Social Justice Still Drives Jewish Agenda, Survey Notes


In a just-released survey that is being seen as a “deep” vein of data about the values that animate Jewish life — and likely affect Jewish voting patterns — the Jewish community’s commitment to social justice reveals itself in sharp relief.

The survey, conducted by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute and released Tuesday, found that a majority of American Jews are welcoming of immigrants, favorably disposed towards American Muslims, support legalizing same-sex marriage, favor legal abortions and oppose overturning the recent health care law.

Asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half of American Jews — 46 percent — cited a commitment to social equality. That figure dwarfed other issues like support for Israel (20 percent) and religious observance (17 percent).

The survey is titled “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012.”

“The data is on a much deeper level than we usually have in looking at surveys of the American Jewish community,” said Mark Pelavin, a senior adviser to Union of Reform Judaism President Richard Jacobs. “I think there are surprises all over the place, but I think the headlines are not particularly surprising. People say American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, and now it’s helpful for there to be empirical data to support a proposition that is thrown around loosely.”

Given the Jews’ liberal bent, observers say, it is perhaps not surprising that the campaigns of this year’s Republican presidential candidates have had little resonance with most American Jews.

“This is a campaign year in which Jews are reminded how right-wing the Republican Party has become because of the Christian conservative core of the party,” said Kenneth Wald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “This presidential campaign has reinforced the problems the Republicans are having with Jews. … They have given a lot of attention to the wrong positions on core issues.”

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the survey funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, said simply: “To the extent that the Republican Party emphasizes culture war issues, it is a losing proposition to attracting Jewish votes.”

A total of 1,004 self-identified Jews age 18 and older participated in the online survey between Feb. 23 and March 5. There is a sampling error of 5 percent.

Jones said he believes this was the first major study of its size, comprehensiveness and scope conducted by a non-Jewish group.

“It confirmed how central social justice and a sense of commitment to social equality is to American Jewish values and politics,” he said.

And it demonstrated American Jews’ strong support for environmentalism, with 69 percent saying they supported tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment, even if it meant raising prices or cutting jobs.

Not surprisingly, there were stark political differences: only 26 percent of Republican Jews said they would support tougher environmental rules compared to 68 percent of Jewish independents and 81 percent of Jewish Democrats.

The survey was consistent with other research regarding the denominational breakdown of the American Jewish community — 35 percent Reform, 26 percent Conservative, 8 percent Orthodox, 1 percent Reconstructionist and 29 percent who said they were “Just Jewish.”

Regarding the latter category, Jones said this survey had findings similar to those in the general American population — younger Americans are “likely to be less religiously affiliated.”

“The rule of thumb is that you do not report on cases of less than 100,” he said. “But you can infer from the data that the Orthodox are more likely to be Republican.”

Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, said he regretted that the survey did not include enough Orthodox Jews from which to make conclusions. But he said that although the survey found that one-third of American Jews visited Israel, “it is clear that this figure is higher among the Orthodox. And although one-third of Jews report being a member of a local synagogue, among the Orthodox that is probably 80 percent.”

But overall, Diament said, the survey “is informative and confirms what we instinctively think of American Jews.”

The economy is the main issue for Jewish registered voters this election year (51 percent), with all other issues trailing well behind. Fifteen percent cited the growing gap between rich and poor, 10 percent cited health care, 7 percent the federal deficit and only 4 percent listed Israel.

“What this suggests is that there is little space between Republicans and Democrats on the core issues [involving Israel],” Wald said. “The Republicans talk of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but on the core issues the distance [between them] is small.”

This finding is similar to other surveys that show that Americans are “pro-Israel, but Israel is not a matter of high political salience and is not a partisan issue unless there are differences between the parties — and most American Jews do not see a separation,” Wald observed.

Among the surprising findings was that fully 87 percent of Jews said the Holocaust was somewhat or very important in informing their political beliefs and activities. Wald said he was “surprised by the sheer magnitude” of that number. Some 85 percent said they were influenced also by the opportunities for economic success in America, 70 percent cited the immigrant experience and 66 percent cited the fact they are a religious minority here.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he is not surprised that so many American Jews today are influenced by the Holocaust.

“It is the most meaningful, significant, traumatic memory and experience, and we remember it,” he said. “If you look at the American Jewish Committee surveys, they found that the No. 1 concern of Jews today is anti-Semitism. Others may say it is not an issue and that we are hyping something, but it is not only the 80-year-olds who feels that way but the 30-year-olds who say it is a major concern and anxiety of the American Jewish community.”

