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What explains Pew poll’s partisan gap in support for Israel?

An Israel Defense Forces tank crosses through a field near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on July 21, 2014, two weeks into “Operation Protective Edge.” Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
An Israel Defense Forces tank crosses through a field near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on July 21, 2014, two weeks into “Operation Protective Edge.” Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

By Dmitriy Shapiro/ Jewish Week

A new Pew Research Center poll showing Republicans as more sympathetic to Israel than Democrats has left Jewish Democratic leaders searching for an explanation of the partisan gap.

Conducted from July 8-14, the week Israel began its air operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip but before its ground invasion, the poll asked 1,805 respondents, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side to you sympathize with more—Israel or the Palestinians?” Possible answers were: Israel, Palestinians, both, neither, don’t know or refused to answer.

Seventy-three percent of Republican respondents said they sympathize with Israel in the conflict, compared to 44 percent of Democrats. The results mark a change from the same question in an April poll in which 68 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel and 46 percent of Democrats did.

“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 statement July 15.

A closer look at the new poll reveals further divides. Respondents considering themselves conservative Republicans supported Israel by 77 percent, compared to 68 percent of moderate Republicans. Among Democrats, 48 percent of moderate Democrats supported Israel, compared to 39 percent of liberal Democrats.

Brooks called the poll results, coming 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 [level].”

“If support for Israel ceases to be bipartisan, the U.S.-Israel relationship—which is of so much benefit to both countries—will suffer,” he said.

Some Democratic supporters of Israel suggest that the poll’s question skewed the answers. U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is Jewish and one of the strongest pro-Israel voices in the House of Representatives, questioned the use of the word “sympathize.”

“The word sympathy tends to ask, ‘Who do you think is downtrodden and having a difficult life?’” Sherman told “Look, the average Israeli lives a pretty good life [compared to] our image of the average Palestinian.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said 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, he said, adding that such observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “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 added that the opinions reflected in the poll numbers are not shared by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, who consistently and, usually unanimously, pass bills and resolutions in support of Israel.

Sherman said that 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, explained Sherman.

Another problem, according to Sherman, is what he calls the “Kent State Rorschach test.” The shooting of students protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard in 1970 at Ohio’s Kent State University 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. “These are folks [for whom] you could show them any inkblot and they would see an anti-war confrontation at Kent State University, and you root against whoever is wearing military uniforms and vote in favor of whoever is scruffy and has rocks. Those problems afflict a few liberals in this country.”

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.”

But Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that in a time of crisis, it’s more important to highlight Jewish unity than discord.

“I think that talking about polls and policies now, in the midst of a crisis, is a misdirection of energy,” he said.

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