Israel retains broad support among Americans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, but that has not prevented fractious debate about Israeli policies.
Today’s divisions over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress have a partisan hue, with Republicans largely supporting the speech and Democrats largely opposed. Last summer, although national surveys reported substantial support for Israel in its war with Hamas, they also reported a generational divide, with older Americans more likely than younger Americans to view Israel’s conduct of the war as justified.
With fractures in the pro-Israel consensus developing along partisan and generational lines, observers of American Jewish opinion are once again warning that Israel’s policies—on Iran, Gaza, Palestinian peace talks, and Israeli democracy—are alienating liberal American Jews, especially in the younger generation. Given that three-quarters of American Jews vote democratic and nearly half identify as liberal, it is a reasonable concern. But is it true?
Last summer, our routine evaluation of Taglit-Birthright Israel became a serendipitous natural experiment allowing us to assess the feelings and beliefs of 18 to 26-year-old American Jews about Israel before and after the Israel-Hamas war. The research gives us an unparalleled chance to assess whether or not Israel’s conduct in the war alienated or promoted support for Israel. Applicants to Birthright are a large and fairly representative group of young adult Jews.
In April 2014 we surveyed over 40,000 eligible applicants for the summer trips, and received more than 12,000 responses. The survey collected information about applicants’ Jewish backgrounds and their feelings and opinions about Israel—the latter to serve as a baseline. Applicants were also asked how frequently they sought news about Israel and about their general political orientation.
In late August, following the summer travel season, we again surveyed both trip participants and those who applied but did not go. Because the Israel-Hamas war had dominated the summer headlines—including much speculation about its impact on American Jewry—we included several sets of questions about the war. (See methodological information here.)
Figure 1 shows pre-and post-trip responses to the question “How connected are you to Israel?” The bars on the left show the responses of trip participants. Unsurprisingly, participants felt much more connected to Israel at the end of the summer, after their trips. This increase in feelings of connection among trip participants is similar to what we’ve seen in previous program evaluations.
But now look at the bars on the right side of the figure—the bars for non-participants. As a group, the non-participants also felt more connected to Israel at the end of the summer (39 percent, compared to 33 percent in April). In previous studies, we have not seen substantial change between pre-and post-trip surveys in the non-participant group. For this group, the critical intervening event between the two surveys was the Israel-Hamas war.
Another way to assess young adult Jews’ attachment to Israel is the extent to which they seek news about Israel. As shown in Figure 2, both participants and non-participants sharply increased their attention to news about Israel over the course of last summer. In April, 39 percent of participants and 44 percent of non-participants reported seeking news of Israel once a week or more during the previous month. In the August survey, those numbers climbed to 92 percent for participants and 87 percent for non-participants.
But what about the liberals? In our survey, 43 percent of Birthright applicants self-identified as liberal or very liberal; the rest self-identified as slightly liberal, moderate, slightly conservative, conservative or very conservative. Figure 3 shows that feelings of connection to Israel generally decrease from right to left across the political spectrum—conservatives feel more connected than moderates who, in turn, feel more connected than liberals.
Nonetheless, between April and August connection to Israel increased in all groups. In fact, the largest proportional increase was among the liberals.
Because we surveyed the same population twice, we can analyze changes at the level of individual respondents. Among liberals, 41 percent became more connected to Israel between the two surveys; 49 percent maintained the same level of connection and just 10 percent became less connected.
How can we explain these findings? Responses to questions we asked in the August survey on attitudes about the conflict suggest an explanation.
As shown in Figure 4, responses to a question on whether Israeli actions in the war were justified indicate that a vast majority—90 percent of participants and 81 percent of non-participants—felt that Israeli actions were mostly or completely justified.
Figure 5 shows answers to a question, “Thinking about the recent Israel/Hamas conflict, to what extent did you feel support for Israel? Feel estranged from Israel?” Seventy percent of participants and 61 percent of non-participants very much felt support for Israel during the conflict; just 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, felt no support at all. Similarly, just 4 percent of participants and 7 percent of non-participants very much felt estranged from Israel during the conflict.
As expected, respondents’ feelings about Israel during the war were filtered through their general political orientations, with moderates and conservatives more likely than liberals to view Israel’s conduct as justified and to feel support. Nonetheless, 78 percent of liberals viewed Israel’s conduct in the war as mostly or completely justified compared to 21 percent who viewed it as unjustified. Similarly, as shown in Figure 6, a majority of liberals very much felt support for Israel and just 29 percent very much or somewhat felt estranged.
Thus, the overall increase in feelings of connection to Israel in the context of last summer’s war reflected general approval—including among liberals—of Israel’s wartime conduct and broad solidarity with the Jewish state.
This study is the first that directly examines what happens among American Jews when Israel is engaged in a controversial war. Our findings counter much of the conventional wisdom about American Jews and Israel. The hypothesis that the war alienated liberal American Jews is not supported. In fact, the war seems to have narrowed the gap between liberals and conservatives and generated broad solidarity with Israel, across the political spectrum.
Of course, the samples for our study of Jewish opinion are comprised of applicants to Birthright—individuals with at least a modicum of interest in Israel. The program’s scale is such, however, that its applicant pool extends to almost every corner of the Jewish community. Last summer, nearly one third of applicants came from intermarried homes and about one quarter had not had any prior formal Jewish education. At a rate of about 50,000 applicants annually, nearly half of all American Jews eventually apply to the program.
Notably, the support young adult American Jews expressed for Israel in the context of last summer’s war was not characteristic of the broader population of American young adults. Our question on whether Israel’s conduct in the war was justified was based on an item used in a Gallup survey administered in mid-July. That survey found that just 25 percent of 18-29 year old Americans viewed Israel’s conduct as justified; 51 percent viewed it as unjustified (24 percent had no opinion). American Jewish views of the war were therefore counter-cultural.
The present study joins a growing body of evidence utterly incompatible with a conventional wisdom that portrays American Jews as alienated from Israel. This body of evidence includes the 2013 Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” which reported no evidence of declining attachment since the last comprehensive survey conducted in 2001. It also includes our own analyses of surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee and of community studies conducted at 10-year intervals.
In the context of heightening tension between the Israeli and American governments over Iran, and increased division and conflict in the American Jewish community over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the findings remind us that American Jews’ connections to Israel run deep and will not be easily dislodged.
Theodore Sasson is professor of Jewish studies at Middlebury College and senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
Leonard Saxe is professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute.
Michelle Shain is a Research Associate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and a PhD candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University.