Democrats Aren’t the Real Problem
By Jonathan S. Tobin
January 26, 2018
The Pew Research Center’s latest poll about American
attitudes toward Israel set off alarms, and not without reason. The survey
showed the partisan gap with respect to Israel to be widening. Whereas 79
percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel rather than the Palestinians, only
27 percent of Democrats side with the Jewish state. The gap between the two
parties on the issue has widened considerably during the last 15 years. This has
led many friends of Israel to worry that they are losing the Democrats. If these
trends continue, then the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that has prevailed in
this country for a generation will wither as the topic becomes yet another issue
on which Americans will have knee-jerk partisan responses.
But while these concerns are real, another look at the same
poll actually ought to lessen the sense of panic in the pro-Israel community.
While the gap between the levels of enthusiasm for Israel between the two
parties has increased markedly, Israel still has strong support across the
board, with more Americans sympathizing with it than the Palestinians in
virtually every demographic category. If friends of Israel want something to
worry about, they should concentrate on what is happening in their own
community. That’s especially true among the young where indifference to the
Jewish state combined with rising hostility to Zionism among some is the real
challenge facing the pro-Israel community. But here again, the usual explanation
for this troubling trend—anger about Israeli government
policies—misunderstands the problem.
The partisan gap on Israel can’t be ignored. As Pew
points out in its summary, Democratic support for Israel has declined 11
percentage points since 2001. But the reason why overall backing for Israel
hasn’t really budged—either in the Pew survey or in annual Gallup polls on
the question—is that the number of Republicans who have become backers of the
Jewish state has increased by an even greater margin during the same period. In
the last 17 years, the number of Republicans who sympathize with Israel has
risen a whopping 29 percentage points from 50 percent to 79 percent.
So while it is troubling to see the Democrats drift away
from Israel, the increased support from Republicans has more than made good for
those loses. Indeed, a deep dive into the Pew survey shows that sympathy for
Israel is greater than that for the Palestinians among men, women, whites,
blacks, Hispanics, the educated, the uneducated, Protestants (both mainline and
evangelical), Catholics and yes, even Democrats, though the 27 to 25 percentage
point margin there is dangerously close.
The annual Gallup survey on Israel tells much the same
story with some fluctuations over the years, but averaging the same lopsided
margin every year. In 2017, Gallup showed Israel with a 71-27-percentage point
While its foes spread myths about an all-powerful Israel
lobby or dabble with anti-Semitic memes about Jewish money, the steady support
for aid to Israel in Congress during the last 30 years is a function of that
across-the-board backing the polls show. For a variety of reasons, including
religion, most Americans have always been sympathetic to Zionism and liked
Though the prospect of an increasingly left-leaning
Democratic Party coming back to power would make things a lot less cozy for the
Israeli government, having survived eight years of President Barack Obama’s
crusade to save Israel from itself, it’s likely that Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and his successors will manage the test of dealing with the next
Democratic president, whoever he or she turns out to be. For all of the problems
that an increasingly left-wing Democratic Party in which Scoop Jackson-style
politicians become less common will pose, support for Israel is still the view
of the majority of Americans. It’s also just as likely as not that the next
Democratic president will be more sympathetic to Israel than Obama.
Yet while those wearing mourning for the Pew numbers about
the Democrats need to calm down, there is a more serious problem for friends of
Israel: the decline in Jewish support. As Alan Hoffman, CEO of The Jewish
Agency, noted earlier this week, Israelis are rapidly losing the backing of
Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Israel Democracy
Institute, Hoffman cited a study that showed support for Israel had dropped 32
percent between 2010 and 2016. He said the situation has only gotten worse since
the election of President Trump in 2016, as the overwhelmingly liberal college
students increasingly see Israel as antithetical to their worldview.
He’s right, but most of the analyses of this problem are
rooted in a misunderstanding of what is causing this trend.
Most observers are quick to blame the policies of
Netanyahu’s government. Others say the overwhelming backing for Israel from
Republicans and Trump supporters is creating a backlash in which anti-Zionists
are now seen as somehow more in tune with the liberal Jewish values than the
Jewish state. A belief in the dubious doctrine of intersectionality not only
leads many young Jews to see Israel as an oppressor, but to give a pass to
Palestinian terrorists and homophobes for their illiberal society.
But the real problem here isn’t Netanyahu, settlements or
even a belief that anything Trump likes is somehow wrong. Rather, it is a
declining sense of Jewish peoplehood.
The results of the 2013 Pew survey of Jewish Americans left
little room for doubt about the demographic implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry in
this country. While most Jews still feel pride in being Jewish, increasingly
lower numbers associate that with anything having to do with religion or
Zionism. Indeed, many have come to view the notion of a parochial religious or
ethnic identity as racist by definition. The liberal values they venerate have
come wrongly to be seen as rendering even a Jewish state that was free from
faults as illegitimate.
So rather than batter Israel for defending itself against
its enemies, American Jews would do far better to concentrate on funding
schools, camps and trips to Israel that reinforce Jewish identity. Support for
Israel among those who have benefited from these experiences is far higher than
those who haven’t been given those opportunities.
That, and not what is going on among Democrats or whether Netanyahu is living up to reasonable liberal expectations, is the true challenge facing U.S. friends of Israel.