Digging into the Latest I/P Pew Poll

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Benjy Cannon
on January 18, 2017

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Pew published a poll last week showing that, for the first time in decades, Democrats are “more sympathetic” to Palestinians than Israelis. The poll caused some understandable concern in the American Jewish community.

Given the sensitivity of the subject, it’s worth taking a close look at what the results do and don’t actually imply.

Groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which is currently running a “thank you Trump” campaign, pushed out the poll to lament the “end of bipartisanship on Israel” and to to score partisan political points on the Israel issue.

This is a simplistic reading of the poll and its findings.

It should go without saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a zero-sum game. The only way to advance the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians is through a two-state solution that meets the needs of both peoples. While groups like the RJC may think that support for Israelis and Palestinians is mutually exclusive, it remains true that the only policy that can guarantee Israel’s future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people is one that provides the Palestinian people with self-determination and an end to occupation.

That said, when Democrats are asked to choose one side over the other, it’s worth examining why, in the context of the question posed by Pew, they may have picked Palestinians in this poll.

Rather than indicating a decline in support for Israel, the results could be a consequence of the polarizing nature of Israel’s leadership. The current Israeli government has worked in concert with elements of the GOP to turn support for Netanyahu into a partisan issue. From going behind President Obama’s back to bring Netanyahu to speak to Congress to Ambassador Ron Dermer accepting an award from an Islamophobic hate group, there is little reason for many partisan Democrats to feel warmly about Israel’s leaders. This partisan split could get even worse under President-elect Trump. Israel’s leadership has openly courted Republicans for the last eight years and have found willing partners in the GOP. They should not be surprised by data indicating Democrats’ distaste.

To be clear, this is concerning. Conflating sympathy for Israelis with support for Israeli policy, as some elected officials in both Israel and the United States have, could impact support for Israel in the United States. That’s why it’s important that pro-Israel Americans take care not to conflate the two and continue to make the case that Israeli policy can actually harm Israel.

But the issues go beyond politics. Many American Jews – myself included – feel tremendous sympathy for Palestinians and Israelis alike. Americans who feel strongly about the values of justice and equality may even feel a special sympathy for the Palestinians who suffer the routine indignities, humiliation and violence of life under occupation. That does not and should not mean they lack sympathy for Israelis, many of whom live under the constant threat of terror.  

That is why it is important to keep concerns about these poll results in proper context. That some Democrats and Republicans have different opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part and parcel of living in a politically diverse country. But it is wrong to conclude that numbers like these signal the end of bipartisan support for Israel. Expressing sympathy for Palestinians, opposition to settlements and support for a two-state solution is a fundamentally pro-Israel position. We must continue to make the case that both sides deserve sympathy, and that to support one must not mean opposing the other.

Ultimately, we should welcome, not fear, the opening up of the American debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Normalizing the idea that you can both support Israel and express sympathy for the Palestinians has the potential to expand the pro-Israel tent. That’s something that supporters of Israel should view as an opportunity.

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