The majority of American Jews are Democrats. According to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 47 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic Party in the 2012 presidential elections while only 17 percent voted Republican. Another fact: American Jews don’t care about Israel as much as you might think they do. In an additional survey conducted by Pew, only 12 percent of secular Jews and 37 percent of religious Jews felt a “strong emotional attachment” to Israel.
Only half of religious Jews and a quarter of non-religious Jews believe that supporting Israel is an essential part of being Jewish. Additionally, 89 percent of survey respondents said that being strongly critical of Israel is compatible with being Jewish. For a religion that’s supposedly rooted in the belief that Israel is a spiritual homeland, most Jews either care a little bit or not that that much at all. American Jews are generally both liberal and more critical of Zionism than one might think.
This can be directly attributed to the fact that American Jews are much more secular than their Israeli counterparts. Jews who fled to the United States after the 1908 and 1917 Russian pogroms and before the worst of World War Two developed their own political identity separate from Israeli Jews who emigrated from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Simply put, because so much of the Jewish identity is more concerned with its socio-political aspects than with its observance of Jewish tradition, Israeli Jews have developed a separate political identity that is much more concerned with Israeli affairs than American Jews.
In all likelihood, American Jews whose heritage predates the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel can afford to not be so vested in the issues facing Israel today, whereas those with direct lineage from Holocaust survivors and mid-20th-century Israeli settlers have many more reasons to care about the actions of the Israeli government. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s primary link with the United States is the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which is one of the most powerful right-wing think tanks in the country. Their financial backers include wealthy right-wing Jews, such as Sheldon Adelson, who have a history of throwing their financial weight around in political and electoral matters.
Despite the lobbying power of AIPAC, their interests generally do not align with most American Jews. “A portrait of American Jews,” a study from the Pew Research Center, found that only 38 percent of American Jews believed that Israel is sincerely pursuing peace. Furthermore, of the Jews that believed that supporting Israel was essential to being Jewish, 58 percent identified as Republican. Also, 57 percent of Jews that did not support a two-state solution were Republican, and only 37 percent were Democratic. The American Jews that express unwavering support for Israel’s actions in the ongoing Gazan war are actually the outliers, not the majority amongst American Jews.
Overall, the majority of American Jews are Democratic and secular Jews who are hesitantly supportive of Zionist thought and even more skittish about directly supporting the actions of the state of Israel. In the wake of the third Intifada, a lot of criticism has been directed toward American Jews for not answering to the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces. In fact, misinformation and overzealous pro-Palestinian movements have directed their ire at American Jews where it may not be duly deserved.
Many American Jews—who again, are strongly affiliated with the political left—are cautious Zionists. Many pro-Palestinian groups, particularly on college campuses—though not necessarily our own—continually attempt to drag Jews into the debate in a way that isn’t deserved.
As the momentum of pro-Palestinian activism grows, so too does deeply ingrained anti-Semitism. I sincerely believe that the two are not directly correlated. The momentum of pro-Palestinian activist groups has given previously quiet anti-Semitism an excuse to be much louder. However, as the data suggest, there is a strong disconnect between the identity politics of Israeli and American Jews. Our values are different and our politics are different. There is far less in common that American and Israeli Jews share than one might expect. The ire over the actions of Israelis has little to do with how American Jews feel.
Most Jews have become more and more uncomfortable with Israel’s practices. To make matters even more complicated, the same benefactors that are the lifeline of Jewish institutions such as Jewish private schools, synagogues, philanthropic groups, and birthright programs are the same individuals who are backing AIPAC, which does not represent the same interests as most American Jews.
The only real tool Jews have to counteract AIPAC’s influence is to simply continue to vote blue. AIPAC is a very powerful lobbying group with an immense ability to ensure that pro-Israeli interests are being represented in the GOP. American Jews, many of whom are critical of Israel, can only hope that Democratic lawmakers, who are also critical of Israel’s policies, place pressure on Israel to work toward more sustainable peace options.