Jews in U.S., Israel Differ on Palestinian State

Times Staff Writers

Jews in the United States and Israel sharply disagree over the creation of an independent Palestinian state, with American Jews heavily in favor of the idea and Israelis much more deeply divided, according to new polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

American Jews approve of an independent Palestinian state, 68% to 19%. Israelis, by contrast, split, with 44% approving and 49% disapproving, including 34% who strongly oppose the idea. In both countries, more than two-thirds of those polled believe that a Palestinian state is likely to be created whether they like it or not.

The American Jewish support for a Palestinian state comes despite increasing skepticism about the chance for a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

About 4 in 10 American Jews say they are less optimistic about the chances of a lasting peace than they were a year ago. Only 9% are more optimistic. The numbers are similar in Israel -- 46% less optimistic, 12% more so. And in both countries, a majority said they did not think that even a “true peace with the Palestinians” would put an end to the overall conflict with the Arabs.

The polls also reveal a surprising amount of potential support in Israel for liberal, American-style Judaism.

Orthodox Jews have long enjoyed a monopoly on religious affairs in Israel, and even the majority of Israeli Jews, who consider themselves secular, generally associate religion with Orthodoxy.

But, the poll shows, 58% of Israelis approve of allowing rabbis from the more liberal streams of Judaism -- the Reform and Conservative movements -- to perform marriages and religious conversions in Israel; 36% are opposed. That issue has been the subject of intense controversy in Israel for the last year, with Orthodox leaders bitterly opposing it.

In addition, 48% of Israeli Jews say women should have the right to be rabbis despite the fact that female rabbis are virtually unheard of in the country. Only 38% of Israeli Jews say women should be barred from the pulpit -- the position taken by the Orthodox -- while 13% are unsure.

American Jews overwhelmingly support both female rabbis and equal status for Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel.

Israelis and Americans do disagree sharply over whether Jews should support Israel publicly even when they disagree in private -- as they have with frequency in recent months over conversion and other issues.

By 65% to 28%, Israelis say Jews should support Israel in public even when they disagree privately. Among Americans, 40% take that position and 50% do not.

Positive Relationship

But although Israelis dislike public criticism from American Jews, a 78% to 18% majority believe that the views of American Jews should be taken into account in Israel’s policies.

The majority of Jews in each country are, on the whole, at least mildly upbeat about relationships between the two groups -- 74% of Americans and 80% of Israelis describe the current relationship as fair or good, and another 8% in each country say relations are excellent.

“There’s a sharing of a sense of the same fate and destiny, a deep, deep feeling of belonging to the same people . . . the same moral values, knowing that in one’s heart one cannot be without the other,” said Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

“At the same time, [we’re] having a lot of problems, a lot of problems which, may I say, are very Jewish.”

The polls, undertaken in conjunction with Israel’s 50th anniversary, asked a similar set of questions of Israeli and American Jews to compare their attitudes.

The Los Angeles Times poll, supervised by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, was conducted nationwide among 848 American Jews by telephone from March 8 through April 1. The poll by Yedioth Ahronoth -- the largest daily in Israel -- was conducted by the Dahaf Research Group; it surveyed 1,011 Israeli Jews by telephone from March 12 through March 23. The margin of sampling error on the American poll is plus or minus four percentage points; on the Israeli poll, it is plus or minus three percentage points.

Critical of Israel

Among the many things on which Israeli and American Jews agree is that things in Israel are headed in the wrong direction.

Only 40% of Israelis believe that their country is “generally going in the right direction.” Virtually the same number, 42%, say it is “seriously off on the wrong track.”

The perspective from America is more critical, with 49% saying that Israel is on the wrong track and only 26% saying that it is headed in the right direction.

That assessment could reflect disquiet about the course of peace negotiations between Israel and the Arabs.

In both Israel and America, support is strong for the 1993 Oslo peace accord -- though support is stronger in Israel, 77%, compared to 66% in the United States. Respondents in both countries were read a description of the pact.

Forty percent of Israelis strongly approve of the peace agreement; only 29% of American Jews register strong support.

Under the accord, secretly hammered out in Oslo and nearby locations while official negotiations were carried out in Washington, Israel agreed to return part of the West Bank and Gaza Strip captured in the 1967 Six-Day War to the Palestinians in exchange for peace and official recognition of Israel’s statehood.

Five years later, the scope and timing of Israeli pullbacks from the occupied territories have proven an obstacle to full implementation of the accord.

In both America and Israel, large majorities favor returning some of the occupied land -- 69% of Americans, 71% of Israelis.

Only 18% of American Jews, but 30% of Israelis, favor returning “all or most” of the occupied land, while 16% of Americans and 17% of Israelis oppose returning any.

