Jewish Journal


October 29, 2013

Why American Jews are Getting Softer on Iran



President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint news
conference at the Prime Minister's residence in
Jerusalem,March 20. Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

We have to begin with the obvious: the American Jewish Committee's annual survey of American Jewish opinion is not as important this year as in years past. The Pew study of the American Jewish community from a few weeks ago is more comprehensive, more nuanced, more broad, and casts a shadow over every other poll or study that is coming out these days. Still, this survey is an opportunity to look at Jewish public opinion and to see what's new, what's not, what's surprising and what's suspicious.

67% approve of Obama's handling of national security

This "national security" measurement isn't a very helpful one, and I'd much rather have the AJC ask about Obama's handling of foreign policy. Back in 2011, when there were questions about both "national security" and "foreign policy", the gaps were quite visible: 68% approval for national security- not much different from this year- but just 47% for foreign policy (with 48% disapproval). Last year (2012) there was no foreign policy question, and this year this question is also missing. As you can see here, among Americans Obama's foreign policy approval is low – 37.9%. Among American Jews – we don't know. I suspect it is lower than the 67% for national security, but not necessarily much lower (62% support his policies regarding Iran, 59% support him on Syria). In any case, one could argue that Jewish approval for Obama's national security policy reflects the tendency of Jews to generally support the President.


59% approve of Obama's handling of US-Israel relations

On this issue, the AJC and the Pew study are very close, even though the wording of the questions was a little different. 60% told Pew that they approve of the way Obama is handling the "nations' policy toward Israel", 59% told AJC they approve of the way Obama is "handling US-Israel relations". The changes from 2012 are small: a decline of strong approval from 19% to 15%, a rise in the "somewhat" category from 42% to 44%. In 2011, when relations were visibly contentious, just 40% approved of the "handling". But note the difference: in 2011 the question was about "the administration", while in 2012 and 2013 it is about "President Obama". Surely, the improvement in the approval ratings is due to the improvement in relations. But it might also have something to do with the personification of the question – namely, it is possible that Jewish voters feel less comfortable to disapprove of a President they like, than to disapprove of a more anonymous administration.

71% approve of the way Netanyahu is handling US-Israel relations

Here we get the only hint that Obama's handling of the relations is less rosy than what the previous question presents. The fact that Netanyahu is more than ten points above the President means that many Jewish voters – Democratic Jewish voters – see room for improvement on Obama's side. The difference between Obama and Netanyahu was also notable in 2011, when more Jewish Americans blamed Obama for the tense relations than Netanyahu (it was also visible last year). This finding is especially interesting as the relations seem to be going back from tranquility to a more tense state of affairs. Netanyahu is less than happy with Obama's handling of Iran, and differences of opinion related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are also beginning to surface. There is a possibility - and not a distant one - that in 2014 the Obama-Netanyahu situation might resemble 2011 more than it will 2013. I wonder what direction US Jews will take in such case.

46% believe that a combination of diplomacy and sanctions can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons

This is where Netanyahu – and most Israelis – disagree with US Jews. They (US Jews) might approve of Netanyahu's policies, but he would definitely not approve of the views expressed by them. They generally approve of Obama's Iran policy (62% do, in the Pew survey 52%), but Israeli Jews wouldn't agree with these views. American Jews are becoming more hopeful about the Iran sanctions and diplomacy, while Israelis "doubt that President Obama will fulfill his promise that the U.S. will prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons at all cost".

In 2012, about 35% of American Jews believed in the "combination". Today it is ten points higher. Netanyahu would tell you that this is all wishful thinking, but American Jews choose to believe their President, and also seem, like other Americans, more reluctant to see American involvement in the Middle East. If last year 64% of them supported "the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons" if diplomacy and sanctions fail, this year it is 52% (a much higher number would still support Israel taking military action). I see the views of American Jews on this issue as part of a larger trend of wanting no business with this region. American Jews – 59% of them - approve of the do-nothing Syria policy; they are pessimistic about the Arab spring (56%); and about Egypt (68%); they want "neither side" to win Syria's civil war; they still think the Arabs want a "destruction of Israel". It is understandable that many of them choose the easier path of believing that the grave Iran issue can be solved by diplomacy and that other issues should not be of great concern to the administration.

43% want a separation of religion and state in Israel

This is something I find admirable about Americans. They always believe that their way of doing business is the best way of doing business – so a plurality of them want Israel to copy the American model regarding religion and state. As a headline, it works fine, as a serious proposition it is quite shallow. Two years ago, 96% of American Jews agreed that the Palestinians "should be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace agreement". If a demand is made to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, separation of state and religion as Americans understand this concept is hardly an option. I think it is safe to assume that the real issue for many of those Americans advocating for "separation" is really the issue of Orthodox monopoly and the Orthodox rabbinical establishment. They don't want a separation between religion and state; they want radical reform in Israel's religious establishment (and possibly the dismantling of most of it).  

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