Similarly, Foxman said, the fact that Jews remember the immigrant experience and are conscious that they are a religious minority here is very telling.

“We did feel insecure as immigrants, and I don’t think we have shed our insecurity to this day,” he said. “That is why we still vote with minorities.”

On the other hand, Foxman said, Jews are “not Democrats economically — we are in the upper middle class — or in our global view as it relates to the Middle East and Iran. The classic Democratic view is that we can get along with everybody. I think the Jewish community is now looking at the world” in more realistic “terms.”

Pelavin said that had this survey been taken 50 years ago, the Holocaust would have been listed as “the defining event — today it is a defining event.”

He disagreed that the answers suggest a Jewish community that is insecure; rather, he argued that they are a recognition of “the complex nature of Jewish peoplehood and the American Jewish community in particular.”

“We are a very strong and secure community; on the other hand we are very mindful of our history, both ancient and recent,” Pelavin said, adding that the reading of the Haggadah at the seder is a way of remembering our history.

Among the findings Pelavin found surprising was that the percentage of Jews favoring a Palestinian state (53 percent) is actually higher than the American average as a whole (44 percent).

The survey found that as many American Jews — 36 percent — report being satisfied as being dissatisfied with the Obama administration, but only 3 percent said they are excited about it.

At the same time, 61 percent said they have very a favorable or mostly favorable view of President Barack Obama and 62 percent said they would like to see him re-elected — more than twice the number who support a Republican candidate (30 percent). The latter group supports Mitt Romney by a wide margin over his closest challenger — 58 percent to 15 percent for Rick Santorum.

Wald said the findings confirm that Jews are “heavily oriented to the Democrats,” which he said is important this year “given all the anti-Obama talk.”

Jones agreed, saying: “There has been a lot of speculation around whether there has been spillage in the Jewish community towards the Republican Party, and our survey did not show significant movement.”

The survey found that Jewish support for the way Obama has handled his presidency is at 58 percent, significantly higher than among the general population (44 percent) and nearly identical to what it had been at a comparable point in the 2008 campaign.

Regarding health care reform, fully 58 percent of American Jews oppose overturning Obama’s health care bill, which is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Here again, there is a striking difference between Republican Jews — 84 percent want to overturn the law — and Jewish Democrats, 78 percent of whom support it. Jewish independents are more divided, with 53 percent supporting it.

Some 59 percent of American Jews said religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, with Conservative Jews (82 percent) more likely than Reform (65 percent) Jews to believe that. And self-identified political conservatives (67 percent) and moderates (68 percent) are more likely than liberals (47 percent) to express that belief, as are more women (66 percent) than men (50 percent).

Regarding questions about religion, younger Jews are about twice as likely as older Jews to say they do not believe in God (27 percent to 13 percent). Some 35 percent of American Jews report being a member of a local synagogue; less than half of Conservative and Reform Jews report belonging to a synagogue (49 percent and 39 percent respectively). Only 5 percent of those who say they are “Just Jewish” report belonging to a synagogue, and those without a college degree are less likely than those with post-graduate degrees to belong to a synagogue (27 percent versus 44 percent).

When asked to name the most important Jewish holiday, 43 percent named Yom Kippur, 25 percent named Passover, and Chanukah and Rosh HaShanah were each cited by 10 percent of respondents. At the same time, two-thirds of Jews said they planned to attend a seder this year.

Regarding foreign policy, 54 percent of American Jews said relations between Israel and the U.S. are little changed from the past, but 37 percent said they are worse. And Jews who belong to a synagogue are more likely than non-synagogue members to believe relations are worse (47 percent versus 31 percent respectively).

American Jews are evenly divided about Obama’s handling of the Arab-Israel conflict, while one-third said they are not sure of their opinion on this matter.

When asked whether certain issues represent a major problem for Israel, about 90 percent listed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 83 percent listed Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, 53 percent listed the control of religious life by the fervently Orthodox in Israel.

By more than 2-to-1, American Jews favor diplomacy over the military option to ensure peace. But 59 percent of American Jews said the U.S. should take military action to prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, compared with 37 percent who disagreed. Military action was supported by 78 percent of Jewish Re

On other issues, 93 percent of American Jews support legal abortions in all or most cases. And some 81 percent of American Jews support allowing same-sex couples to marry legally.

Nearly two-thirds believe the government should do more to close the gap between rich and poor, and 81 percent would increase the tax rate on Americans who earn more than $1 million a year.

For a link to the full survey, click here.