By Dan Fleshler | October 4, 2009
Is it more important for American Jewish peace groups to prove that they speak for most American Jews, or to be right? I vote for the latter.
Last week, sighs of relief could be heard in the organized American Jewish establishment. A new American Jewish Committee poll showed that a majority of American Jews favored a U.S attack on Iran, did not want Obama to pressure Israel on settlements and leaned to the right on some issues. The poll also showed that Jews in the U.S. leaned leftward on other issues. But both James Besser of New York Jewish Week and –to a lesser extent– the JTA’s Eric Fingerhut focused on the extent to which the poll shows that groups like J Street are out of touch with the American Jewish majority. Here is Besser:
The finding that 51 percent disagree with the Obama administration’s call for a `stop to all new Israeli settlement construction’ stands in contrast to earlier polls by J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, which were interpreted as showing strong Jewish support for U.S. pressure on Israel to advance the peace process, and other surveys showing limited sympathy for settlers and settlements…
In a barb probably aimed mostly at the upstart J Street, the AJC’s Harris said that, taken together, the poll results reveal that “the ideologically driven groups with a specific agenda — whether on the right or the left — are misrepresenting the totality of the Jewish community’s views. They are either cherry picking data that reinforces their particular perspective or framing questions to get the answers they seek.”
His group’s survey, he said, shows “a continuing, clear and continuous centrism, with American Jews tilting to the left on some issues and tilting to the right on others. The suggestion that groups that represent the center are somehow fossilized is shattered by these results.”
I have played the “who speaks for the American Jewish majority” game for many years. Indeed, my book trots out polls that show how, over the years, the conventional Israel lobby has been out of step with the more dovish Jewish majority in the U.S. New polls will no doubt show shifts in Jewish public opinion on this or that issue in the coming months and years.
The truth is that sponsoring a provocative or newsworthy poll is a great way to wedge your organization into the news, and that is one of the main reasons why we are deluged with surveys about everything under the sun. The day after the 1992 American presidential elections, in one of my former agencies, a brilliant p.r. rep for 1-800-Mattres orchestrated a phone poll. It showed that most voters watched the election results while lying in bed, and many wished they were more comfortable. It got massive coverage.
Polls that gauge American Jewish opinion are not comparably frivolous. But I have come to believe that too much energy is now wasted on survey data that are used as weapons in the battle over who speaks for most of the Jewish community (or who has the right to speak for that community). That battle has been going on for many decades, as I also showed in my book. This is one soldier who is tired of fighting it.
What’s the difference if, four months from now, another poll shows that an even lower percentage of the community likes what Obama is doing? What’s the difference if a minority of Jews agree with those of us who support J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and Ameinu? Who cares? If 80% of my community wanted to ally itself with Avigdor Lieberman, I would fight even harder to ensure that American elected officials hear from those who oppose him.
I am not engaged on these issues because I want to “represent” anyone. The American Jewish community is not a democracy. The organizations that weigh in on foreign policy issues were not elected by anyone. Collectively, they speak for the small minority of Jews who care enough about these issues to contact a politician or donate to campaigns or go to a conference –whether it is AIPAC’s or J Street’s. Israel is a comparatively low priority for most Jewish voters in the U.S. Those who feel strongly enough about stopping a disastrous occupation should not worry whether “most Jews” are with us. We should worry about making enough noise to show the Obama team they have enough political leeway to be bold and evenhanded.
It’s important to show that the policies of the past are “fossilized,” not the organizations that support them.