But only 18% of Americans believe that the on-again, off-again peace process has made Israel more secure; 28% of Israelis do. By comparison, 35% of Americans and 33% of Israelis believe that the peace process has made Israel less secure.

And the day is apparently far off when Israelis would be willing to call Palestinians not just neighbors, but friends. Two-thirds of Israelis say they hold an unfavorable impression of Palestinians; 35% say it is “very unfavorable.”

Removed from the tensions of the scene, only 39% of American Jews hold an unfavorable impression of the Palestinian people.

Impressions of Arafat

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Americans hold a more negative view of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s intentions than do Israelis.

By 50% to 37%, American Jews believe that Arafat is not sincere in wanting to push the peace process along. Among Israelis, he gets the benefit of the doubt: 49% say that he is sincere, while 45% say he is not.

Though essentially half of Israelis believe that Arafat sincerely wants peace, they nevertheless don’t like him, with 83% holding an unfavorable impression and just 11% a favorable one. Among American Jews, the negative view prevails, 73% to 15%.

Both American and Israeli Jews believe that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sincere about moving the peace process forward: 60% in the United States, 63% in Israel.

But opinion over Netanyahu is divided.

A 36% plurality of each group believes that Netanyahu’s government has made things between the United States and Israel worse. Only 19% of Americans and 20% of Israelis believe that his government has made things better.

Though it might be considered something of a novelty for any group of Americans to be intensely knowledgeable about the affairs of a foreign country, let alone express an opinion about whether another nation is on the right or wrong track, the relationship between United States and Israeli Jews is unique.

U.S. Jewish charities and fund-raising agencies contribute millions of dollars annually to Israel. And for generations, Jews worldwide have prayed to be able to return to Israel; even Jews born and reared in the United States frequently develop an emotional kinship with Israel.

As a consequence, 86% of American Jews think that what happens in Israel is important to them personally.

Indeed, 41% of American Jews polled say they have visited Israel at least once, and 42% say they have friends or relatives there. Among Israeli Jews, 37% have visited the United States and 73% have friends or relatives in this country.

Despite the Zionist ideal of Jews reuniting in a Jewish state, only 7% of American Jews say they could see themselves ever moving to Israel, while 16% of Israelis say they could see themselves moving to America.

Religious Issues

The most public difference between American Jews and Israelis in the last year has involved issues of religious pluralism.

At the heart of the dispute are daunting theological differences, including whether Jewish religious law always applies in the contemporary world -- as the Orthodox insist -- or, for instance, whether a child born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is just as Jewish as a child born to a Jewish mother, as the Reform movement holds.

These and other differences have come to be focused on the issue of conversion. Currently, only conversions made under the auspices of Orthodox rabbis are considered valid in Israel. The same goes for religious marriages, divorces and funerals.

Over the last year, the Reform and Conservative movements have pressed for recognition of their legitimacy to undertake conversions in Israel.

What the polls make clear, however, is that although the Orthodox have long enjoyed a monopoly on religious affairs in Israel, support for that monopoly is potentially soft.

Among Israelis who describe themselves as secular, many say they would like to be more Jewish than they are now and may be open to new ideas about religion because they are not attracted to Orthodoxy. There is also considerable support in Israel for pluralism, so that even many Israelis who would not turn to a Reform rabbi to marry them feel that those rabbis should have the right to perform marriages.

Those views are reflected in the poll data. Similarly, the poll suggests that many Israeli Jews engage in religious practices that are not all that different from Reform and Conservative Jews in America.

A majority of Israelis, 54%, identify themselves as “secular” Jews. But 88% of Israelis say they always or usually attend a Passover Seder; 83% light Hanukkah candles; 72% fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement; and 63% light Sabbath candles at least some of the time.

In America, by comparison, 84% of Conservative Jews and 75% of Reform Jews attend a Seder; 79% of Conservative Jews and 74% of Reform Jews light Hanukkah candles.

On the sensitive issue of defining who is a Jew, Americans and Israelis were asked to choose the person they considered “more” Jewish: someone with a Jewish mother who doesn’t practice the religion, or a person whose mother is not Jewish but who attends synagogue regularly.

Israelis, by 43% to 13%, still side with the Orthodox interpretation -- choosing the person whose mother is Jewish. Americans, however, chose the person who goes to synagogue, 50% to 27%. But Israelis were twice as likely as Americans, 32% to 16%, to say that both people in the hypothetical question were Jewish.

More American Jews (52%) than Israelis (39%) view Jews as a group defined by ethnicity or culture. A 42% plurality of Israelis view Jews as primarily a group defined by religion -- a view shared by 32% of American Jews.

Finally, both groups said that defining themselves as Jewish is important, 57% of Israelis, 54% of Americans. But 27% of Israelis say it is the single most important part of their identities; only 13% of Americans feel that way.

Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in Jerusalem contributed to this story.