Jewish Journal


January 30, 2003

Polls Find U.S. Jews Worried but Calm


It's been a busy few weeks for pollsters who study the Jewish community -- and for the politicians who turn each new survey into partisan fodder. At least three major surveys focused on different issues, but beneath the statistical mumbo jumbo, they pointed to the same thing: the U.S. Jewish public is worried about the unsettled state of the world but not panicked.

The statistical blitz offers hints that Jewish political allegiances may be softening, but despite the best efforts of the political spinmeisters, there is little sign of any wholesale political upheaval. Jewish voters may be receptive to new political messages, but right now they are listening, not buying.

In the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) 2002 Survey of Jewish Opinion, two conclusions stand out: fears about anti-Semitism are strong and pessimism about the Middle East peace process is growing.

Approximately 66 percent of those surveyed termed anti-Semitism "somewhat of a problem;" 29 percent said it is a "very serious problem."

Those numbers are up from the previous year, but only fractionally -- a surprising finding, given surging anti-Semitism in Europe, anti-Israel activism on campus and new black-Jewish tensions.

One in five Jews surveyed said "most" or "many" blacks are anti-Semitic, up 1 percent since the 2001 survey. That relatively stable number comes despite a difficult year in black-Jewish relations, with pro-Israel forces accused of financing the defeat of two Congressional Black Caucus members and the hostile response by some black leaders.

But it's not just black anti-Semitism. A recent survey by Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, indicated that a long-standing trend of declining anti-Semitic beliefs among Americans has suddenly reversed, with younger Americans now expressing more anti-Semitic attitudes than the previous generation.

"The constraints against anti-Semitism are weakening, and the rise in anti-Semitic beliefs is part of that trend," Tobin said in a statement.

The same survey indicated that 32 percent of Americans worry that a Jewish president might not act in America's best interests in a diplomatic conflict with Israel -- bad news for the presidential aspirations of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) And "Democrats tend to be more anti-Semitic than Republicans," according to the survey.

Tobin doesn't explain the reasons, but most analysts say it's the result of creeping anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the black community.

But the AJCommittee poll shows only a modest increase in the perception that blacks are increasingly anti-Semitic. Again, there is concern but no panic.

Jews remain overwhelmingly pessimistic about the Middle East. In the AJCommittee poll, 82 percent of the Jews surveyed  agreed with the statement "the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel," the same result as last year. But just about half the respondents said they are less optimistic about chances for peace in the region than they were a year ago.

Still, there are signs that U.S. Jews would still like to see an active peace process. Forty-nine percent said they favor the creation of a Palestinian state "in the current situation," while 47 percent oppose; 65 percent say Israel should be willing to dismantle "all" or "some" West Bank settlements as part of a permanent agreement.

American Jews are skeptical about Israel's peace "partners," but they have not given up the last glimmers of hope for a negotiated settlement.

There's one more poll that shows movement without commotion.

In a survey of U.S. Jews by Steven M. Cohen, a Hebrew University scholar, Jewish Democratic Party identification remains largely unchanged, but younger Jews seem more willing than their parents to vote for Republican candidates. Cohen also reported that Republican identification is growing among upper-income Jews, a change from past surveys.

Another Cohen conclusion: Almost half of Jewish voters who voted from the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000 now say they aren't sure they would vote the same way today. However, Cohen also reported that overall, Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic, with Jewish Democrats outnumbering Jewish Republicans by a margin of 66 to 15 percent.

The AJCommittee survey is more generous to the GOP, giving the Republicans an 18 percent share of Jewish party identification.

Recent polls and elections both suggest that U.S. Jews are increasingly receptive to the messages of selected Republicans -- as New York Gov. George Pataki discovered last November, when he scored more than 50 percent of the Jewish vote in his reelection bid. But there appears to be no wholesale movement, and countervailing forces could serve to keep Jews on the Democratic side.

Cohen pointed to one: Lieberman. If he does well in his bid to become the first Jewish major party presidential nominee, it could stop a Jewish shift to the GOP in its tracks.

Bottom line: the Jewish community is on edge, like most of the nation, with a few extra reasons for nervousness. But that nervousness is not producing panic; it is not radically altering the way Jews see their environment.

And while there is great potential for a political shift, the emphasis should be on the word "potential." Jewish Republicans have reason to be encouraged but not to celebrate. Jewish Democrats have their work cut out for themselves, but they go into this edgy new era with a big reservoir of Jewish support and some aces up their sleeve -- one of them named Joe.  

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