The Pulse

Next Year in Jerusalem

Do American Jews think peace with Palestine is possible?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Whatever your thoughts on the viability — or futility — of a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, in early October, prodded by America’s top diplomat Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators engaged in a new round of peace talks in an attempt to breathe new life into their on-again, off-again efforts to bring lasting stability to their relationship. To prove successful and sustainable, the outcome of these talks must ultimately gain the support of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. But given the catalytic role Washington has played in this effort to revive the Middle East peace process, there is a third party whose judgment of the outcome may prove crucial: American Jews.

A new Pew Research Center survey is a reminder that the view widely held in some parts of the world — that American Jews uniformly back a hardline stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — is simply not true. The 5.3 million-member American Jewish community is far from monolithic in its emotional attachment to Israel, on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or on many of the other issues that bedevil the peace process. In fact, there are wide differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews on many of these concerns.

To be sure, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of American Jews feel some attachment to Israel. But just 30 percent of Jews feel very attached, and this ranges from 61 percent of the Orthodox to 24 percent of Reform Jews. Asked whether they trust Israel to make a sincere effort to achieve peace, though, and things start to get more complicated.

As for the peace process, only about four-in-ten American Jews (38 percent) think the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort in negotiations with the Palestinians, while 48 percent say the Israeli effort is lacking. But such numbers mask divisions within the American Jewish community. Most Orthodox Jews (61 percent) believe the Israeli government is working to bring about peace with the Palestinians, as do 52 percent of Conservative Jews. But fewer Reform Jews (36 percent) agree.

That said, there’s greater consensus among American Jews when looking at the other side of the negotiating table. Three-quarters of respondents think the Palestinian leadership’s efforts to bring about a peace settlement with Israel are not sincere.

Clearly, Jewish settlements in the West Bank are a major point of contention in the negotiations. A plurality of American Jews (44 percent) say the continued building of such settlements hurts the security of Israel. Just 17 percent say it helps, while 29 percent say it does not make a difference. Notably, 50 percent of Reform Jews think the settlements harm the peace process, but only 16 percent of the Orthodox agree. By comparison, a 2013 Pew Research Center survey in Israel found that Israeli Jews have more mixed views: 35 percent say the continued building of Jewish settlements hurts the security of Israel, 31 percent say it helps, and 27 percent say it does not make a difference.

Land exchanges between Israel and the Palestinian territories are likely to be part of any final peace settlement, an outcome that could be complicated by views held by Americans. While only four-in-ten American Jews (40 percent) believe the land that is now Israel was given to the Jewish people by God, this sentiment is held by an overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews (84 percent). Fewer Reform Jews (35 percent) share this sentiment. Notably, other Pew surveys show that more American Christians than Jews actually believe God gave Israel to the Jews: 55 percent of U.S. Christians, including 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants.

As the peace talks progress, the role played by the United States may become ever more of an issue. Today, more than half of American Jews say U.S. support for Israel is about right (54 percent), although a substantial minority believes that Washington is not supportive enough of the Jewish state (31 percent). Just 11 percent think the United States is too supportive of Israel. By comparison, 41 percent of the general public thinks support for Israel is about right, while the rest are nearly evenly divided between those who say America is not supportive enough and those who say it is too supportive of the Jewish state.

Opinions about U.S. support for Israel vary considerably across denominations, with Orthodox Jews (53 percent) particularly likely to say Washington is not supportive enough, while only 30 percent of Reform Jews think America is not backing Jerusalem sufficiently. Interestingly, more white evangelical Protestants than Jews think the U.S. currently is not sufficiently supportive of Israel (46 percent vs. 31 percent).

But there is reason for hope. Indeed, looking into the future, American Jews are more optimistic than the U.S. general public that a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully: 61 percent of American Jews say this is possible, compared with 50 percent of the public overall. But, again, all Jews do not agree. Majorities of Reform (58 percent) and Conservative (62 percent) Jews think peaceful coexistence is possible. But most Orthodox Jews (61 percent) do not believe a two-state solution will work.

So, as Washington ramps up its efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians to fashion a lasting settlement of their differences, there is no uniform American Jewish viewpoint on the peace process. American Jews are hopeful about the objective, but divided on the details. And the view held by many foreigners, that Jewish Americans are knee-jerk supporters of the Israeli position on the Palestinian territories, is just wrong.

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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