President Trump’s comments last month regarding the disloyalty — to Israel and to themselves — of American Jews who vote Democratic reignited a debate about American Jewish priorities and views of Israel. While Trump’s overt allegation was that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel and thus American Jews have an obligation to vote Republican, the implication of Trump’s charge was that American Jews themselves must not care about Israel since they vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. While Trump’s ruminations demonstrated his lack of understanding about American Jews’ feelings toward Israel and why they vote as they do, he is far from alone. On both sides of the political spectrum, a faulty understanding of how American Jews think about Israel abounds.
According to Gallup, 95 percent of American Jews have favorable views of Israel, yet 65 percent of American Jews openly identify as or lean Democratic and Trump’s disapproval rating with American Jews is 69 percent. Clearly, Trump administration policies seen as favorable to Israel, from recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy to eliminating funding that benefits the Palestinian Authority over its payments to terrorists and their families, and Trump’s general embrace of Prime Minister Netanyahu have not moved American Jews politically. Yet American Jews unambiguously care about Israel and identify with it.
‘Both the right and the left are guilty of black-and-white thinking about what is an ‘extremely gray relationship.’
On the right, this gap manifests in two different ways. One reaction is that of Trump, who looks at American Jewish support for Israel and its lack of support for him and what he views as his unambiguously pro-Israel policies, and assumes that the tide will shift in the next election. The president’s promotion and predictions of a “Jexodus,” in which Jews abandon Democrats for Republicans en masse, stems from that almost impossibly lofty Jewish favorability rating for Israel. But this view misunderstands that while American Jews care about Israel, when it comes to elections they care about other things a lot more. In fact, polling by Mark Mellman and others has demonstrated that Jewish voters rank issues like the Supreme Court, affordable healthcare and tax policy far higher than a candidate’s stance on Israel.
The other reaction on the right also stems from a misreading of what it means for near universal American Jewish favorability on Israel. This view assumes that there is no crisis in American Jewry with regard to support for Israel, that opposition to Israeli government policies is sequestered among a bunch of radical college kids and that American Jews will back anything that Israel does, even if they do so reluctantly. What this position misses is that there is a distinction between being favorably inclined toward Israel and being unfavorably disinclined toward Israeli policies. A majority of American Jews describe themselves as critical of the Israeli government despite maintaining sky-high favorability toward Israel. This critical distinction is why American Jewish identity, which is so tightly bound up with Israel, does not mean a blank check to the Israeli government on the part of most American Jews.
On the left, the American Jewish relationship to Israel is also subject to a bad misreading of the environment and basic facts. When Rep. Rashida Tlaib was barred by Israel from entering the country, she spent the next night at a Shabbat service held by Jewish Voices for Peace. Given its disavowal of Israel as a Jewish state, JVP is even more unrepresentative of American Jews than Jexodus. Yet Tlaib’s immediate turn to JVP was meant to demonstrate that Judaism can be separated from Israel and that the natural and authentic Jewish response is to turn away from Zionism.
It is easy to see how Tlaib and others in the progressive camp arrive at this conclusion. There is far more angst about Israel among American Jews than among other groups, and as pointed out above, the Israeli government is unpopular in American Jewish circles. Yet the notion that token anti-Zionist groups speak for American Jews or are the future of American Jewry because Jews are often in the forefront speaking out against Israel’s presence in the West Bank or illiberal Israeli policies is to commit the mirror image mistake of the one made by the right. The tendency on the right is to think that Jews are driven primarily by Israel, while this tendency on the left is to think that Jews want to be disconnected from Israel. American Jewish feelings about Israel are complex in a familial way, and anger or discontent with things that Israel does do not translate into a widespread desire to sever the connection.
Predictions of eternal support for Israel completely divorced from Israeli policies, or drastic and overwhelming erosion in support for Israel as a result of Israeli policies, betray black-and-white thinking about what is an extremely gray American Jewish relationship with Israel. American Jews think about and relate to Israel in complicated and complex ways, and while the current status quo is not forever set in stone, cherry-picking some poll numbers or isolated anecdotal data points will inevitably lead people to misread the politics of Israel in the American Jewish community.