American public opinion and Israel: The honey and the sting

The most recent American poll regarding attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians, just published by the Pew Research Center, reveals a familiar and pleasant situation: American public opinion remains very strongly pro-Israel by a ratio of 5:1. This has been a consistent outcome of polls taken in the US, over a period of many years. No change after the Gaza operation, and the re-election of Barrack Obama. So far so good, but can things really be that good? My inherent healthy skepticism is at play here, and I wish to sound some alarm bells, so as to put it all in a more realistic perspective.

I am guided by none other than our President, Shimon Peres, who remarked once that a good poll is like a good perfume; it is tempting to smell it, but imperative not to be intoxicated by the smell. This colorful observation is very relevant for at least two important reasons. One has to do with an aspect of the findings, one with what is not specified there.

The finding that should cause concern is, that among Liberal Democrats , the ratio is 33% pro-Israel, as opposed to 22% for the other side. Not good, as Liberal Democrats are in control of the Democratic Party. Also not good because, most of our Jewish American brethren define themselves as Liberal Democrats, and the erosion in support for Israel among this particular group of Jews, which has been recognized in many polls, can be partly attributed to the feeling of many of them that being vocally pro-Israel is no longer a good entry ticket to the big Liberal Democratic tent.


The fact is that members of the Progressive and Liberal Democratic caucus in Congress have already departed from the traditional pro-Israel voting record which characterized the Democratic party for many years. I personally examined this development when analyzing the voting trends among Democrats in the 111th Congress [2008/2010]. In particular, I relate to a distinctly anti-Israel letter, signed by 54 Democrats during operation ‘’Cast Lead’’ in Gaza at the beginning of 2009. The list of non-congressional sponsors of the letter read like a Who’s Who of the pro-Palestinian community in the US.

Even more significant was the distribution by state of the signers of the letter: One third of the California democratic delegation, a majority of the Massachusetts Delegation, almost half of the Washington State, Minnesota and Oregon Delegations. All these states are considered rock solid Liberal Democrat bastions.

Another element worth mentioning is that a large number of the signers were from minority communities [African-American, Hispanic, Asian–American], and among the non-minority signers, many came from districts where the percentage of minorities in the population was high.

I did not look into data regarding Democratic voting trends in the last three years, but have no reason to believe they are different.

Clearly, all this points to the empty half of the glass, problems that Israel has among Liberals, Progressives and minorities, which happen to be the rising forces within the Democratic Party.

Then, there is the full half of the glass. The signers represented only one fifth of the Democratic Caucus. No Republicans were among them, and the two houses of Congress continue to be stable and strong pillars of support for Israel.

Still, much work should be done in order to maintain a situation of bi-partisan support for Israel, and regardless of political orientation, the pro-Israel community should find creative ways to cultivate a fruitful dialogue with those groups whose reservations about Israel are apparent. In this case, we cannot rest on our laurels.

The one sector not mentioned in the ‘Pew’ poll were students and members of academia. Here, the picture is disturbing and getting growingly so. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve in great detail into this issue with all its complexities, even though I devote a lot my time to this subject.

One observation though is essential, as it hits at the core of the problem and its potential implications. The great Alan Dershowitz remarked a few years ago that ‘’the anti-Israel sentiment in campus is misunderstood and misdiagnosed. The vast majority of university students in the US are not anti-Israel and not pro-Israel. They are uninformed, and if informed, neutral and leaning pro-Israel.” Unfortunately, here Dershowitz is wrong. Indeed, most students are not interested in the Middle East, or any other foreign policy issue, but if informed, they tend to be anti-Israel.

Two clarifications are in place here: First, ‘’they’’ means those who care to study the Middle East and International Politics. In these disciplines, the situation is bad and fast deteriorating. The majority of professors are Arab, Muslim, left-wing Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike. The Walt-Mearsheimer tirade against AIPAC and Israel is a cult book in these departments, and the two American scholars, who both come from academic institutions heavily subsidized by Arab money, are among the most popular and widely quoted authors among their academic peers, as was clearly established by a 2009 survey of the Teaching, Research and International Policy Project (TRIP).

Second, the graduates of these departments go straight to the State Department and other arms of the policy–making , security and intelligence agencies of the Federal Government, as well as staffing the think tanks. The implications of this state of affairs cannot be overestimated.

So, the overall polls are still good, but the black spots are also very evident and call us all to take urgent action.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina