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Attitudes and Affiliations

September 19, 2015

Since the Iranian nuclear agreement was announced on July 14, I have been collecting survey reports and poll data regarding public opinion about it. Depending on how the questions are worded—especially how the deal itself is described—Americans generally oppose it by about a two-to-one margin. American Jews seem to be more evenly split, probably reflecting their partisan loyalties. (In general, Democrats support the agreement while Republicans oppose it, and Jewish Americans tend to lean Democratic.)

For example, an AJC poll in August found that 51% of U.S. Jews approved of the deal, while 47% disapproved. Other polls reported more lopsided results: Quinnipiac University reported that Jewish voters in New York City “oppose the proposed pact 53%–33%,” and McKeon & Associates “found that a large plurality of registered Jewish voters oppose the deal, 45% to 22%”— the same two-to-one margin as the general American public, despite the higher proportion of Democrats in the Jewish community.

Political columnist Harold Meyerson claims in The Washington Post that “America’s Jewish establishment is out of touch with U.S. Jews” on the Iran deal. Meyerson takes the American Jewish “dual loyalties” canard to a new level. The classic antisemitic accusation is that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S.—as though these are conflicting or mutually exclusive relationships, rather than complementary and embodying similar values. In the current instance, the U.S. and Israel share the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapon—though they disagree on the best strategy for achieving that goal. Rather than seeing it as a legitimate policy debate, Meyerson suggests that American Jews must chose between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “dangerously tribal” values and the “more liberal and cosmopolitan sensibilities” of the enlightened American left. (Never mind that Israelis of all political stripes—including leading opposition figures otherwise diametrically opposed to Netanyahu—reject the Iran deal.)

Meyerson’s main thesis is that “the American Jewish establishment has lost touch with the American Jews it purports to represent.” His evidence: All mainstream Jewish organizations, including the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), American Jewish Congress (the other AJC), and all the rest of the alphabet soup, unequivocally oppose the Iran deal, even though the Jewish-American public is divided on the issue. In fact, there is a simple and logical explanation for this non-paradox.

A 2013 study by Pew Research contains the essential rebuttal to Meyerson’s argument. (Meyerson cites the same report, but misidentifies it as more recent.) According to the Pew study, 30% of American Jews are not affiliated with any Jewish denomination (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or “other”). Over one fifth consider themselves “Jews of no religion.” These people have Jewish ancestors or “Jewish feelings,” but are definitely not members of the organized Jewish community. In fact, they are “just about totally disconnected from religion,” with only 4% belonging to a synagogue or temple, or reporting membership in any other Jewish organization.

The AJC poll found an even larger portion of disconnected Jews than Pew’s: 37% of respondents identify as “Just Jewish” rather than with any of the mainstream denominations. The AJC explains that “there is a significant split within the community on the issue [of the Iran nuclear agreement]: those who consider being Jewish very important, those who view caring about Israel as a key part of their Jewish identity, and those belonging to the traditional denominations of Judaism are far more likely to oppose the deal than others. It may, in fact, be appropriate, in light of the data, to speak of two diverging Jewish sub-communities.”

Jews who identify with no denomination and do not belong to any Jewish congregation or organization are, by definition, unaffiliated. They have voluntarily excluded themselves from the organized Jewish community. They are probably members of civic associations, volunteer groups, nonprofit organizations, clubs, and advocacy forums—but not a Jewish association, group, organization, club, or forum. Is it any surprise, then, that Jewish groups, organizations, and forums do not represent them? Unaffiliated Jews have chosen not to associate with the Jewish “establishment” and its institutions. They cannot possibly be surprised or disappointed that the establishment institutions do not speak for them.

On the Iran deal and many other issues, the establishment Jewish organizations do, in fact, quite faithfully reflect the views of the two-thirds of American Jews who identify, affiliate, and organize as Jews.


As always, I look forward to your feedback: Thoughts, additions, and rebuttals are welcome and actively solicited. If you have answers to any or all of the questions above, please let me know!

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