A new Pew Research Center poll showing Republicans more sympathetic than Democrats to Israel has Republican Jewish activists crowing and their Democratic counterparts questioning whether the poll gives an accurate picture of support for Israel.
“For years, public opinion polls have documented the large gap in support for Israel between Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans being far more supportive of Israel,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Committee, said in a news release. “This poll shows a gap of 27 points.”
Conducted from July 8 to July 14, the week Israel began its air operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip but before its ground invasion, the poll asked, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more — Israel or the Palestinians?” Possible answers were: Israel, Palestinians, both, neither, don’t know or refused to answer.
The survey of 1,805 respondents showed that 73 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel in the conflict compared with 44 percent of Democrats.
The results mark a change from the same question asked in a poll in April, when 68 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel and 46 percent of Democrats did.
A closer look reveals further divides. Respondents who consider themselves conservative Republicans support Israel by 77 percent, compared with 68 percent of moderate Republicans. Among Democrats, 48 percent of moderate Democrats support Israel, compared with 39 percent of liberal Democrats.
Brooks, in the news release, issued July 15, called the poll results during a time of war “a sad and sobering confirmation of the Democrat party’s shift over time away from support of Israel, especially at its grassroots. If support for Israel ceases to be bipartisan, the U.S.-Israel relationship — which is of so much benefit to both countries — will suffer.”
But Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while Middle East hostilities continue, it’s more important to highlight the unity of the Jewish community than discord. “I think that talking about polls and policies now, in the midst of a crisis, is a misdirection of energy.”
Moline said that he recently spoke with Brooks, his RJC counterpart, and that they both agreed that Jewish unity should trump political brinksmanship at the moment.
Still, he said, “it doesn’t surprise me that, having found a single piece of news that fits their agenda, the Republican Jewish Coalition put out a news release. It doesn’t surprise me at all. But I don’t think this is the time for us to start debating how you get a poll to shift one way or another.”
Other Democratic supporters of Israel suggest that the poll’s wording distorted the results. U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is Jewish and one of the strongest pro-Israel voices in the House, questioned the use of the word “sympathize.”
“The word sympathy tends to ask: ‘Who do you think is downtrodden and having a difficult life?’” said Sherman. “Look, the average Israeli lives a pretty good life [compared to] our image of the average Palestinian.”
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed that some Democrats are siding against Israel for well-meaning, but ill-informed, reasons.
“I think people on the left side of the political spectrum are moved by the sight of innocent civilians getting killed and injured,” said Waxman. “More of that has happened on the Palestinian side and [voters are] seeing people that were not combatants” being injured or killed.
“They may not have the perspective that Israel cannot tolerate a constant bombardment that is coming in from Gaza and [the Israelis] have no other choice than to hit back,” Waxman said.
He added that the opinions reflected in the poll numbers are not shared by his House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, who consistently and, usually unanimously, pass bills and resolutions in support of Israel.
Sherman said, contrary to the poll results, threats to support for Israel come from both right and left.
“You have on the Republican side the Rand Paul isolationists, who are probably the greatest threat as a practical matter to U.S. support for Israel. And you have on the left, and have always had on the left, people who are misguided because they want to support the underdog and they think that because the average Israeli is richer than the average Palestinian, and because Israel is the most powerful military west of the Jordan,” they need to sympathize with the Palestinians.
Another problem, according to Sherman, is what he calls the “Kent State Rorschach test.” The shooting of students at Ohio’s Kent State University who were protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard was a defining moment for many liberals, he said.
“There are some liberals who don’t bother to figure out who’s right or wrong in any conflict. They just root for the scruffy-looking students and root against the uniformed military. Because they see everything as a Rorschach test reminding them of Kent State,” said Sherman.
According to Sherman, voters lacking information could easily jump to conclusions based on their bias.
“When I see a bar fight, I don’t bother to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong,” joked Sherman, who is bald. “I just root for the bald guy.”
JNS.org contributed to this story.