Still more on the AJC Jewish public opinion survey: unasked questions
10/18/2010 - 08:34
James Besser

I know it seems petty to complain about the American Jewish Committee's annual survey of Jewish public opinion ( the latest was released last week, and got a lot of ink in the Jewish Week.)

As is, the survey is the most reliable indicator of where the Jewish community is on a range of issues; unlike so many polls conducted on behalf of various interest groups, it's hard to detect survey bias in the AJC data.

But dang, financial considerations mean every year's survey raises all kinds of additional questions the data can't answer. Here are just a few more issues I wish they'd investigated in some depth.

* First, there's the number all us shrewd analysts missed.

This year, 30 percent of those surveyed said they feel “fairly distant” or “very distant” from the Jewish state. Asked the same question in 2000, 25 percent answered that way. In 2007 it was 29 percent.

See a trend here? And what about the causes of this slow but significant shift? Unfortunately, the AJC survey doesn't address that.

Paging Peter Beinart.

* Why is the proportion of Orthodox in the survey holding steady?

In 2000, 10 percent of the survey identified itself as Orthodox; in 2010, it was 9 percent.

For decades, the conventional Jewish wisdom has been that the Orthodox community is growing by leaps and bounds, while the non-Orthodox world is shrinking.

So why isn't that reflected in the AJC numbers? I assume, knowing the AJC survey research people, that they strive for a sample that accurately reflects the demographics of the Jewish community. What gives?

* Why, exactly, is Benjamin Netanyahu's popularity rising among an American Jewish population that remains relatively dovish?

Once, many saw Netanyahu as the symbol of the hard right in Israel, but today he seems significantly more popular than President Obama, who got 78 percent of the American Jewish vote two years ago but sank to a 51 percent approval rating in the new survey.

Some 62 percent of those surveyed said they approve of Bibi's handling of U.S.-Israel relations. What I'm wondering: what's driving this change?

I'm guessing that one reason Bibi looks so good is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas consistently looks so bad. In the months leading up to the renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, Abbas managed to position himself as the one dodging U.S. efforts to get the parties back to the table, while Netanyahu, who couldn't get himself to utter the words “two-state solution” until pressed by Washington, looked like a peacemaker and statesman.

Do his positive numbers stem from the comparison with Abbas? From Bibi's determined efforts to keep U.S.-Israel relations on track after the Obama administration's initial missteps? From the way he outmaneuvered the novice president in Washington?

Or are American Jews becoming more hawkish, even though most of the other measures in the AJC poll don't suggest that?

We don't know, and the AJC numbers don't tell us.

* I've already written about the most surprising number in the poll – the 52 percent who say they support Arizona's controversial illegal immigration law.

What I'd like to know: is this number mostly the result of the use of the word “illegal” in the question, as the AJC's David Harris suggested? Or does it reflect some fundamental change in what we have assumed to be very liberal views in the Jewish community about immigration in general, about its importance in the American character and about the need for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants?

I've heard from several Jewish activists who are strongly opposed to letting illegal immigrants stay, and they insist there HAS been a fundamental shift in attitudes.

Maybe – but the AJC data is silent on the subject, and I'd like to see some hard data.

* On a broader level, I'd like to see some base measure of how closely this cross-section of the American Jewish population follows events in the Middle East.

Admittedly, this is hard to measure in a statistically valid way, but it would be interesting and valuable information.

Do most American Jews follow the day-to-day travails of the peace process? How conversant are they about the ins and outs of Israeli policy and politics? Is close interest increasing or diminishing?  What proportion of American Jews can name Israel's foreign minister and identify the party he represents?

As we examine AJC figures about attitudes on the peace process, feelings about Palestinian intentions or the performance of Israeli leaders, it would be helpful to know if those attitudes are based on a close following of the issues – or just an emotional reflex.

Lots of good questions that haven't been asked. Why doesn't somebody give the AJC a few million dollars so they can satisfy my curiosity?

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