Overcoming the perils in American public opinion

Pro-Israel groups should launch initiatives that deal with the ever-growing changes in US demography.

Obama next to words 'America' 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama next to words 'America' 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
Two days after the Boston bombings, Ron Dermer told American Jewish leaders the good news. “The bulk of the American people stand firmly with Israel and… identify with Israel,” the senior advisor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated, “If you look historically, there was a big change after 9/11,” and “after the tragic bombing in Boston, I believe that people will identify more with Israel’s struggle against terror and… we can maintain that support.”
Some have criticized the tact and timing of Dermer’s comments. The real issue, though, is they reflect a certain myopia that focuses on fleeting blips in support while sidestepping the bigger issues In particular, shifting demographic trends in American society threaten to reshape public opinion toward Israel in the long term.
To be sure, overall numbers remain strong: a recent Gallup poll showed U.S. public support for Israel matching an all-time high. Yet beneath the top-line numbers lurk several growing challenges to Israel’s standing, and not all of them are easily addressed. 
First, the partisan gap: As many readers know, the last decade has seen an entrenched double-digit gap between Republicans and Democrats on support for Israel. During Operation Pillar of Defense last November, a CNN poll found 80 percent of Republicans voiced support for Israel, as opposed to only 51 percent of Democrats. On ideological lines, the difference was even sharper: 77 percent support by self-described conservatives versus 37 percent for liberals.
Second, younger Americans are less supportive of Israel than their parents or grandparents. In our recent study, we found that Americans in the Millennial Generation (18-30-year-olds) are 17 percent less likely to support Israel than are older generations. This is not simply because Millennials are also more likely to be liberal or vote Democratic. We see similar gaps across political and religious affiliations, ethnicity, income, and educational levels. In other words, Republican Millennials are also less likely to support Israel than are Republican Baby Boomers.
Unfortunately, this gap is unlikely to change as Millennials come of age. We tested to see if younger generations might typically be less supportive of Israel and become more supportive as they grow older. Yet, looking back at nationwide CBS/New York Times polls from 1977 and 1978, we found the generational gap then to be reversed: retirees (65 and older) were least supportive of Israel, with 18-29 year-olds the most supportive.
A third demographic trend—an under-reported one—concerns the growing number of Americans with no religious affiliation.
The stereotypical America is a church-going country, at least in comparison to a “godless” Europe. In reality, however, religiosity in America is in decline. In 1972, a mere seven percent of Americans had no religious affiliation. The number grew slowly to 14 percent by 2007 but has since jumped to 21 percent, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center.
This rise of the “nones” (atheists, agnostics, but mostly those who simply do not affiliate religiously) is critical for Israel because they are more than twice as likely as Protestants to say US support for Israel is “too strong” (35 percent versus 15 percent).
Finally, the number of Reform and Conservative Jews—long the backbone of pro-Israel advocacy in America—is shrinking at a startling rate. Last June’s New York population study found the percentage of Jewish households affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements crashing from 70 percent in 1991 to 42 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, Orthodox affiliation rose from 13 percent to 20 percent, and “other” (often those least involved in Jewish life) rose from 15 percent to 37 percent.
Over time, American Jewish organizations will feel the impact of demographics; the Jews who remain affiliated will be increasingly modern Orthodox and Haredi. Leadership of these organizations will come, more and more, from those ranks. That shift could lead to a growing disconnect: a more religiously observant American Jewish leadership trying to influence the opinions of a less religiously affiliated America.
So what to do? First, the pro-Israel community must be capable of speaking effectively to diverse audiences. Given trends in Jewish demography, pro-Israel organizations will need to better integrate religiously observant Jews (and especially Haredim) into community institutions, while simultaneously mobilizing pro-Israel liberals to promote Israel among their peers. This challenge suggests that decentralization of Israel advocacy efforts in recent years may be more a blessing than a curse.
Second, pro-Israel groups should launch initiatives targeted specifically toward religious “nones.” The past decade has seen a burst of activity in organized, targeted outreach to Latinos.  Those on the ground report meaningful successes. 
Now, the same path must be trod for the non-religious. This is no easy task.  Latinos are an easily identifiable group with community organizations and leaders to serve as partners.  Americans unaffiliated with religion may be less involved with all manner of social organizations. For that reason, the first step will be to create a profile of this demographic, understanding what its members value, how they obtains their information, and from whom they take political and social cues.
Finally, because President Obama is held in high regard by Democrats and younger Americans, pro-Israel organizations must fully leverage the statements he made during his recent trip to Israel in order to make Israel’s case on the bigger issues, such as the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land.
Americans remain well-disposed toward Israel. No crisis is at our doorstep—and we might even see the momentary bounce that Dermer predicts. Still, present success must not lull us into complacency. We need to concentrate on the deeper trends and work to keep Israel’s standing strong for decades to come.
Owen Alterman is a researcher and Cameron S. Brown a Neubauer research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.  They recently coauthored “Support for Israel in a Changing America,” in the January 2013 issue of Strategic Assessment, available at http://cdn.www.inss.org.il.reblazecdn.net/upload/(FILE)1361104876.pdf.