Recent Polls of US Jews Reflect Polarized Community

Trying to keep up with shifting opinion on Israel/Palestine, surveys of American Jews are beginning to ask new questions.

Caroline Morganti
June 29, 2023

Jewish Voice for Peace protesters urge Senator Chuck Schumer to end US military funding to Israel on March 5th, 2023.

Photo by Olga Fedorova via AP Images

ON MAY 1ST, William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, published an op-ed in Newsweek defending the US’s current practice of providing $3.8 billion dollars of unconditional military aid to Israel a year. Daroff wrote that his organization “strongly” opposes “any attempts to limit or condition US security assistance to Israel.” The Conference of Presidents is an umbrella group of 52 organizations that was formed in 1956 to represent the unified voice of the American Jewish community regarding Jewish communal matters and US–Israel relations. But Daroff’s argument is at odds with American Jewish opinion: In the last few years, surveys have begun to suggest that a majority of American Jews do not support unconditional aid to Israel. Instead, they are willing to back conditions that military aid not be used to further Israel’s occupation of Palestinians. In fact, a substantial number of American Jews appear willing to go much further in criticizing Israel than community representatives like Daroff: A 2021 poll of Jewish voters by the Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI), for example, made waves when it found that a quarter of respondents agreed that Israel is an apartheid state.

Figuring out the contours of American Jewish public opinion on Israel has long been a challenge. As Jewish Currents reported in 2020, while statistics about how many Jews identify as Zionists are often thrown around in public discourse, few reliable studies have been done on the question. And rather than ask about specific policies, polls of American Jews generally ask respondents about their levels of “emotional attachment” to Israel; those policy-oriented questions that do appear typically assume a framework of a two-state solution while eliding possibilities like a single binational state. But in the last few years, as the Israeli government has shifted rightward—with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forming a close alliance with former President Donald Trump, attempting to subordinate the judiciary to the legislature in a plan many liberal Israelis see as a threat to democracy, and continuing to expand the occupation of the West Bank—and as Israel’s relationship with American Jewish institutions has become more strained, pollsters have begun to ask American Jews questions about conditional aid, alternatives to the two-state solution, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

While surveys may not be evolving quickly enough to keep up with changing political realities, responses to the new questions paint a picture of an increasingly polarized American Jewish community—one whose median position appears to be to the left of mainstream American Jewish institutions, even as Jewish Republicans are increasingly supporting more right-wing policies. Still, researchers caution, drawing conclusions from polls of American Jews can be challenging, given that respondents have different interpretations of what it means to be a “Zionist” or to be “emotionally attached” to Israel, and varying levels of knowledge about the country—challenges on which new studies are themselves focusing.

ONLY A HANDFUL OF POLLS specifically survey American Jews, a group whose small size—Jews make up roughly 2.4% of the US population—makes accurate sampling a challenge. The Pew Research Center, whose rigorous data is widely seen as the “gold standard” for surveys of American Jews, studied American Jews in 2013 and again in 2020. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) releases annual surveys on various American Jewish communal issues, including Israel and antisemitism. Two groups that regularly poll American Jews include the liberal Zionist advocacy group J Street and the JEI, an affiliate of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Both have added questions in the past few years about whether the US should restrict the ways in which aid to Israel can be used, with both indicating that the majority of American Jews do support restrictions in some form.

J Street’s 2020 survey asked respondents if they would support “provid[ing] the same amount of money the US gives to Israel in military assistance but restrict[ing] it so that no US aid can be spent on annexation [of the West Bank.]” Fifty-seven percent of respondents were strongly (23%) or somewhat (34%) in favor. (Less than six months later, in April 2021, J Street endorsed restricting military aid to Israel for the first time.) The group’s 2022 survey similarly asked respondents if they supported restricting military aid to Israel so that it cannot “be used to expand Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.” This time, an even larger majority of respondents, 68%, either strongly (34%) or somewhat (34%) agreed. JEI’s 2021 survey found similar results: While 71% of respondents thought it was important that “the US provide financial aid to Israel,” the poll also found significant support for regulating Israel’s use of that aid. Fifty-eight percent of respondents strongly (29%) or somewhat (30%) supported restricting US aid so that “Israel cannot spend [it] on expanding settlements in the West Bank,” while only 25% were opposed. J Street Vice President of Communications Logan Bayroff told Jewish Currents that the majority of American Jews, “care about Israel’s security, support ongoing US security assistance to Israel, but at the same time feel that that aid shouldn't be just a blank check.”

