New J Street poll: American Jews support Obama Mideast moves
03/28/2010 - 09:09
James Besser

There's a new poll of American Jewish public opinion by J Street, and I'm just going to take a wild guess and say Jewish Republicans and mainstream pro-Israel groups are going to dismiss the whole thing as propaganda because it's done by...well, J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action group that everybody else loves to hate (see the J Street results here).

How can you trust a poll done by an advocacy group, critics will say – neglecting the fact, of course, that many polls that we rely on to gauge public opinion are sponsored by such groups, or done by pollsters with clear partisan connections.

Do the names Frank Luntz and John Zogby ring any bells?

But never mind, there's a lot of interesting stuff in this poll that passes at least one test: much of it jibes with what Jewish leaders are saying, at least in private, and with the findings of some past polls.

President Barack Obama is doing pretty well among Jewish voters, the poll suggests, but his standing has slipped significantly.

According to the J Street poll, conducted by Jim Gerstein (an early J Street supporter), 62 percent of the Jews surveyed approve of how Obama is handling his job, 38 percent disapprove.

That suggests a significant drop in his standing since his overwhelming victory with Jewish voters in 2008, but also that he's doing better with Jewish voters today than with voters in general; in most polls of the overall electorate, his approval rating has fallen below 50 percent.

Asked about how they view a range of political figures, Obama is at the top, with a 59 percent favorbility rating – not bad, relatively speaking, but not great. What's definitely not great: Sarah Palin's 14 percent standing.

That, it seems to me, represents a bit of partisan cherry picking; Gerstein seemed to pick the Republican certain to get the lowest possible rating among Jewish voters, to exaggerate the contrast with Obama's numbers. Still, it reflects a very real problem for the Republicans; Sarah Palin was in 2008 is likely to be in 2012 radioactive to rank-and-file Jewish voters.

50 percent rate the Democratic Party favorably, 18 percent give the same rating to the Republicans, reasonably consistent with past survey data.

Definitely not popular with Jews: foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, with a 19 percent favorability rating. But opposition leader Tzippi Livni doesn't fare much better, with a 20 percent favorable rating.

Bibi Netanyahu scores 44 percent; the late Yitzhak Rabin does better at 52 percent, but I was a little surprised that number wasn't higher.

Then we get to the real heart of the poll, from J Street's perspective. A question asks: “Would you support or oppose the United States playing an active role in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict if it meant the United State s publicly stating its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs?”

A total of 73 percent say they support that kind of public pressure, only 14 percent oppose.

I'm sure that number will be seen as proof of J Street's bias, since one of its top goals currently is promoting a more aggressive U.S. approach to the peace process. Obviously, if you polled AIPAC supporters, ZOA members and the Orthodox community, the numbers would be very different than this survey, which looks at the overall Jewish community..

But if you believe the Jewish leaders who privately and sometimes not so privately wring their hands over the growing mass of Jews who don't put Israel at the top of their list of political and philanthropic priorities and who don't support major pro-Israel groups, then maybe those numbers make sense.

That's bolstered by question 1, which asks respondents to list the issues that will be most important when they make their decisions about November's congressional elections.

According to Gerstein, 55 percent said the economy, with health care second at 41 percent, the deficit and government spending third at 17 percent, followed by social security and Medicare at 16.

What about Israel? According to the survey, 10 percent said it was one of two issues that would be most important in November, just behind “terrorism and national security (13 percent).

Interestingly, Iran was at the very bottom of the list, at 2 percent. I find that number a little hard to swallow, since it would make Jews LESS interested in the Iran nuclear issue than other voter groups.

Another indication rank and file Jews aren't following the Israel issue all that closely: 56 percent said they did not follow the “news surrounding Vice President Biden's visit to Israel” closely, with 44 percent saying they did.

The Biden controversy was huge news in the pro-Israel activist community but evidently not nearly as big among Jews in general. Talk about gaps: at the AIPAC meetings, delegates could probably have quoted verbatim from Biden's remarks and Bibi's response; on the Jewish street, 39 percent said they weren't following the controversy “too closely,” and 17 percent said they weren't following it “at all.”

I'm betting almost all the 7500 delegates to AIPAC have been to Israel, most multiple times, but J Street confirms other polls that show a strong majority of Jews -- 67 percent, in this case – have NEVER been to the Jewish state.

Asked whether the U.S. did “the right thing by strongly criticizing the Israeli announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem during the Vice President's visit,” 55 percent said the “right thing,” 45 percent disagreed.

Are the J Street numbers accurate? Probably, they're like most other polls: generally on target, with some skewing to reflect the perspectives of the groups paying the tab.  

What's most interesting to me: how these numbers reflect the yawning and apparently growing gap between the world of AIPAC, where everybody is totally focused on Israel and more or less on the same page when it comes to U.S. Middle East policy, and the much bigger but far more diffuse group of Jews who care about Israel but don't put the same kind of focus on pro-Israel activism and who probably don't see Middle East politics through the same lens.

That group represents a target of opportunity for J Street, but also a big problem.  How do you build a powerful political organization with a base that would just as soon give money to the local symphony as to an Israel-focused organization?

 It's going to be interesting to see how J Street leaders  try to do that.

 

 

 

 

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