Are 95% of Jews Really Zionists?

Polls of American Jewish opinion on Israel may not be asking the right questions.

Caroline Morganti
October 29, 2020

Marchers in the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, Manhattan, New York, June 2nd, 2019.

Aleksandr Dyskin via Shutterstock

TWO WEEKS AGO, the writer Bari Weiss published an essay in Tablet—her first piece of writing since her resignation from the New York Times opinion section—in which she complained that the left had become hostile to American Jews. To support her point, she noted that “95% of Jews . . . support the Jewish state.” This statistic is commonly repeated in Jewish and mainstream media: This year, it’s been cited in several opinion pieces and in a peer-reviewed academic article. Last year, among various other appearances, it showed up in a Wall Street Journal book review, a New York Times letter to the editor, and a JTA op-ed

The statistic originates from an August 2019 article by Gallup Senior Scientist Frank Newport. In response to Donald Trump’s controversial comments that American Jewish Democrats were being “disloyal” to Israel, Newport set out to examine Jews’ political views. Drawing on polling data from Gallup and other organizations, he contended that Jews generally have more favorable views of Israel than the broader American public, but nonetheless concluded that “Trump’s actions in support of Israel to date have done little to shift Jews’ [largely Democratic] political allegiance.” To support the former point, he included an estimate that “95% of Jews have favorable views of Israel.” 

However, as Newport noted in his article, this estimate was not based on a representative survey of American Jews, which would be designed specifically to capture the views of a niche American community. Instead, it was aggregated from Gallup’s nationally representative samples of all Americans over five years (2015–2019). In an email to Jewish Currents, Newport confirmed his methodology for reaching the 95% figure: He identified 128 people who described their religion as “Jewish” in the broader studies and used that subsample for his calculation. He estimated that the margin of error for his calculation was between 7 and 10%, explaining, “With small sample sizes, there is a significant margin of error on either side of the point estimate, so [the calculations] are just that—estimates.”

Yet, the statistic is rarely described in its context as Newport’s back-of-the-envelope estimate, based on only 128 Jewish-by-religion respondents over five years. Instead, it is regularly repeated as a truism, cited as evidence that American Jews who are more ambivalent about Israel are an insignificantly small minority in the community. Soon after Newport published his piece, Forward Opinion Editor Batya Ungar-Sargon admonished non-Jewish progressive leaders not to use the supposed 5% of “[a]nti-Zionist Jews” as cover for movements that are unwelcoming to the 95% of Jews who have favorable views toward Israel. Tablet senior writer Yair Rosenberg encouraged people to “get out of [their] Twitter bubbles.” 

The Newport calculation is just one of several statistics that Jewish commentators frequently cite as evidence for pro-Israel consensus in the Jewish community. Yet as this case shows, many journalists, pundits, and even academics often misunderstand polling methodologies, resulting in serious miscommunication of these results to the public. In Newport’s figure, the size and composition of the sample is suspect. But even polls that specifically sample American Jews, rather than Americans generally, can have shortcomings due to the wording of their questions. Most surveys that ask American Jews about Israel/Palestine implicitly assume that a respondent’s relationship to Israel is generally positive and relatively uncomplicated, while also operating within the rapidly fading framework of a conventional two-state solution. At the same time, questions usually do not directly measure other values that American Jews might hold, such as concern for democracy or Palestinian human rights. Limitations and biases of existing polling—combined with miscommunication of results in the press—make it easy for Jewish leaders to dismiss those who dissent from the establishment consensus on Israel. In the process, the public is deprived of a more accurate snapshot of trends in American Jewish perspectives on the Jewish state. 

IN AN INTERVIEW with Jewish Currents, Matthew Boxer, an assistant research professor at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, identified several problems with Newport’s 95% figure. Regarding the sample size of 128 respondents, Boxer explained, “It’s not a large enough sample that I would feel particularly comfortable reporting estimates from it.”

