Earlier this week, Curt Schilling asked a Jewish person for advice on a topic he found confusing. How is it, he wondered aloud in a conversation with Jake Tapper on CNN, people of the Jewish faith can support Democrats, when the Democratic party has been, in his words, “so clearly anti-Israel” for the past 50 years?
Tapper may have been the wrong person to ask. He’s a journalist, and as he noted in his response, he is Jewish, but “doesn’t speak for Jews.”
Schilling, a high-profile former Boston Red Sox baseball player who has become known for his often politically incorrect — sometimes downright offensive — opinions, may have been better served by asking his question of a sociologist; one like Steven. M Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union college. While Cohen also “doesn’t speak for Jews,” he’s studied trends among Jewish Americans for decades.
In a recent conversation with America Abroad, Cohen noted that while American Jews are “still deeply concerned about Israel,” the issue is more nuanced than Schilling, who is reportedly mulling a run for the US Senate, may realize.
He points to surveys going back to the 1950s that show while Israel is is concern for American Jews, it’s “a second echelon issue.” He adds: "The notion of what it means to support Israel has shifted.”
That shift, according to Cohen, has most notably occurred on the issue that has long been the flashpoint for US policy towards Israel: The Israeli/Palestinian conflict and specifically the issue of Israeli settlement expansion. Both Jews who support and Jews who oppose settlement expansion consider themselves to be pro-Israel, says Cohen. Meaning “support for Israel can mean actually very contradictory policies.”
“They're divided about settlements. The majorities or pluralities tend to oppose settlements. ... They see settlements and Israel's relationship to Palestinians as being a morally complex issue,” Cohen says.
However, the fact that American Jews tend to oppose settlements doesn’t mean they necessarily support Palestinians, either.
“They sympathize with Israelis. They don't express sympathy or a lot of faith in the Palestinians. Those are two different issues. Israel may be faulty, but Palestinians are seen as threatening and untrustworthy. Those are two different dimensions that don't necessarily correlate,” Cohen says.
The shift in attitudes among American Jews toward the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has taken the form of a generational divide, with younger Jewish Americans tending to view the Israeli government less favorably. According to a Pew Research Center study of American Jewish sentiment published in 2013, only 26 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds thought the Israeli government was making a sincere effort for peace. For those 65 and older, the number stood at 45 percent.
While the way American Jews have tended to see Israel has shifted over time, US policy has arguably remained fairly consistent, and many experts consider the US to have the “most pro-Israel foreign policy in the world,” as a recent Vox headline put it. Cohen believes the reasons for that have more to do with geopolitics than with the influence of America’s Jewish community, which is only about 2 percent of the overall US population.
“I think there are cultural reasons for America's interests in the Middle East, and Israel, and there are realpolitik reasons that derive from America's position in the world as the world's leading diplomatic and military power,” Cohen says. “I think that those are better explanations for why America's doing what it's been doing.”
There is one thing that Schilling was right about: American Jews still tend to support Democrats.
“They're as liberal as ever. They're one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs in the United States. Their donors are heavily on the Democratic side. The only ones who are on the Republican side are orthodox and very affluent American Jews, but the rest of the population is heavily Democratic,” Cohen says.
There’s a much larger American religious group that is more solidly pro-Israel: American evangelicals. But that’s a different story.
America Abroad is an award-winning documentary radio program that takes an in-depth look at one critical issue in international affairs and US foreign policy every month. You can follow us on Facebook, talk to us on Twitter, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter for updates.