Summary Findings of National Survey of American Jews Commissioned by J Street

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Jim Gerstein

In the aftermath of the war in Gaza and elections in the United States and Israel that resulted in sweeping changes in leadership in both countries, J Street’s latest national survey of 800 American Jews reveals that Jews continue to support assertive American leadership to achieve a two-state solution and resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.   Fundamental attitudes about the conflict andAmerica’s role in theMiddle Eastremain unchanged fromJ Street’s national survey conducted eight months ago, and demonstrate that firmly held beliefs about the critical importance of American leadership have not been shaken in the wake of major events.  As the Obama Administration introduces a newMiddle Eastpolicy featuring assertive diplomacy across the region, American Jews unquestionably support this fresh attempt at re-asserting American influence to achieve peace between Israelis and Arabs.

In addition to tracking questions on key measures asked prior to the elections and war inGaza, this survey examined recent developments which are shaping the new political landscape inIsraeland theUnited States.  Whether it is the appointment of George Mitchell and renewed American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict by a popular President and Secretary of State or concern about the leadership role of Avigdor Lieberman inIsrael’s new government, unfolding events are reinforcing the existing “pro-Israel, pro-peace” attitudes that prevail among American Jews.  Even the possible development of a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas receives strong support, and indicates the openness of American Jews to break controversial taboos.

The survey also probed deeply into Jewish perspectives of this winter’s military action inGaza.  The results demonstrate complex attitudes among American Jews, who are torn between support forIsraelat a time of war and doubts about the effectiveness of military action that results in large civilian deaths.  The data indicate a similar ambivalence regardingIranand howAmericashould address the threat of Iranian nuclear development.  It is very clear from this survey that American Jews have a sophisticated approach toward the Middle East and the challengesIsraelfaces, which contrasts sharply from conventional wisdom and the hawkish or

