Jewish opinion in America II

Part of the organized community’s core mission is to help ensure the well-being of Israel, which cannot be defined by the vagaries of American Jewish opinion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
FOR YEARS, many prominent Jews on the left have argued that the American Jewish establishment is deeply out of touch with the Jewish rank and file it supposedly represents. Most recently, this assertion was made repeatedly by supporters of the Iran nuclear deal reached in July.
Take, for example, political commentator Peter Beinart, a darling of anti-establishment liberal Jews. Writing in the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz barely two weeks after the Iran agreement had been concluded, Beinart declared that the deal “has laid bare a profound gulf” between the organized Jewish community, which was largely unsupportive, and American Jews, most of whom reportedly favored the deal.
Similarly, in a mid-August Washington Post op-ed, Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York, and Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ask, “Why is the ‘Jewish leadership’ so unrepresentative of the population it claims to speak for on one of the most consequential and controversial American foreign policy decisions of our time?”
Of course, the claim that the leading Jewish organizations align themselves against a “clear majority” of American Jews predates the Iran nuclear controversy and is heard frequently in relation to the Israeli- Palestinian issue. As Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-wing Jewish lobby group J Street, once framed it, “The discourse on Israel is controlled by a small number of [politically conservative] large donors essentially holding the Jewish community hostage.”
But is this an accurate portrayal of the organized Jewish community? Did most American Jews actually support the Iran deal? And regardless, should the Jewish establishment, made up of AIPAC, federations and various other pro-Israel groups, always represent the views of the majority? Notably, it’s only with respect to Israel that the establishment is criticized for being ostensibly at odds with the rank and file. On domestic issues, such as immigration, same-sex marriage and the social safety net, the progressive stances commonly taken by the organized community are totally in sync with the long-held views of a sizable majority of American Jews.
By contrast, while proponents of the Iran nuclear deal claim to represent the majority of American Jewry, fewer than 10 percent of major Jewish groups (and not one Jewish federation) supported it. In fact, opinion polls of Jewish attitudes toward the deal aren’t so clear-cut.
Though initial polls showed strong Jewish support – before many of the agreement’s flaws had been exposed – later polls reflected growing opposition. A mid-September American Jewish Committee survey, for instance, found that 50.6 percent of Jewish respondents approved of the agreement, but 47.2 percent disapproved, a statistical tie.
It may be true, as Gitlin and Cohen point out, that surveys of Jewish opinion often ignore “the large minority of Jews who profess no religion.” However, the contention that the views of these “Jews of no religion” should inform the organized community’s positions on matters affecting Israel is absurd.
According to the 2013 Pew study of Jews in the US, Jews of no religion tend to be unengaged in Jewish life (and thus vastly underrepresented in Jewish organizations) and have little or no connection to Israel. Over three-quarters of them have never even set foot inside the Jewish state. Not surprisingly, then, they represent the demographic that tends to be most critical of Israel. Yet, can one honestly suggest that their opinions, generally speaking, are well-informed? The major Jewish groups, by comparison, regularly organize educational missions to Israel and have access to a broad spectrum of well-respected Middle East scholars and analysts. Their leaders grasp the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that it can’t simply be reduced to the single notion that Israel occupies Palestinian land.
To be sure, Jewish organizations don’t speak for those Jews who don’t want to be represented by them. This doesn’t mean, however, that it would be wise for opinion polls, which often have a built-in bias, to dictate the organized community’s stance on Israeli policies and the US-Israel relationship.
If there’s good reason to believe that the Iran deal could endanger Israel’s security, does it matter that a slim majority of US Jews support it? On the question of settlement construction in the West Bank, which most Jews frown upon, should the organized community’s role be to censure the Israeli government or, instead, to explain and contextualize the Jewish communities there, providing much needed historical background, depth and perspective to the discourse on Israel? Part of the organized community’s core mission is to help ensure the well-being of Israel. That’s too important a role to be defined by the vagaries of American Jewish opinion.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon