Support for Israel not universal among American Jews, study shows
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Despite the view that Zionists dominate U.S. policy toward Israel, American Jews vary markedly in their support for the Middle Eastern nation depending on age, religious practices and ethnic pride, a new University of Florida study finds.
“There is an assumption that the ’Israeli lobby’ rests upon a monolithic, highly mobilized American Jewish community that makes Israel the No. 1 issue in American politics,” said Kenneth D. Wald, a UF political science professor who did the research with Bryan Williams, a UF graduate student in political science. “We found enormous variability within the American Jewish community in the extent to which Israel factors into domestic political thinking.”
Although Israel’s fate is an overriding political consideration for a small number of Jews in this country, many others consider it a nonissue, said Wald, whose paper has been accepted for publication in the July issue of the journal Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. Most American Jews fall somewhere in between, he said.
The issue has received prominent attention recently with the March publication in the London Review of Books of a paper by two American political scientists. They claim the thrust of U.S. policy in the Middle East derives largely from the activities of the “Israeli Lobby,” a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. Newspaper editorial columns have since appeared debating the merits of the paper, which was written by John Mearsheimer, co-director of the Program on Internal Security Policy at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Wald’s study looked at the extent American Jews incorporate Israel into their political thinking and what factors influence that tendency. He used a series of telephone surveys called the “culture polls” conducted by Zogby International, a polling firm led by an Arab-American. In 1999 and 2000, 589 Jewish participants were asked to answer a series of multiple-choice questions on subjects such as how important they consider U.S. support for Israel, the importance of candidates’ positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict to their voting decision and whether they had ever written a letter or made a telephone call to express their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict to a government official, newspaper or magazine.
“We found that the more people are integrated and involved in the ethnic community, based on cultural and social ties, the more likely they are to put Israel at the center of their political thinking,” Wald said.
The study showed the most important factors were synagogue attendance, Jewish pride and respondents’ age. Older Jews were much more likely than their younger counterparts to factor Israel into the political priorities for the United States, he said.
“Being older means that you have lived through a time when there was no state of Israel or when its survival was very much in doubt,” Wald said. “Young people never knew a time when there wasn’t a state of Israel and in most cases when that state didn’t seem to be something of a superpower.”
Younger Jews’ lack of attachment to Israel presents political challenges for pro-Israel organizations in the future, especially because American Jews comprise only 2 percent of the U.S. population, Wald said. “Older Jews who lived through the time when Israel was created and its survival was at stake are slowly passing out of the population and being replaced by a younger group for whom Israel does not have the same political priority,” he said.
Wald said he did the study because of his interest in the importance people attach to their ancestral homeland when they engage in politics in the United States. He believes the results show that Jews’ concern and mobilization for Israel are not different from other ethnic groups in the United States and cast doubts on the claims in Measheimer and Walt’s paper.
“There is a long history in this country of ethnic groups getting involved in the making of American foreign policy,” he said. “Typically, they try to influence the government to adopt policies that advance the interests of their homeland.”
For centuries, the American Irish community pressured the United States to push Great Britain to grant independence to Ireland, and today’s Cuban-American lobby exerts enormous influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean as do Armenian-Americans on Turkey and Greek-Americans regarding Cyprus, he said.
“We all differ in the degree to which we are part of an ethnic community and how important it is to us,” Wald said. “Many Americans are Italian and that Italianness may manifest itself in eating habits and some family traditions, but I doubt if most Americans of Italian extraction could name the prime minister of Italy.”