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Jewish Journal

AJC Poll Punctures Political Wisdom

by James D. Besser

January 15, 2004 | 7:00 pm

The 2003 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey of Jewish public opinion released this week was hard on the propagators of political conventional wisdom.

The survey contained mixed news for Jewish Democrats and Republicans, although both sides spun the results as an unqualified partisan triumph. It demolished the widespread belief on the political fringes that Jews are the most enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War -- although the facts are unlikely to convince those who believe in Jewish cabals.

The respected study pointed to a community in political flux but still holding on to its traditional liberal and Democratic moorings, still stubbornly centrist.

Here are some highlights:

The Iraq War

Even though he toppled one of Israel's most dangerous foes, a majority of U.S. Jews -- 54 percent -- disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war. A similar number are unhappy with his overall performance in the war on terrorism. That stands in contrast to recent polls showing that about 65 percent of the American people support Bush's actions on both fronts.

That's consistent with polling data from the tumultuous months before last year's war, when the antiwar movement -- and at least one member of Congress -- were pinning the blame for the conflict on the Jews, even though the community was generally less enthusiastic about the military option than the overall population.

The numbers have big political implications. Republicans have argued for months that the administration's antiterror efforts will be a big selling point in their effort to woo Jewish voters in November, but the AJC survey tells a different story.

Party Identification

Here the news is mixed for both major parties. A slim majority of Jews, 51 percent, continue to identify as Democrats, down from peaks of the 1960s and 1970s, but far more than the 16 percent who now rally to the GOP banner. The GOP number went up significantly after Bush's election in 2000 -- from 9 to 18 percent -- but declined slightly between 2002 and 2003.

The survey also shows that about 31 percent of Jewish voters consider themselves independents, a number that has held steady in recent years. That swing sector represents a bloc of opportunity for the GOP; it's the reason why some Republican candidates, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, have made Jews part of their winning coalitions.

However, the Democrats continue to enjoy a big edge in party identification. The next question suggests GOP gains may not be as great as advertised.

Liberal vs. Conservative

In 2003, about 44 percent of Jews identified themselves as liberal, 27 percent as conservative and the remaining third as "moderate, middle of the road." Jewish neo-cons may be in the news, but they are out of step with a majority of Jews. Only 2 percent describe themselves as "very conservative," 4 percent as "very liberal."

Howard Dean vs. George Bush

The conventional wisdom suggests that Dean, the former Vermont governor and now front-runner for this year's Democratic presidential nomination, will have major problems in the Jewish community, because of his controversial statements about the need for a more "balanced" U.S. Mideast policy.

The AJC survey suggests, though, that Dean would do about the same as the other major Democratic candidates, beating Bush by a 2-1 margin. There's one exception: Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the only Jew in the race, would win by 3-1.

Bush would get about 31 percent in all the major matchups, a big improvement over his 2000 performance of 19 percent but not up to the Ronald Reagan-era numbers. Still, the shift represents another opportunity for the GOP.

Faith-Based Politics

Despite active support by the Orthodox community, Jews remain strongly opposed to the use of "taxpayer funds for social service programs run by religious institutions such as churches or synagogues."

About 73 percent of the Jews surveyed oppose the idea of "charitable choice," with only 25 percent supporting it. The same proportion opposes government aid to parochial schools. In fact, Jewish opposition to religious school funding seems to be growing, although not by much.

Anti-Semitism

No surprise here. The striking rise of anti-Semitism around the world is causing U.S. Jews to worry about their own futures. In this year's survey, 37 percent considered anti-Semitism in this country a "very serious problem," up from 29 percent in the previous year's survey.

The Christian Right

The evangelicals may be increasingly vocal supporters of Israel, but according to the AJC study, the religious right is still seen as a major source of anti-Semitism in this country.

More than 40 percent of the respondents agreed that "most" or "many" members of the "religious right" are anti-Semitic. That put the religious right second on the list of anti-Semitic groups in the eyes of Jews -- right behind Muslims and far ahead of African Americans.

Mideast Peace

Jews are generally pessimistic about Arab intentions, confident about U.S.-Israel relations and still supportive of negotiations with the Palestinians, although less so than before the start of the second intifada.

A slim majority -- 54 percent -- still support the creation of a Palestinian state, and 69 percent say Israel should be willing to dismantle some or all West Bank settlements.

But a majority also oppose "compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction."

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