With the transfer of presidential power in the offing, a standard refrain we hear is that regarding support for Israel, it doesn’t much matter who is in the White House or running Congress. The basic reason for that is the American public’s rock-hard support for its Middle East ally. But is that support still stable and strong? After all, politicians cannot run too far ahead (or behind) their democratic citizenry.
A new, very comprehensive study – The American Public and Israel in the Twenty-First Century – published by the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University, authored by Prof. Eytan Gilboa, set out to answer that question (see the full monograph). In contradistinction to almost all other studies of this type, this study provides a long-term trend (2000-2020) encompassing data of numerous US public opinion surveys from several reputable sources (polling agencies, academic think tanks, serious media, etc).
For anyone who cares about Israel and this bi-national relationship, there is mostly good news here but with a modicum of concern looking into the future. The good news is that the two-decade trend reveals strong and stable support in American public opinion for Israel on a variety of issues discussed. In fact, Gallup surveys actually show public support for Israel increasing by 12% – from 62% favorability in 2000 to 74% in 2020.
What’s the cause for worry? Prof. Gilboa didn’t just look at the gross numbers but rather at sociodemographic breakdowns. First, the American public is far from homogeneous in its support of Israel. There are significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, younger and older people, and even different groups of American Jews.
Let’s take each in turn. First, whereas historically Democrats were more supportive than Republicans, this has now been turned on its head: by 2020 the gap had reached 24%! As “white” (largely Republican) America declines and “multi-ethnics” (leaning Democratic) increase in number, that does not bode well for continued future support at the same level. Second, younger Americans are less supportive than their elders, and obviously young adults are the future. Third and in the opposite direction, the more traditional a Jew, the more supportive of Israel. With Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox birthrates far higher than other Jewish denominations, that could serve as a small counterbalance to the above negative trends.
If there’s anything in this study that can be said to connect to the current U.S. presidential elections, it is this: In 2019 (Ruderman Foundation poll), 67% of American Jews said they were emotionally attached to Israel, whereas 31% said they weren’t attached. When asked for their “reasons for being less connected to Israel,” American Jews cited “Israel’s support for President Trump” (33%) and “Netanyahu’s support for President Trump and his policies” (39%) as most important. With a new president, for the sake of future bipartisan support Israel would do well to heed this not-too-subtle critique of the Netanyahu government’s extremely close relationship with the present Republican establishment.
The religion of non-Jews also plays a role. On the one hand, over the entire 2001-2019 period practicing U.S. Christians supported Israel much more than people who weren’t religious. Surprisingly, U.S. Evangelicals are not Israel’s most supportive non-Jewish denomination – the Mormons are: 79% pro-Israeli compared to 11% pro-Palestinian – 13% more Israel support than even the Evangelicals evinced! (Gallup: 2001-2014) Viewed historically, American Christians are altogether arguably closer to the Jewish people today than any Christian group has been for close to 2000 years.
Related but different: one other future trend that is hardly mentioned in such analyses – Hispanics, who by 2050 will double their proportion and constitute around 30% of the total U.S. population at that point. They are much less familiar with Israel and are mostly Catholic (less supportive of Israel than other Christian denominations); thus, it’s not surprising that the few surveys that looked at Hispanics have shown a lower level of support and greater lack of knowledge or interest on issues related to Israel.
When the polls focus on the Palestinian issue, the trends are similar, but if anything even starker. In 2018 (Gallup), nearly twice as many liberal Democrats said they sympathized more with the Palestinians than with Israel (35% vs. 19%). Moderate and conservative Democrats were almost a mirror image: more supporting Israel (35%) than the Palestinians (17%) – but with a large drop among the former. Since 2016, conservative and moderate Democrat sympathy for Israel declined by 18% (from 53% to 35%). The Republican trend in the opposite direction is even more pronounced: from 2001 to 2018 their comparative sympathy for Israel compared to the Palestinians increased by 29%, from 50% to 79%. Beyond the Palestinians as a people, what about a Palestinian state? The trend is similar, albeit with not much overall change: American public support for a Palestinian state went from 40% pro/24% con in 2000, to 55% pro/34% con in 2020.
Finally, what of the Middle East’s 800-pound gorilla: whether and how to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons development? Public opinion is somewhat favorable regarding American military action against such Iranian efforts – and far more supportive of Israeli action. Diplomacy? After the Obama/Europe nuclear treaty with Iran, not a single U.S. poll found majority support for the deal.
Prof. Gilboa is a world authority in public diplomacy, and he concludes with an analysis of, and prescription for, what Israel and the American Jewish community can do to maintain the strong support that the American public has held vis-à-vis their steady ally across the sea. Based on the huge amount of thought-provoking data in this study, moving into the future they all have their work cut out for them.