U.S. Jews have widely differing views on Israel

The Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Nick Brundle Photography/Getty Images)

Israel, the world’s only Jewish-majority country, is a subject of special concern to many Jews in the United States. Caring about Israel is “essential” to what being Jewish means to 45% of U.S. Jewish adults, and an additional 37% say it is “important, but not essential,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey that was fielded from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020 – well before the latest surge of violence in the region. Just 16% of U.S. Jewish adults say that caring about Israel is “not important” to their Jewish identity.

However, the survey found that Jewish Americans – much like the U.S. public overall – also hold widely differing views on Israel and its political leadership.

Pew Research Center conducted this study to explore Jewish Americans’ self-identities, religious and cultural practices, political attitudes and experiences with anti-Semitism. This survey represents the Center’s most comprehensive, in-depth study of U.S. Jews, drawing on 4,718 U.S. adults who identify as Jewish, including 3,836 “Jews by religion” and 882 “Jews of no religion.” The survey was administered online and by mail by Westat from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020. Respondents were drawn from a national, stratified random sampling of residential mailing addresses, which included addresses from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. No lists of common Jewish names, membership rolls of Jewish organizations or other indicators of Jewishness were used to draw the sample.

The sample is nationally representative and was weighted to align with demographic benchmarks for the U.S. adult population from the Census Bureau as well as a set of modeled estimates for the religious and demographic composition of eligible adults within the larger U.S. adult population.

Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Most Jewish Americans identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, and more than half gave negative ratings at the time of the survey both to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to then-President Donald Trump’s handling of U.S. policy toward Israel. But Orthodox Jews – 75% of whom are Republican or lean Republican – generally rated both Netanyahu and Trump positively.

Orthodox Jews were also more likely than Jews in other denominations to say that the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians and that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people. By contrast, most Jewish Americans said they did not think that either the Israeli government or Palestinian leaders were sincerely seeking peace. And most Jewish adults took the position that God “did not literally give” the land of Israel to the Jewish people (42%) or said they do not believe in God or a higher power at all (24%).

This analysis looks at the size of the gaps among U.S. Jews on a range of questions about Israel depending on differences in Jewish denomination, political party and age.

More than half of all U.S. Jews belong to the two long-dominant branches of American Judaism: 37% identify as Reform and 17% as Conservative. Roughly one-in-ten (9%) describe themselves as Orthodox. Other branches, such as the Reconstructionist movement and Humanistic Judaism, total about 4%, and due to small sample sizes cannot be analyzed separately. One-third of Jewish adults (32%) do not identify with any particular stream or institutional branch of Judaism.

Majority of Orthodox Jews believe God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people

Among U.S. Jews overall, 58% say they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, a sentiment held by majorities in all of the three largest U.S. Jewish denominations. However, Orthodox (82%) and Conservative (78%) Jewish adults are more likely than those who identify as Reform (58%) to feel this way. Conversely, among U.S. Jews who do not belong to any particular branch, a majority say that they feel not too or not at all attached to Israel.

And while 60% of Jews overall say they have a lot or some in common with Jews in Israel, Orthodox Jews (91%) are more likely than Conservative Jews (77%), Reform Jews (61%) or those who don’t identify with any branch (39%) to express this feeling.

On some political and theological questions in the survey, the differences across denominations are starker. There is an especially large gap on whether God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews (87%) say they believe God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people, compared with 46% of Conservative Jews, about a quarter of Reform Jews and about one-in-five of those who don’t affiliate with any branch of American Judaism.

Party affiliation is another clear dividing line in Jewish Americans’ views on Israel. About seven-in-ten Jewish Republicans and independents who lean Republican (72%) say they are very or somewhat attached to Israel, compared with about half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Jews (52%). There are similar gaps across the political aisle in the percentages of Jews who closely follow news about Israel and feel they have at least some things in common with Jews in Israel.

In 2020, Jewish Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say the Israeli government was making a sincere effort toward peace

It’s important to keep in mind that the survey was conducted during the final 14 months of Trump’s term, after the administration moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but before it announced agreements for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel. At that time, eight-in-ten Republican U.S. Jews rated Netanyahu’s leadership as excellent (42%) or good (40%), compared with just a quarter of Jewish Democrats. A solid majority of Jewish Democrats gave Netanyahu “only fair” (32%) or poor (38%) marks.

Similarly, Jewish Republicans were roughly four times as likely as Jewish Democrats to rate Trump’s handling of U.S. policy toward Israel as excellent or good (89% vs. 21%). And Jewish Republicans were much more likely than Jewish Democrats to say they had heard of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, and that they strongly oppose it.

Another way of examining differences among Jewish Americans is to look at age gaps. While Orthodox Jews tend to be relatively young and feel a strong attachment to Israel, younger Jews – as a whole – are less attached to Israel than their older counterparts. Two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older say that they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, compared with 48% of those ages 18 to 29.

In addition, Jewish Americans 65 and older are more likely than the youngest adults to say that caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them, to follow news about Israel at least somewhat closely, and to know about and strongly oppose BDS.

Among U.S. Jews, older adults more likely to say caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them

And when it comes to assessments of Netanyahu’s leadership and of Trump’s handling of U.S. policy toward Israel, U.S. Jews ages 65 and older were more likely than those under 30 to have rated the performance of both men positively.

Note: Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Justin Nortey  is a research assistant focusing on religion research at Pew Research Center.

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