Have American Jews abandoned Israel in favor of President Obama? This is a central question in the minds of Israelis today.
In a poll of Israeli Jews conducted in mid-June by the Jerusalem Post, a mere 6 percent of respondents said they view Obama as pro-Israel. In stark contrast, a Gallup tracking poll in early May showed that 79 percent of American Jews support the president.
These numbers seem to tell us that U.S. Jews have indeed parted company with the Jewish state.
No American president has ever been viewed as similarly ill disposed toward Israel by Israelis. With only 6 percent seeing the administration as friendly, it is apparent that distrust of Obama is not a partisan issue in Israel. It spans the spectrum from far left to right, from ultra-Orthodox to ultra-secular. But with his 79-percent approval rating among U.S. Jews, it is clear the American Jewish community is quite sympathetically inclined toward Obama.
Appearances of course can be deceptive. And it is worth taking a closer look at the numbers to understand what they tell us about American Jewish sentiments regarding Obama and Israel. First, however, we should consider what it is about Obama that makes nearly all Israeli Jews view him as an adversary.
The Jerusalem Post poll showed a massive divergence between Israeli Jews and Obama on the issue of Jewish building beyond the 1949 armistice line. The Obama administration has refused to budge in its hard-line demand that Israel end all Jewish building in north, south, and east Jerusalem as well as in Judea and Samaria.
For its part, the Netanyahu government has refused to bow to this demand. Seventy percent of Israeli Jews support the Netanyahu government’s handling of the issue with the Obama administration and 69 percent oppose a freeze on Jewish building.
Beyond Obama’s agitation on the issue of Jewish construction, Israelis are dismayed by what they perceive as the generally hostile approach he has adopted in dealing with the Jewish state. This approach was nowhere more in evidence than in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on June 4.
It wasn’t just Obama’s comparison of Palestinian terrorism to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the American civil rights movement and antebellum slave rebellions that set people off. There was also Obama’s inference that Israel owes its legitimacy to the Holocaust.
It is that claim – Obama repeated it during his visit to Buchenwald – which forms the basis of the Islamic narrative against Israel. It argues that Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East, and that the only thing keeping Israel in place is European guilt about Auschwitz. Not only do Israelis of all political stripes reject this as factually false, they recognize it is inherently anti-Semitic because it ignores and negates 3,500 years of Jewish history in the land of Israel.
With Israeli distrust of Obama so apparent, and so easily explained, two questions arise: How has Obama managed to maintain American Jewish support despite his unprecedented unpopularity in Israel? And what is the likelihood that when push comes to shove, American Jews will stand with Israel against the president they so admire?
Obama’s great success in maintaining support among American Jews owes much to the fact that most American Jews do not pick up the same messages from Obama’s statements as do Israeli Jews. Whereas Israeli Jews recognize that it is morally obscene, strategically suicidal and historically inaccurate to suggest that Israel has no rights to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and that Jews have no right to live there, American Jews do not intuitively understand this to be the case. Consequently, while Israeli Jews recognize Obama’s calls for a total freeze in Jewish construction in these areas as inherently hostile, most American Jews do not.
Beyond this, for the past 15 years, Holocaust education – more so than Zionist education or Jewish religious education – has become the hallmark of American Jewish identity. As a consequence, American Jews may not see anything objectionable in Obama’s inference that Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust.
If the divergence in U.S. Jewish and Israeli attitudes toward Obama is simply a consequence of a lack of American Jewish awareness of the significance of Obama’s positions and policies for Israel, then the disparity in views can be easily remedied by a sustained issues awareness campaign by Israel and by American Jewish organizations. For many of Israel’s core American Jewish supporters, such a campaign would no doubt go a long way in energizing them to challenge the administration on its positions vis-à-vis Israel.
But there are other factors at work. According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2008 survey of American Jews, some 67 percent of American Jews feel close to Israel. These numbers, while high, are not significantly higher than similar support levels among the general U.S. population. (A survey of general American sentiment toward Israel conducted this month by the Israel Project shows that support for Israel has dropped by 20 percent in the past nine months – from 69 to 49 percent. Presumably, Jewish American support for Israel has also experienced a drop.)
More significantly, the AJC survey showed that in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential elections, only three percent of American Jews said a candidate’s position on Israel was the most important issue for them. Indeed, according to survey after survey of American Jewish opinion over the past decade, U.S. Jewish support for Israel, while widespread, is not particularly deep. This sentiment lends to the conclusion that American Jews will not abandon or temper their support for Obama simply because he is perceived as being hostile to Israel.
The picture, then, is a mixed bag. Support for Israel against Obama will likely rise as a consequence of a sustained educational campaign among American Jews about the issues in dispute and their importance for Israel’s security and national well-being. But even in that event, it is unclear how dramatic the shift would be. Given the shallowness of U.S. Jewish support for Israel, no doubt many American Jews will not care enough to reassess their positions on either Israel or Obama.
The one bit of encouraging news in all this is the persistence of support for Israel relative to Palestinians among rank and file Americans. Palestinians are supported by a mere five percent of Americans.
No doubt it is this disparity that is motivating leading Democratic politicians – most recently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey – to publicly distance themselves from the administration’s Mideast policies.
If U.S. Jewish leaders and pro-Israel activists can educate just a fraction of the American Jewish community, and motivate them to stand with Israel in a significant way against administration pressure, this will likely motivate still more lawmakers and politicians from both parties to maintain support for Israel against the administration. Certainly it will help convince Israelis we haven’t been abandoned by American Jewry. And that in itself would be no mean achievement.
Originally published in The Jewish Press.