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Poll: College Kids Back Israel

by Joe Berkofsky

August 22, 2002 | 8:00 pm

U.S. opinion leaders were asked whether Israel or the Palestinians are "morally right." Data from Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research Inc.; graphic created by JTA.

U.S. opinion leaders were asked whether Israel or the Palestinians are "morally right." Data from Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research Inc.; graphic created by JTA.

U.S. college students back Israel over the Palestinians by a 4-1 margin, according to a new survey.

The mid-July survey of 300 students found that 43 percent of respondents called themselves supporters of Israel, while only 11 percent backed the Palestinians. Another 29 percent did not take either side in the conflict, however, and 10 percent said the United States should stand behind both sides equally, according to the poll taken by Washington pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Half of the students also favored the creation of a Palestinian state while 31 percent opposed it. Some 55 percent said the United States should use military force if Israel came under attack.

Officials of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which underwrote the survey -- part of a larger study of American attitudes toward Israel -- said it showed that American students largely support Israel despite recent flare-ups of anti-Israel activity on campuses such as UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University.

"While several highly publicized anti-Israel demonstrations on the West Coast this spring gave the impression that campuses were unfriendly, the truth is that support for Israel among students is about the same as in the general population," said David Harris, AJC's executive director.

But the results sparked some debate about just how closely they measured student attitudes, with one critic saying the study distorts the real picture on campus.

Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said the poll was "absolutely not" reflective of prevailing campus attitudes about the Mideast.

"On college campuses, the overwhelming sentiment is about justice for the Palestinians with the solution of a Palestinian state," he said. Tobin also said the ethnic and religious makeup of the sample -- 4 percent of whom were Jews, and 40 percent of whom refused to disclose their background -- skewed the results.

One observer who agreed with the poll's findings was Larry Sternberg, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Sternberg said the survey was "consistent" with other polls showing most Americans in general, and students in particular, support Israel. Campuses such as Berkeley and San Francisco State "are exceptions, not the rule," he said.

Sternberg, however, said earlier surveys have shown that students back Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of about 3-1 or 4-1, reflecting American views in general.

Among the results of the latest poll:

Asked whom they supported in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 11 percent of students said they were "strong" Israel supporters; 32 percent called themselves supporters of Israel; 9 percent said they supported the Palestinians and 2 percent were "strong" Palestinian supporters.

Asked if they oppose or favor the establishment of a Palestinian state in "the current situation," 29 percent said they "somewhat" favor one; 21 percent "strongly" backed one; 23 percent were "somewhat" opposed; and 8 percent were "strongly" opposed.

89 percent of the students agreed with the statement, "the final goal, at the end of any negotiations, must be two states -- Israel and Palestine -- which accept each other's right to exist and live in peace."

Tobin dismissed the survey as a "whitewash."

"This doesn't help the Jewish community and the college community deal with the growing level of coarseness, hate speech and rising anti-intellectualism on many campuses," he said.

A more revealing poll would have compared the attitudes of Jewish with those of non-Jewish students and should have covered a larger sampling of about 1,000 students, Tobin said.

In fact, "the only near unanimous opinion is that nearly 9 of 10 respondents said they support a two-state solution," Tobin said.

Tobin is conducting his own survey of student attitudes that he will release in the fall. The results show "unequivocally" that U.S. college campuses are tilted toward pro-Palestinian opinion, he said.

But an AJC spokesman, Kenneth Bandler, defended the latest survey, saying it accurately reflected broad student support of Israel, despite the recent focus on anti-Israel activities.

"It's hard for people to accept results that disprove a widely held perception," Bandler said.

Perhaps the most important finding in the poll, Sternberg said, was that many students are undecided about where they stand on the Mideast conflict. To shape this undecided group, he added, Jewish and pro-Israel groups "want to continue to advocate effectively on Israel's behalf."

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