Would Iran Deal Imperil Jews' Loyalty to Democratic Party?

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If nothing else, the coming political battle between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress over the potential Iran nuclear deal underscores one of the biggest anomalies in American politics. Republicans have become much stronger backers of Israel than Democrats over the years, yet American Jews have remained Democrats for the most part.

However, given the stakes for Israel with respect to Iran, it’s an open question as to whether long-standing Jewish support for the Democratic Party will be threatened.  One worrisome sign for the Democrats is a recent Gallup Poll finding declining support for Obama among Jewish Americans who strongly backed the president in both of his presidential elections.  But while there is a lot of recent history showing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not made a political difference to Jews, many of whom have been critical of Israel in that regard, the potential Iranian threat may well be different.

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Historically, political polarization has increased markedly on one of the most basic polling measures with respect to support for Israel. In July 2014, by a margin of 73 percent to 44 percent, Republicans were more apt than Democrats to say they are sympathetic to Israeli rather than the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict.  When this question was first asked in the late 1970s, about equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats said they were more pro-Israel: 49 percent and 44 percent, respectively. The pro-Israel partisan gap widened substantially in the last decade following the 9/11 attacks as Republicans became much more likely to back Israeli over the Palestinians while Democratic opinion changed little.

Republicans are not only politically more supportive of Israel in the Middle East conflict, they are much more likely than Democrats to believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. A 2013 Pew Research survey found a 58 percent majority of Republicans holding this view, compared with only 36 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Independents.  Analysis of the survey suggests that this is partly because Republicans are more likely to believe in God than Democrats. But even when the comparison is limited only to people who believe in God, Republicans are still significantly more inclined than Democrats to hold the view that  God gave Israel to the Jewish people.

Remarkably, despite growing support for Israel among Republicans over the past decade, there is little sign that Jews have become more attracted to the Republican Party in recent years.  In its most recent in-depth analysis of trends in party affiliation, the Pew Research Center wrote, “Jews continue to mostly align with the Democratic Party. Nearly twice as many Jews identify as Democrats or lean Democratic (61 percent) than identify as Republicans or lean Republican (31 percent),” and this pattern is little different than it was in the early 1990s (65 percent-32 percent in 1992).

While most Jews are indeed strong backers of Israel, the polling data suggests that the generally liberal ideology of Jewish Americans continues to align with their long-standing affinity to the Democratic Party. In the Pew Research Center’s 2014 aggregate surveys, 41 percent of Jewish respondents described themselves as liberals, compared with 24 percent of the public at large.

Relatedly, views of some Israeli policies may well be a factor that ameliorates the partisan issue for Jews. A major groundbreaking Pew Research Center survey of 3,475 American Jews in 2013 reported that “about seven-in-ten Jews surveyed say they feel either very attached (30 percent) or somewhat attached (39 percent) to Israel.”

At the same time, the survey reported that “many American Jews express reservations about Israel’s approach to the peace process. Just 38 percent say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. (Fewer still – 12 percent – think Palestinian leaders are sincerely seeking peace with Israel.) And just 17 percent of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security; 44 percent say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s proposed deal with Iran, in light of Israeli concerns about it, could significantly weaken long-standing Jewish American allegiances to the Democratic Party.  Gallup recently reported approval of Obama among Jews declining from 64 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in 2015, and went on to note that highly religious Jews in the Gallup sample were least positive about the president.

Gallup speculated that whether this trend will continue or reverse itself “will depend in part on the future of the relationship between Obama and Israeli leadership. This in turn will reflect the status of the pending agreement with Iran that would restrict that country's nuclear activity in return for a further loosening of economic sanctions.”  Indeed, while largely liberal American Jews have expressed humanitarian-based criticism of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian situation, their reaction might be just the opposite to a potential threat to it posed by the Iranian deal. 

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