Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The American Public and Sympathy for Israel: Present and Future

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The American Public and Sympathy for Israel: Present and Future

Article excerpt

The American public has long held positive views of the State of Israel, and many analysts believe that such views have contributed to American foreign policy toward Israel and in the Middle East. (1) However, recent developments in the United States have raised some questions about the level of public support for Israel at present and in the future. (2)

One set of developments is demographic changes in the U.S. that could alter public support for Israel indirectly by changing the size of key social groups. (3) For example, the declining size of the Jewish community and the increasing size of the Muslim and Arab populations could shift public opinion on Israel. Increased immigration and the growth of racial and ethnic minorities could have a similar effect, as could the expanded numbers of individuals unaffiliated with organized religion. There are demographic countertrends as well: The growth of evangelical Protestantism may expand sympathy for Israel, while the decline in the membership of mainline Protestant churches may reduce the lack of sympathy. Such developments could be part of broader trends, such as generational change, that could affect public opinion as well.

Another set of developments is political. A good example is the increased criticism of American support for Israel by American intellectuals, academics, and journalists, a trend that is moving toward the views of European elites on Israel. (4) Here, a key feature has been a renewed debate over the "Israeli lobby" and its influence on American foreign policy. At the same time, opponents of Israel have become more vocal and sophisticated actors in American politics. Changing public opinion regarding Israel appears to be one of the goals of many of these efforts and may be part of broader shifts in partisanship and ideology.

This essay investigates the impact of these developments on American public views toward Israel. It begins with a description of public opinion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute between 2001 and 2006, finding a large plurality of Americans sympathetic toward Israel, a pattern that was quite stable over the period in question. The essay then explores the sources of this opinion, finding a strong association between religious affiliation, religious beliefs, and sympathy for Israel. Some demographic factors, such as age and gender, are also associated with sympathy for Israel. Political attitudes matter as well, with Republicans and conservatives having a more favorable view of Israel than Democrats and liberals. The analysis concludes by presenting four possible changes in public sympathy for Israel by the year 2024. In sum, the recent developments have not changed American public opinion about Israel at present and appear unlikely to do so in the near future. If such changes do occur, they will likely arise from political debate that directly alters opinion on Israel.

American Public Opinion and the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute

A good place to begin is with a description of the pattern of American public opinion toward Israel. A useful measure is a Pew Research Center question on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: "In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?" Figure 1 plots the results of this question between 2001 and 2006, showing the percentage of the public that reported greater sympathy for Israel or for Palestine, plus responses that were neutral or "no opinion." Although this series ends in 2006, there is reason to believe that the basic pattern has persisted in subsequent years. (5)


Figure 1 shows a remarkable stability in responses to this question during a tumultuous period in American foreign policy. A large plurality of Americans said they sympathized with Israel, with a mean of 40.5 percent over the period. The level of sympathy for Israel dipped below the mean just once, 37 percent in 2005, but then rose to 44 percent in 2006. …

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