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Jewish Journal

Polls Apart

July 8, 1999 | 8:00 pm

You've probably heard about that recent poll of American Jewish opinion, the one that told us American Jews consider anti-Semitism a greater threat to Jewish life than intermarriage. It's caused quite a stir.

Nobody can figure out what makes American Jews so insecure. Even the poll's own sponsor, the American Jewish Committee, couldn't resist taking a swipe at Jewish paranoia in its official statement accompanying the survey. "Notwithstanding the strength of democratic institutions and legal protections in the United States, there remains a significant percentage of our community who simply see threats to their well-being as Jews," AJC President Bruce Ramer was quoted as saying.

But there's another way to read the poll. Maybe American Jews aren't too worried about anti-Semitism after all. Maybe they just worry about intermarriage even less.

This becomes plain when you read the whole survey. Overall, American Jews chose anti-Semitism as the greater danger by a 62-32 margin. But Orthodox Jews actually chose intermarriage as the greater danger, 71 to 21. Reform Jews, by contrast, named anti-Semitism as the greater danger, 68 to 27. Most likely to name anti-Semitism as the main problem were Jews with non- Jewish spouses, at 84 percent.

Unless you believe Orthodox Jews feel more at home in America than Reform Jews or intermarried Jews, it's clear this poll wasn't about fear of anti-Semitism. It was a referendum on how little Jews fear intermarriage.

AJC polls over the last decade have shown a steady decline in the number of Jews who believe anti-Semitism is a "serious problem," or will become one in the foreseeable future. This year's poll was no exception. It shows continued growth in American Jewish confidence. Unfortunately, AJC didn't think to ask who's afraid of intermarriage.

That's the way it is with opinion polls. They're valuable tools, but imperfect. Handle with care.

Ehud Barak is about to learn that big time. He's coming this month on his first White House visit as Israel's newly elected prime minister. He'll be greeted, like most visiting prime ministers lately, with a flurry of polls of Jewish opinion.

The surveys' purpose will be to show how hard the administration can lean on Israel before it gets smacked down by angry Jewish voters. Doves want the administration to think it's got plenty of leeway, and their polls will show that. Hawks think the administration should back off, and that's what their polls will show.

By implication, the polls will also tell Jerusalem how far it can go in defying Washington without fear of retribution. It's something like the old cartoons where Bugs Bunny would taunt a big dog that was chained to a fence, but only after checking the length of the chain.

Barak comes here with a lot of good will in the bank. He favors many of the compromises the administration wants him to make. But his instincts are far more cautious than those of his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin. He'll have to move deftly to keep Washington happy.

After three years of stalemate, the administration wants some quick Israeli gestures to restore Palestinian confidence. But a powerful pro-Likud lobby wants Barak to give up nothing, and it has strong backing in the Republican Congress. Both sides will work hard to box Barak in. Both sides will claim the backing of American Jewish opinion.

Which side will be right? Looking at the AJC survey, there's strong evidence to support the hawks. American Jews are suspicious of Arab intentions and skeptical about Israeli concessions.

Fully 91 percent of American Jews say the Palestinian Authority is not doing enough to control terrorist activity by Islamic extremists. That figure is unchanged over the last five years -- even though Islamic terror has dropped sharply, largely due to efforts of the Palestinian Authority.

More startling, two of three American Jews agree that the "goal of the Arabs is not the return of the occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel." That mistrust has actually grown in the last five years.

Why does it matter what American Jews think? Because Barak has to take some bold steps in the next year. He'll need support here. He's likely to sign off on a Palestinian state. He's planning to accept an Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the Golan, in return for adequate Syrian security guarantees.

The AJC poll suggests American Jews don't support either step. They're opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, by a narrow 47-44 margin. Almost none support giving back "most" or "all" of the Golan.

As Barak nears peace agreements, pro-Likud activists will try to block him on Capitol Hill. They'll work to prevent American participation in Golan peacekeeping. They'll do everything they can to block recognition or aid for the Palestinian state. They'll claim to speak for American Jews. Congressional Republicans will listen avidly. Barak will have to work hard to counter that.

Of course, this is before the polling wars begin in earnest. Doves will undoubtedly be producing surveys that show American Jewish support for the tactical steps needed to pave the way, like funding the Palestinian Authority. They'll be correct, as far as they go. But Barak needs to do more. He must address American Jews' deeper suspicions.

Over the last 10 years, Israeli intelligence has reached the conclusion that both the Palestinians and the Syrians are genuinely ready for peace. The assessments are hotly debated in public. But most Israelis are at least aware of the intelligence findings, even if they don't agree.

American Jews haven't been told. Israeli governments, Labor and Likud alike, have largely flooded the American market with one-note alarms over Arab threats, even while their own assessments were evolving.

There was good reason at the time. Keeping American Jews frightened and angry put pressure on successive administrations to lean on the Arabs more and Israel less. Israel got better terms that it otherwise could have demanded. Cynical, perhaps, but Israel will be safer for it.

Now, though, it's crunch time. Barak is staring at final agreements. He'll need an American Jewish public that understands why they make sense. The polls indicate most American Jews don't understand how or why things have changed.

That's not because of bad polling, but bad teaching. Israel needs to start talking straight with American Jews.

Contrary to popular myth, American Jews are capable of feeling confident about their own future. Now's the time to start giving them a little confidence about Israel's future.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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