U.S. Jewish Attitudes Toward Israel Have Shifted to Right Since Gulf War

American Jewish attitudes toward Israel’s security needs and the Middle East peace process have shifted noticeably to the right in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, according to the results of a study released Thursday by the American Jewish Committee.

While American Jews still seem to have more positive views about dovish Israeli leaders than hawkish ones, they are more wary of the Palestine Liberation Organization, less inclined to support territorial compromise and more in favor of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the study found.

The study was conducted by sociologist Steven Cohen for AJCommittee’s Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. He analyzed the results of a survey sent by mail in July and August to a cross-section of 1,159 Jewish respondents nationwide.

The survey is the seventh in a series of studies on American Jewish opinion that the AJCommittee institute has conducted since 1983.

Comparing the data from this summer’s survey with the last one, taken two years ago, Cohen found that Jewish responses to several of the same questions had hardened.

For instance, the share of respondents agreeing that the PLO is “determined to destroy Israel” increased from 62 percent in 1989 to 83 percent this summer. Two years ago, 30 percent of respondents said they were “not sure” how to respond to that question; this year, only 13 percent could not make up their minds.

Similarly, while 38 percent of respondents in the 1989 survey agreed, and 30 percent disagreed, that Israel should exchange territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for “credible guarantees” of peace from the Arabs, this year the margin shrank to a bare plurality of 35 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed.

Moreover, slightly more American Jews now favor expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank than those opposing it. Whereas 35 percent opposed expansion in 1989 and 25 percent favored it, the latest poll puts the margin at 30 percent in favor to 29 percent against.

ARABS SEEN AS ‘MORE THREATENING’

Concern that Israel’s continued administration of the territories is eroding the Jewish state’s democratic and humanitarian character has also diminished.

While 30 percent of American Jews surveyed expressed that concern in 1988, after the Palestinian uprising had begun and was featured prominently in the news headlines, the number decreased to 26 percent a year later and fell to a mere 14 percent this summer, in the aftermath of the Gulf war.

This year’s survey asked a number of question specifically designed to gauge the war’s impact on Jewish public opinion. When asked, nearly a quarter of the respondents, 24 percent, said the war had changed their opinions regarding “Israel’s political and security situation.”

Of those whose minds were changed, 11 percent said they were more hawkish regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, while 4 percent said they were more dovish.

Thirteen percent said they were less in favor of Israel making compromises with the Arabs, while 8 percent said they were more in favor.

The responses, according to sociologist Cohen, indicate that “in the world of public opinion, moderation begets moderation, and extremism begets extremism.

“In July 1991, American Jews were perceiving the Arab world as much more threatening than they’d seen it before,” Cohen said during a news conference called to announce his findings.

“Heightened threat and vulnerability are accompanied by more hard-line attitudes; diminished threat and diminished vulnerability, even if only hypothetical, generate a greater willingness to support Israeli compromise,” he said.

Despite the hardening attitudes, a plurality of 41 percent of American Jews surveyed this year said the United States should continue to urge Israel to adopt a more flexible stance toward the Arabs. Thirty-seven percent said the United States should not, and 22 percent were not sure.

But a full 80 percent of the respondents said they were opposed to threats to reduce U.S. foreign aid to Israel unless the Jewish state adopts a more flexible stance toward the Arabs, and 54 percent said Washington should stop criticizing Israel for expanding West Bank settlements.

When asked, 34 percent said they think President Bush is “generally friendly” toward Israel, 41 percent rated him “mixed or neutral,” 15 percent called him “generally unfriendly” and 10 percent had no impression.

OVER HALF NEVER VISITED ISRAEL

Among the poll’s other interesting findings:

* A whopping 63 percent of respondents said they had never been to Israel.

* Only 26 percent said they consider themselves Zionists.

* Seven percent defined themselves as Orthodox, 38 percent as Conservative, 31 percent as Reform, 1 percent as Reconstructionist and 23 percent as “just Jewish.”

* Sixty percent identified themselves as Democrats, 16 percent as Republicans, 21 percent as independents, and 4 percent were unsure.

* Just under half (49 percent) agreed that the recent immigration of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to Israel “has made me feel a special responsibility to contribute to charities that help settle Jews in Israel.” Thirty percent disagreed with that statement and 21 percent were not sure.

* Forty-five percent said they were unfamiliar with the Jonathan Pollard spy case. Of the 55 percent who were familiar, 29 percent said his life sentence was too harsh, compared to 9 percent who said it was not. Twenty-two percent said American Jewish groups ought to campaign to reduce his sentence, while 13 percent disagreed.

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