Boxer also pointed to the fact that those 128 Jews came from a nationally representative sample of Americans—rather than of American Jews specifically—which could misrepresent Jews in a “million different ways.” Most national surveys that ask for religious identification do not include “Jews of No Religion” (JNRs)—those who consider themselves Jewish by culture or ethnicity but do not consider Judaism their religious identity—a group which comprises approximately 22% of American Jews, according to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews. Since JNRs consistently express significantly less attachment to Israel, their exclusion skews results. 

A subgroup of a nationally representative sample will also be less accurate because Jews are distributed in the population differently than non-Jews. For example, American Jews are much more likely to live in urban and coastal areas than the typical American. But in a nationally representative sample, “you’re not drawing disproportionately enough [from those urban locations] to get the proportion of Jews who live in those places,” Boxer says. According to Boxer, this urban–rural divide can have multiple effects on accuracy when taking a subgroup from a nationally representative sample. Since overall, urban Jews tend to be more liberal, it likely underrepresents liberal Jews and overrepresents conservative Jews. (The exception to this is religious Jews, who would likely be underrepresented in a nationally representative sample because they tend to live in urban areas, but who also tend to be more conservative.)

There have been a variety of studies that have sampled American Jews specifically. The most comprehensive poll in recent years is the aforementioned Pew 2013 survey. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) also conducts smaller annual surveys. And earlier this year, the Ruderman Family Foundation released the largest poll of American Jews since the 2013 Pew poll. 

Questions about Israel in these polls often follow a pattern. While polls of the general American public tend to ask about sentiment toward Israel in more detached and/or purely political terms, asking if respondents have “favorable” views toward Israel, or whether they sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians, most polls of American Jews ask how “emotionally attached,” “connected,” or “close” respondents feel to Israel, or about the importance of Israel to personal Jewish identity

Substantial majorities of American Jews respond positively to these types of questions. Pew’s 2013 survey found that 69% of American Jews were somewhat (39%) or very (30%) emotionally attached to Israel, while 31% were not very (22%) or not at all (9%) attached. Eighty-seven percent of American Jews said that caring about Israel is either essential (43%) or at least important (44%) to what being Jewish means to them. (Elements that scored higher were remembering the Holocaust, at 97%, and leading an ethical and moral life, at 94%. Statistically tied with Israel were working for justice and equality in society, at 89%, and being intellectually curious, at 85%). In a similar question on AJC’s 2020 survey, 59% of American Jews reported that being connected to Israel was a very (29%) or somewhat (30%) important part of their Jewish identity.

But what about respondents who are highly critical of Israel, but for whom their relationship with the country nonetheless comprises a significant part of their Jewish engagement? Could questions about “closeness” to Israel elicit confusion among respondents who might feel close on the basis of lived experiences, personal relationships, or political engagement, but simultaneously feel distant based on political alienation, or even deeply held moral objections to Israeli policy? “It’s theoretically possible,” Boxer said. “It’s an empirical question, and I’ve never seen anybody actually test that.”

According to Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, an international public opinion expert and political consultant, “Any question that you ask in a survey will not be the full explanation for the responses.” That doesn’t mean that the question is bad, Scheindlin says: “It’s a natural limitation when you’re trying to ask questions that are motivated by different factors.”

Both Scheindlin and Boxer said that asking follow-up questions could clarify the results. But due to length constraints on most surveys, this is not always possible.

RECENTLY,  some polls of American Jews have bucked the trend of focusing only on “emotional attachment” and have directly asked more politically laden questions about “pro-Israel” identification, starting with a survey commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI, an affiliate of the Jewish Democratic Council of America) in the fall of 2018. Conducted by the Mellman Group, a polling firm run by Mark Mellman (now also the CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC), the poll of 800 American Jewish voters asked respondents which of the following best described them: “Generally pro-Israel and supportive of the current Israeli government’s policies” (32%); “Generally pro-Israel but also critical of some of the current Israeli government’s policies” (35%); Generally pro-Israel but also critical of many of the current Israeli government’s policies” (24%); or “Generally not pro-Israel” (3%).

