'Loyalty' Poll Misleadingly Dichotomizes U.S. Jews

In an attempt to divide the loyal from the disloyal, a recent poll failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish Americans' struggle with Israeli policies.

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Haaretz recently reported that the Israeli American Council, in conjunction with representatives of Israel’s immigrant absorption and foreign ministries, distributed a survey that asked American Jews whether they would side with Israel or the United States in the face of a crisis between the two countries.

This so-called loyalty poll blatantly ignored the complexity of the relationship between Jewish Americans and Israel. The very fact that the poll was conducted evidences an ongoing failure among parts of the Israeli government, as well as certain American institutions, to understand the changing attitudes of today’s U.S. Jews.

Such “loyalty oaths” could have painful implications of anti-Semitism, as many have already pointed out, but there’s another dimension to the IAC’s questionnaire that needs to be addressed: the implications of dichotomizing Jewish Americans' attitudes toward Israel.

The loyalty poll’s tacit assumption that Jews can be divided into two camps on Israel is deeply misleading. The reality is much more complex. We know a lot about specific Jewish-American attitudes toward Israel. The “Portrait of Jewish AmericansPew Poll asked a number of detailed questions, such as how many Jews think the settlement project is good for Israel’s security (17 percent said they do) or how many think the Israeli government is sincere in its pursuit of peace (just 38 percent said they do).

When you break down the results among non-Orthodox respondents, generational attitudes sharpen: only 23 percent of Jews between aged 18-29 believe the Israeli government is sincerely pursuing peace, compared to 44 percent of those aged 65 and older.

Furthermore, 19 percent of young Jews believe the Palestinians are sincerely pursuing peace, compared to only 8 percent of older Jews. Not only are American Jews largely liberal (the AJC says only 20 percent self-identify as conservative or conservative-leaning), they become increasingly dovish on Israel as they get younger.

Thus, it is evident that many Jewish Americans, especially those of my generation, are skeptical of Israel’s commitment to peace, and outright opposed to policies that entrench the occupation, such as the settlements.

But when they try to voice their opposition to rightwing Israeli policies, young, left-wing Jews who work closely with the Jewish establishment have a hard time getting their voices heard and respected - whether they suffer from dialogue restrictions in Hillel or find themselves on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of “anti-Israel organizations.” Attempting to stray too far from the party line on Israel can be frightening – and I have experienced this firsthand.

The important fact that this poll evidences is that political divergence between young Jewish Americans and certain pro-Israel lobbyists in the United States is actually a good thing. It means my generation is thinking critically about our relationship with Israel, taking stock of the occupation’s many injustices, and refusing to see the conflict with the Palestinians in zero-sum terms.

Unlike the Pew and AJC polls, which explored the quality of this relationship to some degree, the “loyalty poll” completely ignored its complexity. The groups behind this poll chose to offset the obvious existence of Jewish Americans who are against the Israeli occupation by grounding poll questions in the notion of “loyalty.” Maybe that way, some Jews, terrified of alienation by either their country or community, would choose Israel over America. In doing so, they would generate a counter narrative to the Pew Poll, albeit a dishonest one.

How many different polls must Jewish Americans endure before our supposed political representatives - in Israel and the United States - understand that “creatively” worded questions are no substitute for acknowledging the answers. Fundamentally, our attitudes are unlikely to change much while the occupation persists, but in the meantime, the Israeli government and their counterparts in the pro-Israel lobby must acknowledge the destructive reality of the occupation – first and foremost on the Palestinians who are subjected to it, and then on the Jewish-American psyche. That means embracing the legitimacy of critical opinions and acting on them, rather than splitting the community with misguided “loyalty” tests.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the Board of Directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at benjycannon@gmail.com

The Israel Day Parade makes its way up New York's Fifth Ave., Sunday June 2, 2013.Credit: AP
An image from the survey

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