Israel in US political discourse

The fear of polarization along political party lines is not just real but commonplace.

June 24, 2015 22:58
US Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington

US Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Many Americans who regularly engage with the Israel “issue” feel it. I feel it. There is a sense in my Christian and Jewish social circles that Israel as a bipartisan issue among Americans is becoming a Republican-dominated issue that will eventually (if it hasn’t already) drive out Democrats. At that point, US support for the tiny Jewish nation in a tumultuous region will also diminish considerably, if not vanish all together. Predictions of this polarization have appeared in every major national news publication and many international media outlets since 2012.

In a year that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly came to open political fisticuffs, the trend toward “polarization” seems to be almost common sense. Many pundits claiming political clairvoyance utilize polling data as their source of augury to warn of this shift.

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According to a February 2015 Gallup poll, Republicans sympathize with Israel by 35 points more than Democrats, a gap many predict will grow. A PEW poll from July 2014 confirms this divergence, showing it to be 40 points wide, and describing it as a “Wide Partisan Gap in Israel-Palestinian Sympathies.” Still others point to a January 2015 Gallup poll that shows a 10 point shrinkage in the number of Jews who identify as Democrats since Obama became president in 2008. The message is that as Democrats become less sympathetic toward Israel, Jews (93 percent of whom sympathize with Israel) are jumping ship into the arms of the Republicans.

The fear of polarization along political party lines is not just real but commonplace.

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Top Republican officials have cited the waning support for Israel among Democrats. Elliott Abrams (Reagan and G.W. Bush administration official) was the focus of a New York Times article in which he said, “[T]he problem that no one wants to talk about is the erosion of the support for Israel in the Democratic Party.” The Democratic Party seems worried enough about the perception of eroding support for Israel that Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (DNC chair) wrote a piece for The Hill last March titled, “Spirit of Israel Lives in the Democrat Party.”

However, the fear of sympathy for Israel declining among Democrats, and the supposed swing of the issue to the political Right, is not only premature, it is a misunderstanding of what American sympathy for Israel is. First of all, however the Israel issue in American politics is described, it cannot be designated as “polarizing.” That long-term polling data shows a steady and sharp increase in sympathy in one direction among Republicans is true. This is attributed to the activation of evangelical Christian supporters of Israel at the political level. However, no analysis has been made regarding Democratic sympathies toward Israel and their supposed decline.

Actually, Democratic sympathy toward Israel has been and remains quite stable over the past decade, and increasing to statistical highs. Democrat sympathy for Israel is up from 15 years ago when it was consistently lower than it is today, hanging between 35% and 39%.

Growth in American sympathy for Israel unaccompanied by an equal force in the opposing direction does not equal polarization. Polarization requires that a single element (Israel) cause equal but opposite reaction between poles (Democrats and Republicans). In other words, Republican sympathy for Israel must have an equal but opposite reaction of apathy or disdain among Democrats, which it statistically does not. What pundits are talking about is sympathy for Israel in one direction. Republican support for Israel has merely outpaced sympathy among Democrats.

What about the drop in Democratic support from 58% to 48% in just the past year? Note that 48% is exactly where Democrats’ sympathy for Israel was in 2008 and 2010, right before a boom from 2010-2014. In other words, 48% is well within the normative ebb and flow of sympathy for Israel among Democrats in the past decade. If the latest measurement of 48% is the beginning of a decline, there is as yet no data to indicate that.

There is also other data to consider. If sympathy for Israel is weakening among Democrats, where is it going? We can clearly see where it is not going, namely to the Palestinians. Sympathy for Palestinians among Democrats is essentially unchanged. So, if there is no repulsion from Israel, and no draw toward the Palestinians, where do Democrats’ sympathies lie? In the middle, where they have been traditionally. Americans, though sympathetic toward Israel, have always been concerned about justice for Palestinians and fairness, and polling data reflected that. Essentially, Democrats have maintained their sympathy for Israel.

Also factor in that the number of Democrats who view Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favorably is up in a year that the prime minister was publicly at odds with President Obama. This is certainly a strange trend considering the bitter politics surrounding Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in early March.

Coupled with the data that shows support for President Obama among Jewish voters to be fading, the recent rise in Democratic favorability toward Netanyahu may indicate a disagreement within the Democratic Party regarding foreign policy, not a change in sympathy toward Israel.

Additionally, we must take into account that the one group in America that would be the least inclined to sympathize with Israel according to common understanding, namely irreligious non-Jewish Democrats, still sympathizes with Israel more than with Palestinians by 42%-to-30% margin. Finally, none of the analysis to date takes into account Independents, who represent the largest political identification in America and who sympathize with Israel at a rate of 59%.

All of the above said, there is reason for concern relating to the attitude of Americans toward Israel, but along generational lines. We know that a younger generation (Millennials) does not hold the positive view of Israel that the older generations do, and many increasingly sympathize with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. But anxiety about “polarization” along party lines at this point is unnecessary, and predictions of political sea-change unwarranted. Indeed, they may actually play the part of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Individuals, elites and parties need to cultivate an informed, non-polemic understanding of each other and Israel.

Sympathy for Israel in the United States is diverse and passionate, precisely because there are many different kinds of attachments and heartfelt reasons for that sympathy. Perhaps there is more of a debate within the Democratic Party concerning policy in and toward Israel than within the Republican Party, but debate is not necessarily an indicator of declining sympathy. Americans of differing backgrounds would be well advised to acknowledge that they sympathize and support Israel in ways that other Americans simply cannot. Calling into question another’s sympathy and support simply because it is different than one’s own is the pride that will drive strong support for Israel out of the United States.

The author is the director of outreach for The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona, and wrote this piece with guidance of Dr. Ted Sasson of Brandeis University and Dr. David Graizbord of the University of Arizona.

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