Meanwhile, as a two-state solution appears increasingly remote, the same surveys have begun to ask respondents newly expansive questions about which political arrangement they hope to see in the region in the future. Until recently, J Street surveys tended to focus exclusively on a two-state framework, with a question outlining details of a hypothetical peace agreement and asking whether respondents would support such an arrangement. In 2020, however, for the first time, the group added a follow-up question about alternatives to two states. Respondents were asked, “In your opinion, which of the following would be the best resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” and were instructed to choose whether they supported two states, a single democratic state, or Israeli annexation of the West Bank without granting Palestinians full citizenship. Two states scored highest (72%), with smaller numbers favoring a single shared state (13%) or annexation (15%). Two years later, in 2022, when the group posed the same question, 61% of respondents supported a two-state solution, 15% supported a single democratic state, and almost one in four—24%—supported Israeli annexation of the West Bank. (The Jewish Electorate Institute’s 2021 survey, which was administered by the same polling firm, found results comparable to those of J Street’s 2022 poll, with slightly more respondents favoring a single state and fewer favoring annexation.)

Jim Gerstein, a pollster whose firm GBAO conducted the surveys for both JEI and J Street, said that this increase in support for annexation has been driven by Republican respondents, who have shifted in the last two years from favoring the two-state solution to favoring annexation. The percentage of Jewish Republicans preferring a two-state solution dropped 22 points in the J Street poll, from 58% in 2020 to 36% in 2022; at the same time, support for annexation rose from 38% to 53%. Gerstein attributes this to Republicans becoming “more entrenched” within the polarized political environment in the US. In 2020, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to annex the West Bank, he was supported by a majority of House Republicans, while liberal Democrats coalesced around an anti-annexation position.

In another notable change, surveys have begun to ask respondents about their knowledge of and support for boycott campaigns against Israel, including the BDS movement. While many Palestine solidarity groups endorse BDS as a method of holding Israel accountable, many mainstream American Jewish groups have condemned the campaign and lobbied against it. According to the recent polls, approximately one in ten American Jews support some form of Israel boycott. Pew added a question on the movement to its 2020 poll and found that approximately 10% of American Jews support BDS and 43% oppose it. Another 43% who said they had heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about BDS were not asked about their support or opposition. Similarly, 11% of the Jewish voters in the 2020 J Street sample said they would support “a campaign that calls on people to boycott products that are made in Israel.” However, this number increased to 16% when respondents were asked if they would support “a campaign that calls on people to boycott products that are made in Israel because of its policies in the West Bank.” These results also accord with surveys by the Jewish Electorate Institute, which measured BDS support among likely American Jewish voters in 2019 (9%) and 2020 (8%). While the percentage of American Jews who support BDS is small, it’s still higher than the percentage of Americans in general who support it, according to a recent Pew survey: Pew found that about 5% of Americans supported BDS and 6% opposed it, while 84% of Americans had heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about it. These numbers suggest that American Jews have stronger opinions on the movement in general, both positively (by a small margin) and negatively (by a wide one).

Pew found that American Jewish respondents were more likely to have heard a significant amount about BDS if they were religiously Jewish (especially Orthodox), older, more educated, or Republican-leaning. While all subgroups of American Jews opposed BDS, with most opposing it by wide margins, BDS support was highest and opposition lowest among “Jews of no religion” (those who identify culturally as Jews but do not consider Judaism their religion), with 18% in favor and 22% opposing. Other groups that had higher levels of support for BDS than the general Jewish population included those who identified religiously as Jewish but not with a particular denomination, those who did not believe the Israeli government was sincere in peace efforts, and those who rated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership as “fair” or “poor,” as well as Democratic, younger, and more educated Jews. By contrast, the highest level of opposition appeared among Orthodox Jews (at 70%), followed by Conservative Jews, as well as Republican-leaning Jews, those above the age of 65, and those who rated Netanyahu’s leadership as “excellent” or “good.”

In an interview with Jewish Currents, Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Palestine solidarity group that supports BDS, said she believed these findings serve as a counterargument to mainstream Jewish leaders who portray American Jews as universally opposed to BDS. Miller said that the fact that nearly half of American Jews hadn’t even heard much about BDS “shows that there is room to grow and educate our own community around this issue.” Looking at the same statistics, Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA and author of Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, said he was also struck by the large numbers of American Jews—particularly younger ones—who had not heard a significant amount about BDS. Waxman said that while Jewish public discourse would suggest that BDS activism is ubiquitous on college campuses, Pew’s 2020 survey found that about half of those aged 18–49 had heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about it.

