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Cleveland Notes: Good News and Catastrophe

by Shmuel Rosner

February 20, 2014 | 4:27 am

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Photo by Reuters

I’m spending the day in Cleveland, but my notes will be somewhat eclectic.

Israel favorability

Last year, as we presented our J-Meter tracking of Israel’s favorability numbers in the US, we noted a decline that we felt was worth mentioning. In fact, Prof. Camil Fuchs and I, looking at the numbers on the eve of Obama’s visit to Israel, penned an article together for Haaretz (Hebrew) in which we presented the updated numbers, which showed a measure of decline in the “favorable” numbers for Israel. We did this because just days earlier, another poll, asking about Israel compared to the Palestinians, showed a markedly high support rate for Israel – the highest of all times. Yet, as we explained in our article, “favorability” numbers are more reliable than comparative questions from which one never knows if it is Israel that people truly like, or the other side that they dislike.

Apparently, all this was a false alarm. Gallup just published new “favorability” data, and Israel’s situation seems fine. Last year, with its 66% “favorable” and 29% “unfavorable” opinion of Israel, seems like an outlier; this year the numbers are back to where they were in recent years – in fact, even a little higher: 72% and 23%. That's the lowest “unfavorable” rate since 1991 and the highest “favorable” rate since, well, 1991. That was the year of the first Gulf War, when Israel was under Iraqi missile attack and at its peak in favorability. But what it is that makes 2014 such a wonderful year is a mystery. Maybe it's the overall disillusionment with “Arab spring” prophesies.  

Worries about Israel’s favorability

Looking for reasons to still worry about the numbers? The age differences will give you an excuse. Israel is much more popular with older Americans than with younger ones. It has a 81% favorability rate among the 55+ age group and only – only! – 64% among the younger age group of 18 to 34. Significant age group differences are common for such questions (see another example here). Over all, it would probably be better to have the young more positive than they are, and it is fair to wonder A) why they aren’t, and B) whether this generational difference represents a life cycle gap. Much like the question about the “distancing” from Israel of young Jews, there’s always the possibility that Israel is just one country that is more likely to be liked by people who are older and smarter and less by rebellious youngsters.

Malley’s appointmen

So Rob Malley is returning to the Obama administration. Exactly six years and four days ago I wrote about the concerns he generated among Israel-supporters-Obama-critics. I wasn’t quite impressed then with the shock and dismay over his role in the Obama campaign, and I can’t say I’m falling off my chair now. Here’s a paragraph or two from this long-forgotten article:

Malley is an advisor to Obama's campaign. Which means he is asked to present his opinion on various matters. He is not "The Advisor." Many others like him are asked to contribute their opinions. Most of Obama's position statements on the Israel issue do not bear Malley's fingerprints.

Malley favors dialogue with Hamas, whereas Obama says he opposes it. Obama receives flak from people… who argue that if he values Malley's opinion, then… it could influence his policy. Those who believe this influence would harm the Israeli interest have reason to be concerned about the consultations with Malley.

One thing to take into account: Surely, some worries about Obama proved justifiable – but he never changed the US position on Hamas.

Cleveland, Pew

So I spent a day with Jewish professionals and leaders from the Jewish community of Cleveland, hardly enough time to pretend to know all about the place. Still, I had many interesting conversations from which I learned a surprising thing: The Pew study of Jewish Americans that everybody is talking about isn’t necessarily very relevant to all Jewish American communities. Not that smart professionals in local communities don’t read it with interest – they do. But in many cases they don't really see its significance as they think about their own community.

In fact, I began suspecting this could be the case a while ago as I was visiting other communities, but here it truly hit me. As I kept mentioning numbers from Pew, the local people, time and again, kept pushing back with numbers from their own community study (of 2011). Not necessarily because they think theirs is better (which some of them probably do) but rather because planning for Jews on the local level can only be based on local numbers and trends. That there are Jews in America who feel somewhat detached from Israel, for example, might not be something to worry about here. According to Pew, 70% of U.S. Jews say they are strongly or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. In Cleveland, 86% of Jews are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. According to Pew, “Overall, 44% of Jewish married individuals are intermarried or 61% of couples. Among those who married between 2005-2013, 58% of Jewish individuals are intermarried; 73% of couples”. But the numbers the Cleveland community is looking at tell a different story: Overall, 23% of Jewish married individuals are intermarried or 38% of married couples are intermarried. If you remove Orthodox Jewish households, the overall intermarriage rate increases to 41% of married couples.

Lieberman, Catastrophe

It's good that the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has decided to concern himself with the fate of American Jewry. Good, and hopefully not just an attempt to steal the show from other Israeli ministers who have also been trying to address such matters. I wonder, though, about both the language and the seriousness of Lieberman’s remarks to the Conference of Presidents the other day –

“The Jews of America are facing nothing less than a demographic catastrophe”, the Minister said, and one wonders why. Does he think such strong words will make him more likely to sway American Jews and let him handle their affairs? Does he think there’s a truth to be told that only he can see and they can’t, and that by using strong words he can make them see it? Does he believe that no discussion of Jewish affairs should be held without words like “catastrophe” thrown into the air?

As I was talking to Jewish leaders in Cleveland, I mentioned the Lieberman speech and the fact that he used the “six million” phrase to drive his point home (“If this situation persists, we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two”). The response was not one of approval. “This is really cheap”, one of them remarked. I had to agree.

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