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As Gaza conflict escalates, here’s what US Jews think about Israel

Most, but not all, do care about the Jewish state – though a majority rate the current government ‘fair or poor,’ and some 10% support the anti-Israel BDS movement

Illustrative: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Illustrative: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

JTA — On Tuesday, Israel found itself fighting what may be another war in Gaza. And American Jews are watching.

Hamas, the terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip, has launched over a thousand missiles at Israeli towns and cities since Monday and the IDF has responded with hundreds of airstrikes on terror targets. Dozens of Palestinians and six Israelis have lost their lives, and there is no end in sight.

As the eyes of the world turn again to violence in Israel, Jews in the United States will be paying attention and speaking out. During past conflicts, American Jewish groups from across the political spectrum have claimed to represent American Jewry as a whole — or a broad swath of it.

But what do American Jews actually think about Israel? The answer defies simple characterization. But an expansive new survey by the Pew Research Center, (coincidentally) published Tuesday, tells us a lot about how American Jews feel about Israel and Israeli Jews.

Most American Jews feel some emotional attachment to Israel, follow news in Israel and say they have something in common with Israeli Jews. Nearly half have traveled to the country.

But most rate Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, negatively. Only one-third of American Jews says Israel is making a sincere effort toward peace with the Palestinians. And 10% of American Jews say they support BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

Illustrative: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders poses with IfNotNow activists in New Hampshire, including University of Michigan student Becca Lubow on the far left, and holds a sign that reads ‘Jews Against Occupation.’ (Courtesy/IfNotNow)

Orthodox or Republican Jews tend to display higher levels of support for Israel, while unaffiliated Jews show lower levels of support.

Here’s the rundown on how American Jews feel about the Jewish state.

The vast majority of American Jews say caring about Israel is important to being Jewish

While Israel and its politics are constant topics of debate in Jewish circles, there’s at least one area of broad agreement: More than 80% of American Jews said caring about Israel was an important or essential part of what being Jewish means to them. A majority of respondents agreed with that statement across age groups, religious movements and political parties.

Among Jews overall, 45% said caring about Israel was essential to being Jewish, and an additional 37% called it important to being Jewish. Among Conservative Jews, 66% said caring about Israel was essential and just 4% say it was not important to being Jewish.

The group that placed the least importance on caring about Israel were “Jews of no religion” — according to Pew, they “identify religiously as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.” Still, more than two-thirds of that group said caring about Israel was important or essential, while 31% said it was not important. And more than 70% of Jewish adults under 30 rated caring about Israel important or essential to being Jewish.

A pro-Israel demonstrator waves flags toward the Capitol in Washington, March 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Most American Jews feel emotionally attached to Israel

Most Jews also feel an emotional attachment to Israel, though the numbers there are more complex. Overall, 58% of Jews feel emotionally attached to Israel — including majorities of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.

More than 70% of Jewish Republicans, and a slim majority of Jewish Democrats, feel emotionally attached to Israel. So do most Jewish adults older than 30, including two-thirds of Jews over 65.

Only 48% of Jews under 30 said they feel emotionally attached to Israel. The group with the lowest level of attachment, 33%, are Jews of no religion.

Nearly half of American Jews have been to Israel

Illustrative: Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 18, 2014 (Flash90)

In addition to caring about Israel, most Jews make an effort to be informed about it in some way and feel they have something in common with Jews living there.

Some 45% of Jewish Americans have been to Israel, and more than a quarter have been there more than once. Among Jews aged 25 to 34, one in four have gone on Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for young Jews.

Most American Jews (57%) follow news related to Israel very closely or somewhat closely, including more than 70% of Orthodox and Conservative Jews.

And about the same number of Jews, 59%, said they have some or a lot in common with Jews in Israel. Most unaffiliated Jews, however, feel they have little or nothing in common with Jews in Israel. By comparison, a 2016 Pew survey of Israeli Jews found that 68% said they had a lot or some in common with American Jews.

Most Jews are not fans of Netanyahu, and only a third think Israel is sincere about peace with the Palestinians

Illustrative: A man holds a sign outside the Washington Convention Center where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2015. (AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM)

What about the man who is, as of today, the prime minister of Israel?

The majority of American Jews rated Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership “only fair or poor,” while 40% said he was “excellent or good.” Netanyahu was rated highest by Republicans and Orthodox respondents, and was given the worst ratings from respondents under 30, unaffiliated Jews and Democrats. Only 25% of Democrats said he was excellent or good.

Nearly two-thirds of American Jews are optimistic that Israel can find a way to coexist peacefully with a Palestinian state. (Israelis, by contrast, consistently are pessimistic that a two-state solution will happen.)

But only one-third of American Jews believe Israel is sincere about making peace with the Palestinians, and the number drops to 24% among Jews under 30 and to 20% among Jewish Democrats. However, every segment of the Jewish population believes Israel is more sincere about peace than the Palestinians.

What about BDS?

Illustrative: Palestinian and left-wing Jewish groups stage a rally walking from Times Square to United Nations Building in New York Thursday, September 15, 2011. The marchers are calling to end all US aid to Israel, end the occupation and support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. (AP Photo/David Karp)

The survey did not provide respondents with an extensive definition of the Boycott, Divestments and Sanction movement because of debates about its scope and goals. Respondents first were asked whether they had heard of the movement, then those who were familiar with BDS were questioned on whether they supported or opposed it.

Most American Jews — 56% — have heard a lot or some about the movement. In total, 10% of American Jews supported BDS, including 13% of Democrats and those under 30. And 43% of American Jews overall opposed the movement. Just 2% of all Jews strongly supported BDS, while 34% strongly opposed it.

Just half of Jews under 30 have heard some or a lot about BDS.

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