Committee’s 2007 Survey of Jewish Public Opinion, released on Tuesday.
The survey results included some good news for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their quests for their parties’ presidential nominations and some bad news for communal leaders concerned about a fraying connection between Israeli and diaspora
Overall, the numbers pointed to a community firmly anchored to the political center but with a persistently Democratic cast that defies even the huge Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide.
That gap was particularly dramatic on the issue of the Iraq war. While a clear majority of American Jews think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake — 67 percent — 57 percent of Orthodox respondents said going into Iraq was the "right thing."
"The Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide may be the most important finding" in this year’s AJC survey, said David Harris, executive director of the group — particularly because of expected growth in the Orthodox sector due to higher birthrates.
And that means the political gap could eventually turn into a chasm, he suggested.
Opposition to compromises on the status of Jerusalem as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement edged up from 52 to 58 percent. Broken down by religious stream, the data showed a direct correlation between opposition and level of observance, with 77 percent of those identifying as Orthodox, 65 percent of Conservatives, 59 percent of Reform and 44 percent of "just Jewish" nixing compromise.
Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union and a leader in coalition efforts to prevent any compromise on Jerusalem, said the numbers are particularly striking "because the question was asked about compromise in the context of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, not under current conditions, which are much more unstable."
But, defying the conventional wisdom, a plurality of self-identified Orthodox Jews — 42 percent — continue to say they are Democrats, according to the new survey, while 30 percent call themselves Republicans. Overall, 15 percent of the Jewish sample identified as Republicans, the same as last year, 58 percent as Democrats — up 4 points from 2006.
"The survey indicates you still have a way to go before you get to a kind of messianic age for Jewish Republicans," said AJC research director David Singer.
Still, Orthodox Jews are twice as likely to be Republicans as the non-Orthodox, he said.
The mood of the 1,000 respondents questioned by telephone Nov. 6-25, was gloomy when it came to Middle East peace.
Asked if peace negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can lead to peace in the "foreseeable future" — the survey was conducted before last month’s Annapolis peace talks — 55 percent said no; 74 percent said Israel cannot "achieve peace with a Hamas-led Palestinian government."
There has been a steady erosion in Jewish support for Palestinian statehood in recent AJC surveys; this year’s Hamas takeover in Gaza may have accelerated the decline. Now, only 46 percent support creation of a Palestinian state "in the current situation," compared to 54 percent last year and 56 percent in 2005.
"The willingness to support compromises has been declining," said the AJC’s Harris. "The Gaza withdrawal did not lead to the hoped-for coexistence between Israel and Israel; instead it led to Gaza as a platform for terror attacks. That, I’m sure, raised the pessimism quotient."
An overwhelming proportion — 82 percent — agreed with the statement that "the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel," the same as last year.
"There has always been a kind of schizophrenia among a majority of American Jews," Harris said. "There is a yearning for peace, but a deep skepticism about whether peace is possible. There is a willingness to support major compromises for peace, but also a fear that the ultimate goal of the Arabs is the destruction of the state of Israel."
That trend continued in 2007, he said — but the new data points to a "new level" of pessimism, he said.
Jewish opposition to the Iraq war continued at a high level, except among Orthodox respondents. Over half — 52 percent — said President Bush’s troop "surge" in Iraq is having "no impact" on the situation, 30 percent saying it is making matters "better."
Contradicting a Zogby International poll earlier this fall that described a Jewish shift toward support for military action against Iran, the new AJC survey indicated that Jewish opposition to such action increased slightly, to 57 percent, despite a high level of concern that Iran may obtain nuclear weapons.
Economy As Top Issue
Domestically, the AJC survey pointed to a Jewish community that remains heavily liberal and strongly focused on domestic priorities. Forty-three percent identified themselves as falling on the "liberal" side of the political continuum, 25 percent in the conservative range, mostly unchanged from last year.
Republican identification held steady at 15 percent; 58 percent identified themselves as Democrats, up four points from last year, with a statistically insignificant drop in independent voters.
Asked which is the "most important problem facing the United States today," 22 percent said the "economy and jobs," 19 percent health care. The war in Iraq and terrorism came in third and fourth, respectively.
The AJC’s Singer said there was very little variation on that question by level of Jewish observance — except on the issue of terrorism, which 22 percent of Orthodox respondents identified as the nation’s top problem.
As anti-illegal immigration sentiment rages across the nation, only 8 percent of the Jewish respondents identified that as the most important problem.
On a separate question, 42 percent said illegal immigration is a ‘very serious problem," 37 percent a "somewhat serious problem" — fairly consistent with national polls of the broader electorate.
At the same time, Jews do not favor draconian solutions to the problem; 67 percent say illegal immigrants should be allowed to "remain to work if meet certain criteria."
An overwhelming 82 percent said it is "very important" for the United States to achieve energy independence. Asked how that could be accomplished, a strong majority — 69 percent — answered "developing alternative energy sources," down five points from 2006. "Greater energy production" was cited by only 7 percent.
With 11 months to go before next year’s presidential election, the AJC pollsters did not ask for presidential preferences. But one question should bring smiles to the faces of two frontrunners.
Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton is regarded favorably by 53 percent of respondents, unfavorably by 29 percent; Republican Rudy Giuliani got a positive rating from 41 percent, a negative one from 38 percent.
Both are the overwhelming favorites of Jews who identify with their respective parties.
"If I were Hillary I wouldn’t be unhappy with a 2-to-1 ratio of positives to negatives," said University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald, who studies Jewish politics.
Giuliani’s numbers, he said, are "OK … I can’t imagine any other Republican doing better with Jewish voters."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, now tied for first place among Republicans in several national polls, was not included in the AJC questions because he was considered a dark horse at the time the survey was conducted.
There was another number that set off alarm bells in some Jewish boardrooms — the proportion saying they feel "very close" to Israel was down 7 percent, to 30 percent. Forty percent — up 1 percent from 2005 — said they feel "fairly close. Those answering "fairly distant" increased 5 percent from last year, to 21 percent.
And the number who agree that "Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jewish" continued to edge downward — to 69 percent, from 74 percent last year and 79 percent in 2005.
"There has been an ebb and flow of those numbers in recent years," said the AJC’s David Harris. "But over the longer term, many of us fear that with the passage of time, the distance between [American and Israeli Jews] will grow. From once being siblings, we’re becoming second cousins."