WASHINGTON (JTA) — A new survey shows that a majority of American Jews would support a U.S. military strike on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons — a significant increase from a year ago.
Fifty-six percent of American Jews would support the “United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons,” according to the American Jewish Committee’s 2009 Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion. That’s an increase of 14 percentage points from the AJC survey taken in the fall of 2008. In addition, 66 percent of those surveyed said they would back an Israeli strike on Iran.
The survey of 800 self-identifying Jewish respondents, interviewed between Aug. 30 and Sept. 17, comes as a wide swath of Jewish organizations are rallying support in the Jewish community and elsewhere for increased economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran — in particular tough sanctions targeting Iran’s importation and production of refined petroleum. With a margin of error of plus or minus three percent, the poll would appear to undercut the claims of some who charge that Jewish organizations are out of step with the Jewish public in pushing for pressure on Iran.
The AJC’s executive director, David Harris, speculated that there were two possible reasons for the shift in opinion on Iran. More American Jews may now be “aware of the seriousness and growing nature of the threat,” he said, or they might have “more confidence” in the Obama administration to handle a confrontation with Iran than they did with the Bush administration — which many believed had not properly handled the Iraq war.
The 21-question survey did not ask specifically about opinion on Iranian sanctions; Harris said time and budgetary constraints prevented the organization from using all the questions it would have liked to ask.
In addition to the Iran results, Harris said the other interesting part of the poll was that "despite the attempts by some ideologically motivated groups” to place all Jews solidly in liberal or conservative camps, "this survey reinforces what we have found — American Jews are very close to the center.”
An assortment of results bear that out, at least on some issues. For instance, 49 percent of those surveyed favor the establishment of a Palestinian state, with 41 percent opposed.
Sixty percent favor the dismantlement of some or all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, compared to 37 percent who say none. On the other hand, 58 percent say Israel should not be “willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction,” with just 37 percent in favor. And 51 percent of respondents disagree with the Obama administration’s call for a halt to new settlement construction, while 41 percent agree.
American Jews are extremely skeptical of Arab intentions in the Middle East. Asked whether they agreed or disagreed that "the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel,” 75 percent said yes and just 19 percent said no. But that is down from 82 percent who agreed two years ago, the last time the AJC asked the question.
Hadar Susskind, the director of policy and strategy at J Street — a Jewish lobbying group that is one of the few Jewish organizations that does not support sanctions on Iran right now and has backed the Obama administration’s call for a halt to new settlement construction — argued that the numbers demonstrate J Street’s argument that there is a “diversity” of opinion in the Jewish community.
With a significant minority supporting a settlement freeze and opposing a military strike on Iran, the poll shows there is no “mythical one opinion” on controversial matters, Susskind said.
But the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said the results bolster the argument that the establishment groups with a more centrist line on foreign affairs represent the “more constant view” of the Jewish community. American Jews feel similarly to Israelis on the prospects of peace, he said — that while “the Arabs haven’t really changed their attitudes,” it’s still worthwhile to try for peace.
Of particular note, Foxman said, were results that show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a 59 percent approval rating for his handling of U.S.-Israel relations. President Obama was slightly lower at 54 percent, with 32 percent who disapprove.
Results on most questions do not differ significantly due to age, with a spread generally within 5-10 points on most questions when broken down into demographic groups of under 40, 40-59 and 60-plus.
“We ourselves were struck by that finding,” said Harris, noting discussion in the Jewish community that younger Jews may be more liberal than older Jews.
Instead, religious denomination was the true variable, particularly on evaluations of President Obama.
Just 14 percent of Orthodox respondents said they approved of the Obama administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, compared to 54 and 59 percent for Conservative and Reform Jews, respectively. And 13 percent said they approved of the president’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue, with 44 percent of Conservative Jews and 54 percent of Reform Jews feeling positively about the president. On a potential strike against Iran, however, there is general agreement among denominations in favor, ranging from 61 percent of Orthodox to 53 percent of Reform.
The Orthodox Union’s director of public affairs, Nathan Diament, said the numbers were not a surprise.
“Surveys over the years, including AJC’s, have consistently shown that American Orthodox Jews are those with the closest affinity to Israel,” Diament said. “Thus, if surveys in Israel have shown that Israelis’ attitudes regarding President Obama’s policies toward Israel are very critical, it is sensible that” American Orthodox Jews “echo the same effect.”
Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said that the 54 percent approval for Obama on the handling of U.S.-Israel relations compared to the 78 percent of the Jewish vote he received last November demonstrates that there are real problems for Obama in the Jewish community. He noted that some Democrats have been critical of the Obama administration’s public calls for a settlement freeze.
But the CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said it was notable that Obama was still above 50 percent approval on the issue, despite the continuous carping from many that the president is treating Israel badly. The numbers demonstrate that the argument of Obama being unfriendly to Israel “is not convincing,” he said, also noting that 81 percent said that relations between Israel and the United States are very or somewhat positive.
There was one question on which there was almost complete unanimity in the poll. Asked whether the Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace agreement, 94 percent said yes.