Though only a small percentage of Jews appears to be on board with BDS, a larger portion of the Jewish population may be in agreement with some of the more strident criticism of Israel common in anti-Zionist spaces, according to a 2021 poll of American Jewish voters commissioned by JEI. That survey asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements, and if they disagreed, whether the statement was antisemitic. The results were surprising: About a quarter (25%) of respondents agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” about a third (34%) agreed that “Israel's treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the U.S.,” and about a fifth (22%) agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” While a majority disagreed with each of the above statements, less than a third of respondents deemed each of the preceding statements antisemitic—even as, for example, major Jewish organizations have accused organizations like Amnesty International of stoking antisemitism for publishing reports finding Israel guilty of apartheid. Only one statement—“Israel doesn't have the right to exist”—was deemed antisemitic by a majority of respondents (67%), with only 9% agreeing with the statement. However, these results come with caveats: Because they were each only given to a random half of the 800-voter sample, their margin of error is higher than other questions on the survey. The questions have also not been repeated in subsequent surveys.

Eva Borgwardt, political director of the anti-Occupation group IfNotNow, says the group was “particularly heartened” by the results, noting that younger respondents had even higher levels of agreement: 38% of respondents under 40 agreed that Israel was an apartheid state (though, it should be noted, only about a third of the 400 respondents were under 40, making the sample very small). “The reality [in Israel/Palestine] has been called apartheid by Palestinian intellectuals, activists, and also human rights organizations, matching the international legal definition,” she added. “And it's inspiring that young Jews are increasingly seeing that for what it is.” With that said, Borgwardt added, “American Jewish public opinion should not be the arbiter of whether an international legal framework is an accurate description for something.”

EVEN AS THEY SEEK to capture evolving opinion, pollsters and sociologists who study American Jews’ opinions on Israel must contend with the fact that many questions about Israel might be interpreted differently by different respondents. For example, the common question about American Jews’ “emotional attachment” to Israel might be interpreted differently depending on how a respondent conceptualizes certain key terms in the question, including whether “emotional attachment” is necessarily positive, or whether “Israel” refers to the Israeli state, culture, or people. How, for example, does a respondent who feels deeply alienated by an increasingly right-wing Israeli government but who has family or friends who live in Israel answer such a question? Matthew Boxer, a sociologist at Brandeis University with expertise in Jewish communal research, said that the “emotional attachment” question has been asked on polls since at least the 1960s, and like many other common Jewish survey questions, has not been updated or reimagined to reflect contemporary times: “The default assumption is that what it means to be a Zionist has not changed, what it means to describe yourself as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform has not changed,” Boxer said. “But it’s all changed.” (The most recent Pew results on “emotional attachment” show that overall, a majority of American Jews consider Israel to be important to them personally, though numbers have decreased since 2013. Asked if they considered themselves emotionally attached to Israel, about 58% of 2020 respondents considered themselves very [25%] or somewhat [32%] attached, compared to 69% total in 2013. However, Pew has cautioned that the 2020 results are “not directly comparable” to those from 2013, since different survey methods were used.)

In order to better understand how American Jews are approaching commonly asked questions about Israel, Boxer has begun using cognitive testing, a methodology often employed by statisticians to refine their own surveys, to ask respondents how they themselves understand the questions. Boxer’s project, which is partly funded by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Antisemitism Research, has focused on what he described last year at the Association for Jewish Studies as “four core questions,” beginning with the mainstay, “How emotionally attached are you to Israel?” For each question, Boxer then asked respondents to explain their answer choice, along with one or two open-ended follow-up questions. For the first question about emotional attachment, he asked if there were any prerequisites for respondents to feel an emotional attachment to Israel, or if there were any obstacles that were in the way. The three remaining questions asked respondents about the extent to which they agree with the statements, “North American Jews have the right to criticize Israel’s government,” “I describe myself as a Zionist,” and “Israel is an apartheid state.”

