Understanding the poll of US Jews on the Iran deal

Those Jews who have never visited Israel support the agreement by a margin of 58% to 30%.

July 27, 2015 22:28
4 minute read.
Protestors shout slogans as they demonstrate with thousands of others during a protest in New York

Protestors shout slogans as they demonstrate with thousands of others during a rally apposing the nuclear deal with Iran in New York. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A new poll asserts that American Jews, by a margin of 49 percent to 31%, support the Iran deal. Are the findings accurate? And if so, what do they mean? The poll, sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, asked a sample of 501 US Jews this question: “As you may know, an agreement was reached in which the United States and other countries would lift major economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.

Do you support or oppose this agreement, or don’t know enough to say?” The timing of the poll may raise questions. The interviewing of the 501 respondents began on Thursday, July 16 – barely 24 hours after most people were reading about the Iran deal for the first time. That may not have been sufficient time for the respondents to have familiarized themselves with the details of the agreement. At that early point, many people may have heard President Barack Obama’s remarks when he announced the agreement, but it’s much less likely that they had yet heard any substantive critiques of the deal.

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Moreover, a well-known problem in public opinion polling is that some people are embarrassed to admit that they don’t know enough about the subject.

Instead of honestly saying that they don’t know enough to answer, they choose either “support” or “oppose.” If the president of the United States supports it, and they have not yet read enough to know who opposes it or why, they probably would be more inclined to say they support it.

One of the interesting additional findings of the Jewish Journal poll was a sharp split between those American Jews who have visited Israel and those who have not. Those who have visited Israel favor the deal by just 48% to 44% – which is a statistical tie, since it is within the poll’s 6% margin of error.

By contrast, those Jews who have never visited Israel support the agreement by a margin of 58% to 30%.

If the poll’s finding are accurate, it means that those Jews who are the most closely connected to Israel, who have seen Israel first hand and therefore have a greater appreciation of its vulnerability, are far less likely to support the Iran agreement – while those who have the least connection to Israel are the most supportive of the deal.

This troubling discrepancy may reflect a broader problem of indifference toward Israel among a certain segment of American Jewry. Whatever positions are taken on a particular policy or agreement, the Jewish community in the years ahead will have to face the reality that some US Jews just don’t care that much about Israel, and the number may be growing. Are there steps that can be taken to counter this trend? Would the allocation of resources for innovative educational programs make a difference? Presumably this is a topic that will engender much discussion at the upcoming World ZIonist Congress, in October.

There is also a more cynical way of interpreting the new poll results, based on a theory developed by the late Prof. Arthur Hertzberg. Writing on the op-ed page of The New York Times in 1984, Hertzberg took a fresh look at the question of why the overwhelming majority of American Jews have cast their votes for the Democratic candidate in almost every presidential election – 20 of the last 21, in fact.

According to Prof. Hertzberg, most American Jewish voters lean Left because for them, politics “is about how to avoid expulsions and pogroms.”

Whether one is “Tevye, the water carrier, [or] Rothschild, the banker,” all US Jews understand that for the Jewish people, politics is ultimately “about life and death.” What about claims that Jews are liberal because they have an in-bred passion for justice? Yes, Jews long for a “world of justice,” Hertzberg wrote – but the reason is because “the only refuge is in a world of justice.”

In other words, in Hertzberg’s view, many Jewish voters, no matter their income levels, no matter the extent to which they have become comfortable and accepted in American society, are still haunted by the question of which party is more likely to steer the country toward “expulsions and pogroms.” How does this explain voting patterns? According to Hertzberg, the Republicans in the past represented “the forces of selfishness” and intolerance. They were seen as likely to foster “a right-wing ‘Christian America,’” complete with “creches in public places, prayers in public schools, [and] an antiabortion amendment.” The Democrats, by contrast, were the camp of “those who are still friendless and foreign.”

They stood up for minorities, for “the outsiders,” a status Jews once endured and to which they do not want to return.

What does the Hertzberg theory have to do with the poll on the Iran deal? Jews whose gut-level concern focuses on being accepted in American society instinctively align themselves with the position taken by the president and what they perceive to be the position of most of the public. This is especially the case when it comes to an issue involving Israel, where taking the “wrong” position could make the person appear to be more loyal to Israel than to the United States. Seen through the prism of Prof.

Hertzberg’s analysis, it might be said that the Iran poll results reveal less about how American Jews feel about the Iran deal than about how American Jews feel about themselves and their place in American society.

The writer is the author of 15 books on Jewish history, Zionism and the Holocaust.

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