Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why do Americans support Israel?

Matthew Yglesias points to an interesting new series of polls done by Gallup on Israel/Palestine and American attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He names his post, "American Public Prepared to Support Israel in Endless War With Arabs."

When I look at the charts that Yglesias provides for this post, I don't come to the same cynical conclusions he does.

Gallup reports: Support for Israel at 63%, near record high.
In the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, a striking 63% of Americans currently say their sympathies lie more with the Israelis, the highest level in nearly 20 years. Support for the Palestinians, at 15%, is about average for the same period. At the same time, Gallup finds Americans' fundamental views of Israel no more favorable than they have been for the past several years. Israel does continue to enjoy a substantial advantage over the Palestinian Authority in its general image, a fact that clearly colors the ways Americans view the conflict.

Americans are no more optimistic today than they were last year that peace can be reached between Israel and the Palestinians -- and they are, in fact, less optimistic than they were toward the end of the Bush administration. This is largely owing to a drop in optimism among independents.
And here's the charts:

Favorable Views Toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority, 2000-2010 Trend

Sympathy for Israelis vs. Palestinians in Mideast Situation, by Party ID, Trend From 2001 to 2010

It's clear that Republicans are consistently more favorable toward Israel than Democrats, although in 2001 there wasn't much of a gap between them. Views among Democrats have fluctuated a bit between 2001 and 2010, but with no really big differences. Independents have risen significantly since 2001. Why do these differences exist?

Outlook for Peace Between Israel and Arab Nations, 1997-2010 Trend

This poll is interesting - during the years of maximum effort by the Clinton administration, the optimism about peace was fairly high, but I can't remember anything in particular happening in 2003 or 2005 that would have led to such optimism. Am I forgetting some significant events? The Iraq War started in 2003 - not something that would have led me to optimism about peace. In the summer of 2005 Israel left Gaza - perhaps that was the factor.

Outlook for Peace Between Israel and Arab Nations, by Party ID, 2001-2010 Trend

It would be interesting to compare these charts with polls of Israelis and Palestinians taken during the 2000s - would the optimism level chart the same way?

Yglesias' analysis:
Both support for Israel and pessimism about the possibility of peace are correlated with Republican partisan self-identification. To conjecture a bit beyond what the data can strictly tell us, I think it’s plausible to posit that there’s a large Republican-identified Christian Zionist bloc that’s extremely comfortable with the idea of aligning itself with Israel for the purposes of an endless religious war and of course they have their counterparts in the “revisionist” strand of Zionism in Israel and among American Jews. To my way of thinking—and I think that of most Jewish liberals—this is a chilling vision and we choose to believe that the conflict both can and will be resolved at some point. But many Americans have a level of cultural and ideological affiliation with violence and coercive domination that makes it easy for them to identify with this version of future Israeli history.
He's probably right that much of the Republican/Democratic difference here is based on different religious attitudes in the large conservative Christian portion of the Republican support. But why would he think it's for the purpose of "endless religious war"? What evidence is there in these charts? I don't see it. The charts just report on the party differences, they don't tell us the reasons for them. I also think it's deeply cynical to say that the reasons "many Americans" support Israel because of American's "level of cultural and ideological affiliation with violence and coercive domination." This is not an analysis, it's an expression of his ideological beliefs. I'd like to see some survey evidence to back up his claims.

I would like to know why conservative Christians actually support Israel. Not why people like John Hagee support Israel, but the spectrum of conservative evangelicals and Catholics, broken down by type of religious movement (Pentecostal, African-American church, non-Pentecostal evangelicals, etc). Based simply on some meager anecdotal evidence, my experience with conservative Christians is that they support Israel because they view Judaism and the Jewish people as forming the roots of Christianity, and they believe that the covenant between the Jewish people and God has not been abrogated by the rise of Christianity. But again, this is not evidence. If any of my readers have an idea of where to search for this information, I'd be happy to know.


  1. Its Islam that Christians are thinking of and not Judaism or Christianity. The rivalry between Islam and Christianity has always been about Palestine among others.

    But all on all, its not that deep as most Americans only care about themselves anyways. With Ron Paul and the Libertarians and Nationalist slowly taking over the GOP, Israel's supporters are having to face an uncertain future since they no longer have the support of Liberals. Thats gone for good.

  2. What do you mean by saying that the rivalry between Islam and Christianity has "always been about Palestine"? If you go back to the early years of Islam, the conflict seems to be much more about religious ideas - the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem don't denounce the Byzantine Christians for controlling Palestine, they denounce the Christian belief that God had a son and that Christians believe in the trinity.

    I'm not sure I understand your second paragraph. Are you saying that the conservative Christian supporters of the Republican party are going to stop supporting the party? They're not going to vote for the Democrats. I don't think that Ron Paul et al are going to take over the Republican party, despite his victory in the CPAC straw poll. He's not going to get nominated for president by the Republicans.

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    1. Michael Oren's stellar book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, provides a cogent, historical explanation for US support of Israel - the concept of Israel, if not the country's specifics - as deeply rooted in American identity and going back to the origins of European colonization of what became the US. His book shows that the support has very deep and broad roots; hence, it is likely to have strong staying power.

    2. Mr. Yglesias might ponder the possibility that, in human history - and even now and, in fact, especially now -, endless war is the norm. In classical Greece of Plato, Aristotle, etc., city states engaged in war every 2 out of every 3 years; the notion of peace treaties had not yet arisen so that wars ended with temporary truces. Nowadays, Hamas believes that the truce, not the peace treaty concept, has sacred blessing (likely because the Islamic view developed in a period in Arabia where war was a near everyday event).

    The point here being that the issue is not signing onto endless war promoted by Israel. Rather, it is the circumstances certain contribute substantially to Israeli behavior. After all, Israel does not control all or even most - although it does control some - of the keys to ending that war.

    I always urge people who see peace breaking out but for Israeli intransigence to read One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, a stellar book by historian Benny Morris. I also urge such people to read his book review in The New Republic of Andrew Bostom's fascinating book, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism. Bostom's book might be read as well although some of the criticism by Morris is apt. In any event, the review also provides reason for discouragement since many of the themes that have, time and again, arisen against Jews in Islamic lands have re-surfaced today and with a vengeance. I could not find the original TNR page online and note that Bostom's letter to editor resulted in Morris correcting an error or two in his review where he mistakenly thought Bostom had overlooked some historical events worth mentioning when, in fact, they were discussed in the book. I did find this from the review.

    This is not to tear down Islam or Arabs. It is to note that Yglesias' view is driven by an ahistorical view that the norm is peace and that, but for the intransigence of people on our side of the war, peace would re-emerge. I would pray for such a world but can anyone who has picked up any serious historical studies or even heard about the 20th Century - that age of great human progress - really be so naive?

    3. I think the above post by "Mohamed" overstates what is occurring. I agree with him that the dispute over Israel is really part of a war between the Islamic world and the post-Christian world. However, Israel plays a symbolic role in that dispute, something around which Muslims can unite. The main event, if we go by what Ahmadinejad has said (and by what former Malaysian PM Mahathir stated to the OIC), concerns who dominates the world.