WASHINGTON (JTA) – If you believe the latest poll of American Jews, they have lost that lovin’ feeling for Joe Lieberman and probably never had it for Pastor John Hagee.
Therein lies the rub: Hagee’s spokesmen do not believe the results, saying the poll – commissioned by J Street, the new left-leaning pro-Israel lobby – relied on skewed questions. As for Lieberman, the Democratic-turned-independent U.S. senator from Connecticut is not disputing the findings, but says he pays little attention to polls.
According to the poll, which has a margin of error of 3.5 percent, Lieberman scored an unfavorable rating of 48 percent among U.S. Jews, compared to a favorable rating of 37 percent. Hagee, the leading right-wing Christian Zionist whose endorsement of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president triggered a firestorm earlier this year, fared even worse: The pastor registered a 7 percent favorable rating and 57 percent unfavorable.
The poll, based on interviews with 800 Jewish respondents between June 29 and July 3, comes amid heightened criticism by liberals of Lieberman’s support for Hagee and his pro-Israel efforts.
J Street and liberal Jewish activists and bloggers waged a campaign urging Lieberman to skip Hagee’s Christians United for Israel conference in Washington last week. On the eve of the event, Americans for Peace Now also asked Lieberman to take a pass.
Despite the mounting pressure, Lieberman opted to follow through with his speech.
The high disapproval ratings for Lieberman and Hagee would seem surprising for two men whose reputation rests in part on representing Jewish interests.
Lieberman enjoyed soaring approval ratings among Jews eight years ago when, as a Democrat, he became the first Jewish American to land on a viable presidential ticket. Much was made in the national media at the time of his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and how he balances its demands with his public service.
Hagee launched “Nights to Honor Israel” from his San Antonio church in the early 1980s. The pro-Israel love fests, during which Christian Zionists voice praise for their Jewish neighbors, are now routinely held in major cities across the United States. Their success led Hagee to establish Christians United for Israel three years ago.
J Street, which advocates a pronounced role for the United States in the Arab-Israeli peace process that at times would include pressure on Israel, says the results – particularly regarding Hagee, who opposes any U.S. pressure on Israel – underscore its argument that most American Jews reject Hagee’s view and the idea of working with him.
“When presented with both sides of the debate over U.S policy in the Middle East, American Jews strongly favor the United States using its leverage to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” J Street said in a statement.
According to J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben Ami, part of Hagee’s problem with American Jews is that he brings a strong religious sensibility to his politicking.
The executive director of Christians United for Israel, David Brog, said that such comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Hagee’s mission.
Hagee’s theological musings have little to do with why he promotes support for Israel, Brog said, adding that his efforts instead are underpinned by sympathy for a fellow democracy facing the threat of radical Islamist terrorism.
Half the respondents to the survey were asked in one series of questions whether various alleged facts and statements were “convincing reasons to oppose forming alliances” with Hagee and Christians United for Israel.
Between 59 percent and 63 percent of the respondents said it was convincing to oppose such ties based on claims that Hagee sees supporting Israel as a way to help “bring Armageddon and the second coming of Christ”; opposes U.S.-backed peace initiatives because he wants to prevent an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank; and has said that liberal Jews who disagree with his opposition to abortion and homosexuality are “not driven by the word of God.”
The number jumped to 81 percent when a subset of 400 respondents were told that “Reverend Hagee’s derogatory comments toward women, African Americans, Catholics, and gay people led the top Reform rabbi in America to publicly call on American Jews not to form alliances with Hagee.”
Hagee’s supporters took issue with questions, arguing that they distort his record.
The pastor has, in fact, repeatedly disavowed End of Days theology and alienated some evangelical allies by arguing that Jews do not need to convert to undergo salvation.
The survey questions also failed to note that the pastor subsequently apologized or clarified remarks that have in the past offended gays, African Americans and Catholics. Hagee’s chief Catholic critic, Bill Donohue, accepted his apology and even attended the Christians United for Israel convention.
J Street’s Ben Ami insisted that the questions in the survey relied on quotes drawn directly from writings by Hagee or Christians United for Israel.
Even if one accepts the Christians United for Israel argument that the questions provided a distorted understanding of Hagee’s record and views, he said, they followed the part of the survey that assessed his favorable and unfavorable ratings. So the phrasing of those questions does not explain Hagee’s poor showing.
In the end, Ben Ami said, the important point is to dispel the many misperceptions about who speaks for the Jewish community. He said the poll shows that Hagee and Lieberman do not.
Brog acknowledged that Hagee and Christians United for Israel still have their work cut out for them with the Jewish community.
“This is not only a man who has spent his adult life defending Israel and fighting anti-Semitism, he is also willing to dialogue with more objectivity and decency than those who attack him,” he said.
Lieberman’s staff did not dispute the poll results but suggested they were inconsequential for a senator who is enjoying his maverick reputation since leaving the Democratic Party in 2006.
“Senator Lieberman will continue to work across party lines to do what he believes is right for Connecticut and the nation rather than be guided by poll numbers,” his spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, told JTA. “Senator Lieberman is guided by principles rather than by polls.”
Ben Ami said Lieberman likely suffered from his endorsement of McCain and continuing defense of the Iraq war, which remains hugely unpopular among Jews.
“His political positioning,” Ben Ami said, “is out of step with the Jewish community.”