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Jewish Americans -- Still Liberal After All These Years

Ron Skolnik
September 13, 2017


by Ron Skolnik

IF THERE’S NEWS in the American Jewish Committee’s just-released 2017 survey of American Jewish opinion, it’s that there’s little earth-shattering in it at all. American Jews, the survey’s data indicate, remain solidly left-of-center, Democrat in party affiliation, and overwhelmingly anti-Trump. And while hawkish, brook-no-criticism-of-Israel elements often seem to dominate the discourse in the American Jewish community, the AJC interviews, like previous public opinion polls, suggest that, numerically speaking at least, they represent only a small fraction of all Jewish Americans.

If anything, it seems that American Jews are tacking further left in recent years. While the AJC’s 2015 survey found that only 45 percent of Jews defined themselves as “liberal” (27 percent) or “lean-liberal” (18 percent), the number in 2017 reached 54 percent (39 percent “liberal” and 15 percent “lean-liberal”). We cannot determine, based on the survey, how many Jewish Americans would call themselves “progressive” or even “socialist,” as these replies were not listed on the five-point scale (liberal, lean-liberal, moderate/middle of the road, lean-conservative, conservative) offered by AJC. But a question in the organization’s 2015 survey about presidential candidate preferences revealed that Bernie Sanders was the top choice of 18 percent of American Jews compared to 40 percent for Hillary Clinton.

The rise in the number of liberals appears to be coming from the self-described “middle of the road” population, which made up 34 percent of respondents in 2015, but only 22 percent this year, while the percentage of conservative and lean-conservative Jews has remained relatively stable, at 22 percent. The Jewish community, in other words, seems to be taking part in the growing polarization of American society as a whole. The AJC survey also shows increasing support for the Democratic Party (57 percent, up from 51 percent last year) at the expense of both Independents and Republicans (now down to 15 percent, compared to 19 percent two years ago).

When it comes to Trump, Jewish Americans give an overwhelming thumbs-down. Only 21 percent have a favorable opinion of Trump, compared to a 77 percent unfavorable rating. And evaluations of Trump’s handling of specific elements of policy largely follow the same theme: 73 percent disapprove of his handling of national security; 75 percent disapprove of him on U.S.-Russia relations; 76 percent are displeased by his handling of immigration; and 77 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Trump’s handling of race relations. Trump can rely on a small hardcore Jewish American base: He enjoys a “strong approval” rating of anywhere from 10 to 18 percent of Jewish Americans, depending on the specific policy in question.

Support for Trump is highly correlated with level of religiosity, with only the Orthodox giving him favorable marks: 71 percent, with only 27 percent unfavorable. With non-Orthodox Jews, the pattern was reverse: Conservative Jews were 73 percent unfavorable, Reform Jews 88 percent unfavorable, Reconstructionists at 92 percent, and the nondenominational “Just Jewish” category at 81 percent. When it comes to his handling of relations with Israel, however, Trump gets rather higher marks, enjoying the support of half of Conservatives, about one third of Reform and almost two fifths of “Just Jewish.”

AS FOR American Jewish opinion regarding the Israeli government: Though the available data is limited, several questions seem to lend credence to the much-hyped, but often only anecdotally referenced, growing rift between Jewish Americans and Israel’s leadership: When asked to approve or disapprove of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, only 45 percent expressed approval this year (22 percent “strongly”; 23 percent “somewhat”), down significantly from 55 percent in 2015 (16 percent “strongly” and 39 percent “somewhat”), and especially from the 71 percent registered in 2013. Those who replied “disapprove strongly” jumped from 4 percent in 2013, to 16 percent in 2015, to 24 percent this year. Also noteworthy is the fact that, although Israel’s government has continued to move ever further from the idea of a two-state solution -- Netanyahu, for example, at a ceremony in the West Bank marking 50 years of settlement, last month declared that “We are here to stay forever . . . This is our land” -- opposition to Palestinian statehood among American Jews actually dropped to 40 percent, compared to 47 percent in 2013.

Responses to other questions also provide hints that Jewish Americans are not following the lead of the Israeli leadership: Only 16 percent of Jews in the U.S. want to see Trump carry through with his campaign pledge to unconditionally transfer the American embassy to Jerusalem from its present location in Tel Aviv, this despite the religious, historical, cultural, and psychological importance of the city, and despite Netanyahu’s repeated calls for such a move.

The gap between Jewish Americans and Israel’s establishment is most striking when it comes to the outsize influence in Israel of Jewish religious Orthodoxy. Seventy-six percent reject the Orthodox monopoly over weddings and divorces in Israel, up slightly from the results last year. Seventy-three percent support a mixed-gender prayer section at the Western Wall -- a plan that Netanyahu first supported and then scrapped earlier this year under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government. And 56 percent of Jewish Americans -- up sharply from 48 percent last year -- now believe that the Israeli government’s denial of recognition to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism is weakening their ties to the country.

This should not be particularly surprising: Only 9 percent of the survey’s respondents defined themselves as Orthodox, the same as last year, while 49 percent think of themselves either as Reform (31 percent), Conservative (16 percent) or Reconstructionist (2 percent). The largest single grouping of Jews, however, 39 percent in all, do not cite any religious affiliation at all and place themselves in the category of “Just Jewish.”

Finally, and again not surprisingly in light of the growing visibility and confidence of the white supremacist movement, American Jews are increasingly concerned by domestic antisemitism: 84 percent defined it as a problem. Most significant, though, is the sharp increase in the number of Jewish Americans who term antisemitism a “serious problem”: 41 percent this year compared to 21 percent in both 2016 and 2015 and a rather negligible 14 percent in AJC’s 2013 survey.

Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents. Follow him on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.