In total, 92% of respondents chose one of the “generally pro-Israel” options. There was also a fifth option for a respondent having “no opinion,” which was not represented on the graph in the JEI’s report of the poll, but presumably numbers approximately 5%. The fact that the graph does not sum to 100% has led to mistakes when reporting on the poll, such as in a recent interview of Jewish Currents Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel by JTA Opinion Editor Laura E. Adkins, in which Adkins claims that this poll reported that “97% of American Jews are pro-Israel.” Presumably Adkins arrived at that figure by subtracting the 3% “not pro-Israel” from 100%. (Mellman told Jewish Currents that the “no opinion” option was not presented in the results for the sake of “simplicity.”) Three later surveys commissioned by JEI, conducted by different polling firms, showed similar results, with 88% (2019), 91% (February 2020), and 88% (September 2020) of respondents choosing one of the “generally pro-Israel” options. 

In December 2019, a Ruderman Family Foundation poll, also conducted by the Mellman Group, asked this same question to a larger sample of American Jews. Ruderman called it “the most comprehensive survey of the Jewish community in the United States in recent years, and one of the largest ever.” (The sample size was 2,500 and the margin of error was 1.96%, compared to a 3,475 sample size and 3.0% margin of error in the highly regarded Pew poll.) Unlike the JEI poll, this poll sampled all American Jews, rather than Jewish voters specifically, and the results showed a significant difference in the percentage of respondents who chose a pro-Israel option. In the Ruderman poll, about 80% of the general sample of American Jews chose pro-Israel options as opposed to the average of about 90% over the three JEI surveys of American Jewish voters. 

The pro-Israel answers in the Ruderman poll included a relatively even split of those who were supportive (23%), critical of some (28%), and critical of many (29%) Israeli policies. Six percent were “generally not pro-Israel,” and 14% did not have a view. Mellman said that the differences in the sample of American Jewish voters versus American Jews more broadly likely accounts for this gap between the JEI results and Ruderman results: “As with all voters, Jewish voters skew a little bit older, a little bit better educated, and obviously, more politically interested than the average Jew.”

Yet, as in other polls, the wording of the question could skew results, especially since the meaning of the term “pro-Israel” has long been subject to debate. Someone who is critical of Israeli policies but ambivalent about the label “pro-Israel” might choose “Generally pro-Israel but also critical of some of the current Israeli government’s policies,” since it might be the option that most closely reflects their overall opinion. But they will still be lumped into results that count how many American Jews are “pro-Israel.”

“Push-polling is when you design the questions in such a way in order to convey to your respondent that there is a right answer and you must select it . . . A question like this isn’t quite [push-polling], but it’s adjacent to it,” Boxer said of the question. He believes that there was a measure of “social desirability bias” affecting the answers, a term which describes the tendency of respondents to adhere to socially accepted opinions when answering questions. “[I]n the Jewish community, it is just expected of us that we are going to be more pro-Israel. Even more pro-Israel than most of us already are,” he said.

Boxer also pointed to the “unbalanced” nature of the answers: “You can be pro-Israel in this way, and you can be pro-Israel in that way, and you can be pro-Israel in the other way. But there’s only really one aspect to being not pro-Israel,” he said. “It’s nuanced a little bit on the pro-Israel side. Not enough, really, but there’s some effort there. There’s no effort on the other side.”

Mellman, for his part, responded that since the percentage of people identifying as “not pro-Israel” was so small, it would not make sense to create more granular categories. He also questioned how one would phrase multiple “not pro-Israel” options: “‘Not pro-Israel and not supportive of Israel’s policies’? It wouldn’t make any sense. [Or] ‘I’m not pro-Israel but I support many of Israel’s policies?’ That seems like a very, infinitesimally small number of people. ‘I’m not pro-Israel but I’m critical’ . . . it’s either crazy or not really different.”

