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The Jewish Community and the Iran Deal

Jewish support in Congress for the Iran nuclear deal shows once again that that there is no Jewish monolith that automatically supports Israeli government policies come what may.

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The articles I cited in yesterday’s post about Sheldon Adelson and the GOP cover the issue of the Jewish community and the Iran deal better than I can. But a couple of points are worth emphasizing.

First, of the 28 Jewish members of Congress, 19 effectively voted in favor of the JCPOA, while nine opposed, including the one Jewish Republican (Lee Zeldin) in the House. Of the Democratic opponents, seven Jewish senators supported the deal. Only two Jewish senators—Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardin—opposed it. In the House, 11 Democratic members voted to approve it; nine were opposed.

This is important for no other reason than to clarify once and for all that there is no Jewish monolith that automatically supports Israeli government policies come what may. And although Democratic support among Jewish members of Congress for the JCPOA may be partially explained by party loyalty and not wishing to undermine a Democratic president, it appears from their various statements that this was not an easy decision.

Moreover, polls of Jewish opinion about the deal also showed serious divisions within the Jewish community. One survey, sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and conducted by Social Science Research Solutions in mid-July, interviewed 501 Jews across the country. It asked respondents for their views on “an agreement reached in which the United States and other countries would lift major economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.” Almost half (49%) of Jewish respondents said they supported such a deal, while 31% opposed. That was a substantially higher approval rate than when the same question was asked to a representative sample of the national population (28% support, 24% oppose; 48% “don’t know enough to say”). Asked whether Congress should vote to approve or oppose the deal, 53% of Jews opted for approval against 35% for opposition.

A second poll of 1,030 U.S. Jews, released Friday, was conducted from Aug 7 to 22 as part of the latest annual survey of Jewish public opinion undertaken by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Its question about the JCPOA was much less detailed: “Recently, the U.S. along with five other countries, reached a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Do you approve or disapprove of this agreement?” It’s relevant to note that the AJC officially opposed approval of the JCPOA.

The result: a slight majority (50.6%) approved (16.4% percent “strongly,” 34.2% “somewhat”). Just over 47% said they opposed the agreement. When asked a similar question—“Do you support or oppose the nuclear deal with Iran?”—in a national Quinnipiac University poll conducted August 20-25, respondents were far less supportive: 25% said they support the “nuclear deal” and 55% opposed it. Anti-deal organizations such as CFNI and The Israel Project aggressively touted this result.

Yet another survey of the general public conducted August 17-20 by the University of Maryland found that the more information respondents were given about the deal and its pros and cons, the more likely they were to support it. After assessing detailed arguments for and against the JCPOA, as well as alternatives proposed by critics of the deal, a 55% percent majority concluded that Congress should approve it, while 44% said it should be rejected. Indeed, polls that described the deal in terms of a trade-off in which sanctions against Iran would be eased in exchange for limiting its nuclear program have consistently shown much more support for congressional approval than those surveys such as AJC’s and Quinnipiac’s that failed to describe the details of the agreement.

The AJC survey deserves attention for other reasons relating to Iran. Respondents were asked to choose three out of 10 issues that they considered were likely to be most important in determining how they would vote in the 2016 presidential election. Only 3.8% chose “Iran’s nuclear program” as their top priority, while a little over six percent of respondents cited it as their second and third choices. The economy, health care, immigration, income equality, national security, Supreme Court appointments, and U.S.-Israel relations were all given higher priority.

Asked to identify “the biggest threat to the United States today” from a list that included China, Iran, ISIS, North Korea, Russia, and none of the above, Iran, at 9.5%, ranked behind ISIS (51%), China (12.8%), and Russia (10.1%).

For a longer, rather tendentious analysis (note the lead paragraph) of how AJC’s respondents reacted to the Iran deal itself, the following is taken from the organization’s press release about the survey:

U.S. Jews offer conflicting, and seemingly contradictory, views on the agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran on July 14. A clear majority of American Jews lack confidence in the deal. Only 5 percent are “very confident,” 31 percent “somewhat confident,” 30 percent “not so confident,” and 33 percent “not confident at all” that the deal will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

While 51 percent of total respondents approve of the deal and 47 percent disapprove, there is a significant split within the community on the issue: those who consider being Jewish very important, those who view caring about Israel as a key part of their Jewish identity, and those belonging to the traditional denominations of Judaism are far more likely to oppose the deal than others. It may, in fact, be appropriate, in light of the data, to speak of two diverging Jewish sub-communities.

Among those who consider their being Jewish “very” important, 61 percent disapprove of the agreement (37 percent “strongly”), while 38 percent approve it (12 percent “strongly”). In contrast, 55 percent of those for whom being Jewish is “fairly” important approve the deal (15 percent “strongly”), as do 59 percent of those for whom being Jewish is not important (22 percent “strongly”).

Similarly, a majority—54 percent—of those for whom caring about Israel is an important component of their Jewish identity disapprove of the deal, 19 percent “strongly,” while 66 percent of those for whom caring about Israel is not an important component agree with the deal, 27 percent “strongly.”

Fully 67 percent of Orthodox and Conservative Jews disapprove of the agreement, 45 percent “strongly.” Yet 54 percent of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews approve of it (19 percent “strongly”), as do 69 percent of those who identify as “just Jewish” (24 percent “strongly”).

The survey also found a fairly widespread lack of confidence in the ability of the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body tasked with overseeing implementation of the Iran agreement, to monitor Tehran’s compliance. Only 6 percent are “very confident,” while 38 percent are “somewhat confident,” 28 percent “not so confident,” and 26 percent “not at all confident.”

The survey data suggest that the best predictor, of all the variables, for attitudes towards the agreement is political party affiliation. Jewish self-described Democrats, who comprised 49 percent of those surveyed, are far more likely to support it, and Republicans, who comprised 19 percent of those surveyed, are far more likely to oppose it. According to the survey, 66 percent of Democrats approve of the agreement (22 percent “approve strongly” and 44 percent “approve somewhat”), while 87 percent of Republicans disapprove of the agreement (20 percent “disapprove somewhat” and 67 percent “disapprove strongly”).

Attitudes towards the deal also vary by age. Among respondents 18- to 29-years-old, 58 percent approve, and 38 percent disapprove of the deal. For the 30- to 44-years-old cohort, 53 percent approve, and 44 percent disapprove of the agreement. For those 45- to 50-years-old, 48 percent approve, and 49 percent disapprove. And among the 60-and-over group, 48 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove.

Younger Jews are more confident that the deal will block Iran from getting nuclear weapons: 45 percent of those aged 18 to 29; 41 percent of those aged 30 to 44; 30 percent of those aged 45 to 59; and 33 percent of those 60 and over are confident that the agreement will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The survey revealed that a minority of American Jews, 18 percent, believe Israel’s security will be “less threatened” by the deal, while 43 percent assert that it will be “more threatened,” and 38 percent say it will “stay the same.”

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