Why do Republicans sympathize with Israel more than Democrats do? A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center says that Americans are more divided on attitudes toward the Middle East since 1978, but no single answer fully explains it.
“It’s an assimilation of long-term trends,” said Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. “In the 1960s, Israel was more popular among liberals. Over the years, Israel has lost sympathy and popularity among those who are liberal, secular and younger. The trends in this recent survey are a continuation of a long-term public trend.”
Pew asked 1,503 American adults whether they were more sympathetic to Israel or the Palestinians. The study found that 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, and that 27 percent of Democrats sympathize more with Israel.
Twenty-five percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Palestinians, and 9 percent of Republicans did.
Overall, 46 percent of Americans sympathize more with Israel, and 19 percent with the Palestinians.
“The numbers are worrying for anyone like me that cares about the U.S.-Israel relationship,” wrote Dennis Ross, a former American peace negotiator for presidents of both parties. “Israel has been and must remain not a Democratic or Republican issue but an American issue. That is a challenge now, especially with the attitudes of the progressive side of the Democratic Party, the alienation of the majority of the Jewish community from the Trump administration, and the administration’s strong symbolic support for Israel.”
Sympathy for Israel is lowest among Americans younger than 30. One-third expressed more sympathy for the Jewish state than with the Palestinians.
Guy Ziv, an assistant professor in American University’s School of International Service, said their view of Israel is shaped by recent events. Israel’s early history as a weak, threatened country is just that — history.
“Before ’67, Israel was seen as the underdog, and it was easy to identify with its underdog status.”
Ziv said Israel has come to be seen today as an “international superpower” due to its advanced economy and military might. It’s no longer viewed as an underdog.
He also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alienated younger and liberal American Jews by increasingly identifying with Republicans. In 2012, he showed a preference for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In 2015, he denounced the Obama administration’s proposed Iran nuclear agreement in front of a joint session of Congress, absent President Barack Obama.
“Americans [today] rarely hear Israelis who are critical of Netanyahu,” he continued. “I think what they see is a nation that’s becoming increasingly inward-looking and increasingly nationalistic. Less immune to criticisms from abroad.”
Republican Jewish activists are arguing the opposite: Republicans, who generally support Netanyahu’s policies, are the only party that’s truly pro-Israel. Republicans have celebrated Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement — brokered by Obama and reviled by Netanyahu — as well as his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence enjoyed the warmest of welcomes on their trips to Israel.
Still, Washington Republican strategist Lee Cowen said that he finds the polarized attitudes toward the Middle East “very troubling.”
“Israel is the most viable, only democratic ally in the region,” he said. “Regardless of party, it’s a shame.”
Cowen attributed the low level of sympathy among younger and more liberal Americans to Israel “losing the battle on college campuses,” due both to the rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and a liberal bias in academia.
But Jewish Democratic Council of America Chairman Ron Klein said he is not fazed by the results. Pew did an “incomplete” job of truly assessing American support for the Jewish state, he said.
“If you then ask the [hypothetical] second question, ‘What are your views on how important Israel is to you and do you support Israel’s right to protect itself,’ I think you would get a very high percentage” of support, he said.
Klein said that while Democrats and Republicans are divided on issues such as Israel’s settlement movement and the Kotel agreement, overall attitudes toward Israel are positive. Criticism of individual Israeli policies or leaders, he said, is no different than an American speaking ill of Trump but still supporting the United States.
Or, he said, it should be. “Some say, if you disagree with the settlement policy, you don’t support Israel.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.