Some surveys ask respondents their opinions about concrete policy, which might escape the limitations of questions about vague emotional or political identification. Pew’s 2013 results found that most Jews think that “Israel and an independent Palestinian state [could] coexist peacefully.” A plurality were skeptical of Israeli settlement policy and didn’t think Israel was making a sincere effort to make peace—but a large majority said the same about Palestinian leadership. 

However, these policy questions have their shortcomings, too: Boxer says what data we have on the actual knowledge level of American Jews about Israel is not promising. “We have this situation where people don’t really know very much, but have very strong opinions, partly fueled by not having much information, and partly fueled by the fact that Israel is really important to Jewish identity for lots of people,” he said. Scheindlin was more optimistic about respondents’ level of familiarity with “the basic ideas—two states, one state,” but stressed that “that’s a question about polling in general: should you be asking policy questions to regular people who don’t think about these things on a day-to-day basis?”

Another challenge of polling on policy is that question language changes slowly; the desire to track opinion by repeating the same question year after year comes into tension with shifting political realities. Currently, polls overwhelmingly ask Israel/Palestine policy-based questions within a paradigm of a two-state solution, such as, “As part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to dismantle all, some, or none of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank?” There is no way to answer this question if a respondent prefers a confederation or binational state, which would involve leaving some settlements in place; choosing any of the options could be interpreted as support for a position they don’t hold, while refusing to answer would signal apathy or lack of knowledge. The survey instrument is simply unable to capture their view. 

Polls by Scheindlin and Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki have asked Israelis and Palestinians their support for different final status arrangements, including a single democratic state and a confederation. “Is it worth testing alternative solutions? Yes,” Scheindlin said. “Has it been tested in Israel? All the time. Has it been tested in the US? Not as much.” Scheindlin was aware of just one poll which asked Americans writ large about alternatives to the two-state solution: The University of Maryland Critical Issues poll has asked whether respondents think the US should support a two-state solution (36% in 2019), a single democratic state (33%), annexation without equal citizenship (12%), or the status quo (15%). No polls that specifically sample American Jews have asked a similar question. But Scheindlin thinks this might change as the political discourse shifts: “I do think that in the coming years we will see American Jews be asked about alternatives to the two-state solution.”

Just one question has come close. In 2018—the year Israel passed the controversial nation-state law, which many critics said favored the state’s Jewish character over its democracy—the AJC survey included a question that it had never asked before: “Can Israel be both a Jewish state and a democracy, and if not, which should it be?” Around two-thirds of respondents (68%) answered yes, Israel could and should be both Jewish and democratic. But about one-fifth (20%) of American Jews said, “No, it should be a democracy.” (A further 7% said, “No, it should be a Jewish state,” and 4% had no opinion.)

In other words, when asked directly whether Israel can reconcile its Jewishness and democracy, roughly 20% of American Jews (the margin of error was plus or minus 3.9%) said that Israel cannot be both, and that it should be a democratic state rather than a Jewish state—an answer that might be considered a non- or anti-Zionist position by contemporary standards. Yet this intriguing finding got little media attention, and AJC did not repeat this question in 2019 or 2020 to see if it could be replicated. Kenneth Bandler, AJC’s Director of Media Relations, told Jewish Currents that not every question is repeated each year due to constraints on survey length.

Perhaps by accident, the AJC asked a question that allowed respondents to express opinions outside the dominant view that Israel is, and should forever remain, democratic and Jewish by conventional definitions. While it’s important to avoid placing outsized importance on a single poll result, it raises questions about fundamental assumptions regarding the Israel politics of American Jews—and offered a glimpse of what insights become visible when polls of the Jewish community step outside the traditional framework. 

Caroline Morganti lives and works in New York City. Her writing has appeared in The Forward and Haaretz.