American Jews more critical of Israel, new poll finds

Howard Libit
Howard Libit (Courtesy of Howard Libit)

Up to a quarter of Jewish American voters agree with the statement “Israel is an apartheid state,” according to a new poll commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute.

Conducted by GBAO Strategies from June 28 to July 1 and surveying over 800 self-identified Jewish American registered voters, the poll found that a significant minority are developing a critical view of Israel and the policies of its government. Additional results indicated that 22% agreed with the statement “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,” while 34% agreed with “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the U.S.”

While much of the poll’s focus was on subjects such as what national party American Jews affiliate with, their level of support for President Joe Biden and the issues that most concern them, it was the findings on support for Israel that have raised some eyebrows, including among Baltimore Jewish community professionals.

“I was both surprised and concerned to see those numbers, that they were as high as the poll found,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “Some of it speaks to the timing of the most recent conflict in Gaza, and how things were portrayed. Those numbers tell me that we, collectively, need to do a better job of educating about Israel.”

Rabbi John Franken (Courtesy of Rabbi John Franken)

By contrast, Rabbi John Franken of Temple Adas Shalom, and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, had a more positive view of the poll. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported feeling an emotional attachment to Israel, Franken noted, while a majority favored U.S. aid to both Israel and the Palestinians.

“I think, on the whole, the findings to me are not surprising,” Franken said. “Many of them are encouraging.”

When it came to the results on Jewish Americans who have critical opinions of Israel, Franken did not view imperfect messaging as the primary cause. American Jews are already highly educated and informed, particularly with respect to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said.

While he personally supports the Jewish state and finds some of the poll’s results upsetting, Franken saw a link between those results and specific actions taken by the Israeli government.

“Whenever, I think, there are Jews that are unsupportive of Israel … it’s concerning to me,” Franken said. “At the same time, I also understand why these numbers are significant in terms of comparing Israeli government policies to racism in the United States, or even apartheid.”

Franken noted Israel’s nation-state law, passed in 2018, which he said sometimes privileges Jewish status over any others, and that even Israel’s Druze population, a religious minority that is loyal to the state, was upset by the law.

“Actions have consequences,” Franken said, “and the settlement project, the nation-state law, the recent real estate litigation in Sheikh Jarrah have disturbed lots of American Jews who see a bias in privileging Jews over Palestinians or Arabs who are [residents] of the state of Israel, and that’s what I think is causing a significant number of people to draw these comparisons.”

Libit viewed the poll’s findings as emerging from problems of perception and messaging, both on the part of American Jewish institutions and on the part of the Israeli government. The poll constituted, in his view, a reminder that communication and education on Israel and the conflict needs to be a high priority.

“Israel itself, I think we all saw that there were times during the conflict when they were slow or caught off guard with some of the communications needs regarding some of what happened,” Libit said.

For example, when Israel destroyed the building in Gaza that housed the offices of the Associated Press, Israel could have communicated the proof that the building also housed Hamas military operations in a quicker and more transparent fashion, Libit said. Instead, as a result, Israel’s military operations took a public relations beating, he said.

Libit also stressed the importance of reminding people that the Palestinian leadership has a history of walking away from opportunities for peace or the advancement of Palestinian communities and that the attacks on Israel constitute terrorism.

“I think sometimes we don’t do a great job of counteracting [the] criticisms that people are seeing and hearing of Israel,” Libit said. “Whether it’s what our young people are seeing on social media or, at times, the way the mainstream media chooses to portray things.”

Lisa Abrams, co-chair of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore’s Insight Israel Forum, which provides a place for community members to learn about Israel, largely concurred with the view that the issue is one of perception.

“Israel has a complicated history that is evolving,” Abrams said in an email. “News reports and public discourse contain conflicting viewpoints, polarizing topics and misconceptions. Many people do not feel capable of sharing an informed opinion about these topics without study, education and analysis.”

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