hard line characterization of Jewish attitudes often suggested by some Jewish organizational leaders.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • President Obama begins hisMiddle Eastefforts with extraordinarily high personal favorability (74 percent favorable) and job approval (73 percent) among American Jews.  He is considerably more popular than Israeli Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu (58 percent favorable) and has about the same level of support as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (76 percent favorable).  Jews believe that President Obama is honest and trustworthy (76 percent), shares their values (73 percent), and that he is restoringAmerica’s standing in the world (78 percent).  Trust in the new American President also extends to his Middle East policy, with 72 percent approving of the way he is handling the Arab-Israeli conflict, 76 percent believing that he supports Israel, and 69 percent thinking that he “has a good vision for advancing Middle East peace.”
  • Following a Presidential election where the Democratic candidate received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, conservative critics of Obama – ranging from Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin (73 percent unfavorable each) to the Republican Party as a whole (72 percent unfavorable) – are highly unpopular and will not be able to gain traction if they decide to attack President Obama’s efforts to pursue Arab-Israeli peace.
  • Despite the major political and military developments that have taken place over the last four months in theU.S.andIsrael, Jewish attitudes remain remarkably stable and highly supportive of a more assertive American effort in itsMiddle Eastpeace efforts.  In this survey, we repeated an exercise conducted in last summer’sJ Streetsurvey which asked whether people supported theUnited Statesplaying an active role in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Initial support for this general statement remains astoundingly high at 88 percent (compared to 87 percent eight months ago).   Following this initial statement, we asked if they would still support America assuming an active role if it meant the U.S. taking tough positions such as publicly disagreeing with both the Israelis and Arabs or exerting pressure on both parties to make compromises.  Again, as we witnessed last July, support remained remarkably strong after these harder tests that gauged reactions to public disagreement (76 percent now, compared to 75 percent eight months ago) and pressure (72 percent now, compared to 70 percent eight months ago).  “Firm support” – that is, the number of people who supported all three statements – is 69 percent (compared to 66 percent eight months ago) and reveals that the extraordinarily strong base of people who seek active American engagement is firmly established.
  • We introduced an additional component to this exercise in this latest survey, and provided half the sample with the language cited above and provided the other half of the sample with language that focused exclusively on publicly disagreeing with or pressuring justIsraelinstead of both Israelis and Arabs.  Not surprisingly, support forAmericaplaying an active role drops off considerably if it means disagreeing only withIsrael(support drops 88 to 58 percent) or pressuring onlyIsrael(support drops from 88 to 57 percent).  These findings underscore how strongly Jews want the U.S. to assert itself to achieve peace, but also how much more effective it is when America is even-handed and addresses both sides instead of just one side.
  • In addition to the test we repeated regarding theU.S.playing an active role to help the parties achieve peace, we also repeated some of the fundamental choice questions that we asked last summer.  Again, we see that key measures on Jewish attitudes towardAmerica’s role and what bringsIsraelsecurity remained constant.  By a 51 to 32 margin (compared to a 55 to 30 margin), Jews believe Middle East peace is a core American interest, and they want the United States to pursue assertive diplomacy instead of believing that only the parties themselves can make peace and the U.S. should let them work out the conflict on their own.  Similarly, our test on the basic dichotomy of whether a peace agreement (49 percent) or military superiority (36 percent) better provide Israeli security (compared to a 50 to 34 percent margin eight months ago) was remarkably consistent.  These sentiments carry over to actual events unfolding as Jews overwhelmingly want George Mitchell to act as a “fair and impartial broker” instead of siding withIsrael(57 percent to 25 percent).
  • While the growing strength of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman has created a great deal of controversy inIsrael, his views are resoundingly rejected by American Jews.  Lieberman is already known by 62 percent of Jews and after hearing his campaign message of no citizenship for Arab Israelis if they do not sign a loyalty oath, 69 percent of Jews say they oppose Lieberman’s positions.  His prospective role asIsrael’s chief international diplomat and public face presents potential divisions with American Jews, as a shocking 32 percent say that this single appointment to a senior level cabinet post would weaken their personal connection toIsraelbecause Lieberman’s positions go against their core values.  This rises to 40 percent among Jewish adults under 30 years of age, and raises concerns about the relationship that younger generations in theU.S.will have withIsrael.
  • As the Israeli settler movement in theWest Bankgains influence in the new Israeli government and as George Mitchell has highlighted the problems caused by these settlements, public attention toward settlements is likely to grow.  By a 60 to 40 percent margin, American Jews oppose the expansion of Israeli settlements in theWest Bankbased on “what they know.”  After receiving short statements by supporters and opponents of settlement expansion, the results do not move.  Simply put, attitudes toward settlements are highly negative and firmly held.  Not surprisingly, opposition to settlements is higher among Reform (64 percent oppose) and unaffiliated Jews (69 percent oppose), in contrast to Orthodox Jews who strongly support settlements (80 percent support).  But one very interesting demographic finding is the strong opposition (72 percent oppose) among Jews who give money to political campaigns.  In fact, political donors stand out from the overall population on a variety of areas, including their more Democratic and progressive self-identification, greater support for peace initiatives and more negative attitudes toward Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • American Jewish public opinion is at odds with officialU.S.and Israeli policy when it comes to diplomatically engaging a Palestinian unity government.  Sixty-nine percent of Jews support theU.S.working with a unified Hamas-Palestinian Authority government to achieve a peace agreement withIsrael, even when informed that theU.S.does not recognize Hamas because of its terrorism and refusal to recognizeIsrael.  This result shows an interesting common ground between American Jews and Israelis on the issue, according to a March poll conducted by the Truman Institute atHebrewUniversitywhich reports 69 percent of Israelis thinkIsraelshould negotiate with a joint Hamas-Fatah government.
  • Attitudes toward the recent military action in Gazareveal the deep commitment and sophisticated understanding that American Jews have when it comes to Israel.  At a time of war, Jews rallied behind Israeland 75 percent approved of Israel’s military action.  But at the same time, 59 percent felt that the military action had no impact on Israel’s security (41 percent) or made Israelless secure (18 percent) while only 41 percent felt it made Israelmore secure.  Other survey results reflect these ambivalent feelings about supporting Israelduring military action, but simultaneously doubting its effectiveness.  Nearly 7-in-10 Jews felt that Israel’s military action was not disproportionate, yet 56 percent believe that military action that kills Palestinian civilians – even if it targets terrorists – actually creates more terrorism instead of preventing terrorism.  This figure is unchanged from the 54 percent who agreed with the statement when we asked it five months before the war began.[1]  It is important to note that the survey was conducted prior to the recent news coverage inIsrael and theU.S. regarding allegations by Israeli soldiers about the military’s conduct inGaza.  Given the attention given by American Jewish toward the issue, attitudes on this issue may be still evolving.


  • In the wake ofAmerica’s experience inIraq, American Jews – like other Americans – are wary of going to war again in theMiddle East.  But there is also concern among Jews aboutIran’s nuclear development, and Jewish views are mixed when it comes to whatAmericashould do regardingIran.  When given the fundamental choice of whether theU.S.should militarily attackIranif they are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, Jews are split evenly 41-40.  An unusually high 16 percent could not even bring themselves to a decision and just chose “neither.”  There is a similar 39-37 result when asked to choose between direct negotiations that provideIranincentives to abandon their nuclear weapons program and sanctions that forceIranto choose between nuclear weapons and international isolation.
  • Support for a comprehensive final status peace agreement is very strong.  In this survey, we presented a very detailed description of a proposed agreement nearly reached during theCamp Davidand Taba peace talks eight years ago.  By a 76-24 margin, Jews supported this agreement which has the backing of large majorities of Reform (84 percent support), Conservative (69 percent support), and unaffiliated Jews (79 percent support).  Support for this comprehensive proposal is consistent with the findings from last July’sJ Streetsurvey which showed strong support for the different components of a two-state solution.

About Jim Gerstein

Jim Gerstein is a founding partner of Gerstein | Agne and offers clients a unique blend of experience in managing non-profit organizations, strategic planning, and communications for large scale projects ranging from U.S. presidential campaigns to international peace efforts to crisis management for corporations. During the 1999 Israeli election campaign, he served on Ehud Barak's American consulting team. He served as the U.S. team's person on the ground and oversaw the polling, paid media, and message development for the Barak campaign.
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