While Boxer is still analyzing the responses, he has found so far that when deciding how to answer polling questions, respondents confront a range of complex emotions hard to capture in a multiple-choice answer. One respondent, who answered that they were “somewhat attached” to Israel, wrote, “My parents were Holocaust survivors. I grew up believing if Israel had existed Hitler would not have murdered as many Jews. I would be strongly [rather than somewhat] attached but I abhor the Israeli treatment [of] Palestinians.” Another, who identified as “not too attached,” wrote, “[M]y emotional attachment to Israel is more along the lines of feeling torn, both wistfully wanting a place that feels like a Jewish homeland, while also feeling strongly that for political and ethical reasons I cannot accept Israel as that homeland (or, perhaps, that that homeland does not exist).” In other cases, respondents expressed clearly different ideas about what the language used in the questions meant. According to Boxer, one of the respondents described apartheid as treating Palestinians harmfully in any way, while the other described apartheid as being limited to a certain time period in South Africa. “The point of the research is that they’re using the same words, but they’re speaking a different language,” he said. Yet Boxer said it’s not clear how, exactly, pollsters can use this knowledge to improve their surveys in the future. Adding explanations of questions, or additional questions to probe for more information, increases the length of any survey, which tends to decrease the completion rate. And defining terms, particularly for contentious issues, can alienate respondents who disagree with the definition provided: “The more contentious the issue, the more you have to explain terms, the more likely you are to offend some people by not explaining terms the way they would, the harder it is to get people to do surveys.”

In addition to respondents’ differing interpretations of common poll questions, another reason to consider poll results with caution is that American Jews have varying levels of knowledge about the Israeli policy on which they are asked to express opinions. Few surveys have directly examined American Jewish knowledge about Israel. When they have, results have been mixed. The AJC 2021 survey found that 84% of American Jews could correctly identify 1948 as the year of Israel’s founding, while almost two-thirds correctly answered that Israel captured the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War. However, in other areas their knowledge was less deep: Only 49% of respondents correctly answered that David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s first prime minister, and just 39% correctly estimated that between one-third and two-thirds of the world’s Jews live in Israel. Another study, the Israel Literacy Measurement Project, asked respondents a more extensive battery of around 90 questions to measure knowledge about Israel. The questions were posed specifically to Jewish college students preparing to go on Birthright trips, though Janet Krasner Aronson, the associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and an author on the study, wrote in an email to Jewish Currents that she believed the results could serve as a “reasonable” reflection of the American Jewish population as a whole. Of 628 Jewish college students at 20 universities across the US, the average score was 46%, which the report’s authors found “less than acceptable”: They wrote that “this information deficit prevents students from contributing to discourse about Israel on campus in a meaningful way.” The levels of knowledge captured on these surveys might suggest that survey responses “should not be understood as deeply held and well-thought-out positions, but rather as, ‘If you ask me, I’ll tell you what I think,’” Aronson said. “Whether individuals would take any action—such as vote, attend a rally, or donate to a cause—based on these views is a separate issue.”

Indeed, it’s not always clear whether the opinions of the average American Jewish voter have an actual impact on policy or political action. “I think surveys of American Jewry are, I’m tempted to say, 100% irrelevant to how policy is determined,” said the historian Eric Alterman, whose recent book We Are Not One explores the history of the relationship between the US and Israel. As an example, Alterman pointed to the fact that restricting or conditioning aid to Israel is “completely anathema in Congress,” even as J Street’s polling found majority support for restricting aid among American Jews. After all, major pro-Israel organizations that claim to represent American Jews aren’t basing their agenda on a democratic vote. Alterman said these groups are able to achieve success by single-mindedly pursuing their stated policy goals. “Roughly 90% of Americans support much tougher regulations on guns, and they don’t get it. And the reason is because the NRA cares about one thing, and they’re very good at it. And so is AIPAC. AIPAC and the NRA have a lot in common,” he said. Groups like JVP Action, JVP’s electoral and lobbying arm, then, are in the position of trying to educate elected officials who have been, in the words of Miller (JVP’s political director), “presented with an idea that all Jewish communities support Israel, no matter what.” J Street’s Bayroff said that his organization was “created to address” the “fundamental challenge” of the disparity “between what the actual views of Jewish Americans are” and the way “AIPAC and other more traditional or right-leaning groups” represent them to politicians.

Still, even if opinion surveys must be considered with a degree of skepticism, some experts say their findings can still be useful. “I would say that the true value of these surveys is to look at them in relative rather than absolute terms. In other words, not to interpret a response as a reliable level of support for a specific position,” said Aronson. “Rather, they can be useful to compare changes over time . . . or to compare groups [within the Jewish community] to one another.” Waxman, meanwhile, said that surveys can be useful to identify the aforementioned gaps between Jews and the organizations that claim to represent them. Even if results may not change Jewish institutions’ positions, he said, it is important for politicians and communal leaders to have a record of the American Jewish population’s views. “I think if you claim to represent Jews,” Waxman said, “then it behooves us to understand what the opinions of Jews actually are.”

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