Israel is not only winning the war in Gaza but the hearts and minds of Americans. Two polls conducted by CNN and the Pew Research Center reveal support for Israel that is solid among virtually every age, race, political party or religion. Pew found 51 percent of Americans sympathetic to Israel, only 14 percent sympathetic to the Palestinians (with the rest answering “both,” neither or “don’t know”), while CNN found 57 percent of Americans saying Israel’s military actions are “justified” and 34 percent saying Israel was “unjustified.”
Pew, which broke down its polling by more than 20 different categories, found that every category overwhelmingly favored Israel over the Palestinians by at least 20 percentage points, other than liberal Democrats and the religiously unaffiliated, who were slightly less supportive (18 and 16 percent over the Palestinians, respectively) but solidly in Israel’s corner, as well.
Both Pew and CNN found that the political parties remain sharply divided, with Democrats at 44 (Pew) or 45 (CNN) percent supportive of Israel, while 73 percent of Republicans supported Israel. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a statement that the Pew survey was a “confirmation of the Democrat Party’s shift over time away from support of Israel, especially at its grassroots.” In truth, there has not been any Democratic shift at all. The Democratic numbers are exactly the same as in 1978, the year of the landmark Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, when 44 percent of Democrats said they had sympathies for Israel. That percentage that has fluctuated but is essentially unchanged after 36 years.
What has changed is Pew’s breaking down of both parties into conservative and liberal wings. There is no group in the country more sympathetic to Israel than conservative Republicans, whose sympathies for Israel are 77 percent, with 4 percent for the Palestinians and only 1 percent saying “both.” At the other extreme, 39 percent of liberal Democrats are sympathetic to Israel, 21 percent for Palestinians, and 6 percent saying “both.” Moderate Democrats came in at 48 percent (16 percent for Palestinians), and moderate Republicans came in at 64 percent (with 9 percent for Palestinians).
Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Institute on American-Israeli Relations, told The Jewish Week, “Support for Israel has transcended party politics, regardless of the party in power in Washington, or in Jerusalem, for that matter. Since around 1984 we’ve had a problem with the left wing of the Democratic Party, but when it comes to actual results, the left wing has not prevailed.” A week ago, resolutions supporting Israel passed unanimously in the Senate and House. “Should we take that for granted? Absolutely not,” said Bayme. “These things can change,” as was felt with trepidation at the 2012 Democratic convention when a resolution supporting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was vigorously booed down several times before being muscled into the Democratic platform by the convention chair.
“There are bumps along the political road, but it does not affect the overall trend of strong American public opinion regarding either Jews or Israel,” said Bayme. “Americans favor Israel as a fellow democracy, as the one democracy in the Middle East, as a strategic ally, and as a fulfillment of an age-old American fascination with the people of the Bible.”
The Pew poll (taken July 8-14), and CNN’s poll (July 18-20) were conducted shortly after the tumultuous weeks when three kidnapped Israeli teens were found murdered (June 30), a Palestinian teen was killed in revenge (July 2), Israel’s Operation Brothers Keeper, a West Bank police action to find the kidnapped teens aroused strong Palestinian resistance, and a war (Operation Protective Edge) that began on July 7 when Hamas launched more than 100 rockets at Israel’s cities.
In a second survey taken May 30-June 30, Pew found that Americans had “warmer” feelings for Jews than they did for any other religious group, and “coldest” feelings for Muslims. Respondents were asked to rate each group on a “feelings thermometer” ranging from zero to 100 (the warmest). Jews scored 63, the Muslims 40, with Muslims being the only religion that was liked even less than atheists. (Respondents, who were allowed to grade their own group, too, gave Catholics a 62; evangelicals 61; Buddhists 53; atheists 41; and Muslims 40). The Jews were also the least disliked of all religions by those polled, while Muslims were the most disliked. However, perhaps reflecting future trends, those under age 30 gave Muslims a neutral rating of 49, with older adults accounting for Muslims’ more negative ratings.
Despite the Democrats’ relative ambivalence about Israeli policies, Democrats and Democratic “leaners” expressed warm feelings toward Jews (average rating of 62). Jewish respondents gave no regard for any group’s support or antagonism to Israel. Although white Evangelical Protestants, the group most supportive of Israel, gave Jews an average rating of 69, Jews repaid the Evangelicals with an icy rating of 34, even lower than the 35 that Jews gave Muslims. All the non-Christian groups received warmer ratings from Democrats than they did from Republicans, with the exception of Jews.
The Pew surveys tell twin tales of the same story, said Bayme. “The Jews are an incredibly esteemed minority within American culture, and that is one of the reasons why Israel has such a high esteem in American public opinion, which has been true since [Israel’s founding]. Since 1945, the narrative of the American Jewish community has been the ever-increasing acceptance of Jews as Jews, and the ever-increasing marginalization of anti-Semitism. It hasn’t disappeared but it has been relegated to the margins.”
American popular support for Israel has been both constant and growing. According to Gallup, with every passing decade, support for Israel has grown. In the 1970s, the average support for Israel was 42 percent; in the 1980s, 46 percent; in the 1990s, 47 percent; and in six polls taken during the Obama administration, support for Israel has averaged 62 percent, with sympathy for the Palestinians averaging 16.5 percent.
All polls indicate that Americans have a larger perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond any single incident that might cast Israel in a negative light. For example, Israel quickly rebounded from even the public relations disaster of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre in 1982’s Lebanon War (when Israel’s ally, the Lebanese Christian Philangist militia entered a refugee camp in Beirut and murdered several hundred Palestinians). That month, Israel sunk to its lowest percentage of sympathy, 32 percent (Sept. 1982). However, even then, Israel still got more American sympathy than the Palestinians (at 28 percent). And Israel was back to a 49-to-12 percentage lead over the Palestinians four months later.
Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center, said the surveys should “certainly be reassuring, particularly in context of a conflict where even isolated events can drive sympathy in one direction or another. But I don’t think we can take broad support for granted. Older Americans,” who remember Israel as an underdog, “are more likely to be supportive of Israel than younger ones. But most Americans see Israel as a reliable, dependable Western ally confronting fundamentalists who are enemies of the United States. That brings a lot of sympathy for Israel in a very important way.”