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Americans' Views of Israel Remain Tied to Religious Beliefs
Polling Matters

Americans' Views of Israel Remain Tied to Religious Beliefs

Americans' Views of Israel Remain Tied to Religious Beliefs

The historically strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel has come under renewed scrutiny recently, based partly on the controversial comments of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who suggested that U.S. supporters of Israel could have "allegiance to a foreign country." Reacting in the aftermath of those comments, the House of Representatives passed a broadly worded resolution on March 7 condemning bigotry, including anti-Semitism.

Rep. Omar is a Democrat, and recent Gallup analysis shows that Democrats are in fact less sympathetic toward Israel than Republicans, although support for Israel among Democrats still outweighs support for the Palestinians.

There are a number of reasons for Democrats' lower level of sympathy toward Israel, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strong connection with Republican leaders in the U.S. in recent years, and President Donald Trump's strong defense of Israel. But one underpinning of the partisan differences in views of Israel is religion.

I reviewed Gallup data on this issue five years ago, in a story with the headline: "Religion Plays Large Role in Americans' Support for Israelis." I've updated that analysis for 2019 and find little substantive change in the relationship between religiosity and support for Israel. Highly religious Americans continue to be much more sympathetic toward Israel than those who are less religious. The data are based on responses to the question, "In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?"

The 2014 analysis used an aggregate of 2001-2014 Gallup data, which showed that 66% of those who attended religious services weekly or almost weekly said their sympathies were with Israel rather than the Palestinians. That compared with 46% who were sympathetic to Israel among those who never attended services. (Support for Israel outweighed support for the Palestinians in each group, given significant numbers of respondents who said they had no opinion or who volunteered that they were sympathetic to both or neither.)

The basic impact of religiosity on these attitudes remains intact. In the current analysis of data from 2015-2019, 71% of those who frequently attend religious services are sympathetic to Israel, compared with 49% of those who never attend. The relationship is therefore essentially the same as it was between 2001 and 2014.

Republicans thus remain more positive than Democrats about Israel in part because they are more religious, given that religious people are themselves the most positive about Israel.

But religiosity is by no means the full explanation. Although religion is related to views of Israel among both political groups, even the least religious Republicans are significantly more positive about Israel than the most religious Democrats. The impact of religiosity is swamped by the power of partisanship.

Looked at differently, if we take the group of Americans who attend religious services very frequently and separate them by politics, we find a yawning chasm: 85% of these highly religious Republicans are more sympathetic to Israel, compared with 55% of highly religious Democrats. Clearly, Americans' political identity is a dominant correlate of their attitudes toward Israel.

These relationships are quite similar to what we found in the analysis of the 2001-2014 data. Both partisanship and religiosity affect sympathy for Israel, but political identity is the more important of these two variables.

Jews and Protestants Remain Very Sympathetic to Israel

Jewish Americans are more than three times as likely to identify as Democrats as Republicans, and, as noted previously, Democrats are much less sympathetic than Republicans are to Israel. But Jews' views of Israel provide an exception to the typical Democratic pattern. The overwhelming majority of Jews were more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians in 2001-2014, and I see no signs that this relationship has changed in a meaningful way in recent years.

We need to be cautious in drawing conclusions about Jewish attitudes, because Jews make up only about 2% of the overall American population and are thus a small proportion of standard national adult samples. Using the 2015-2019 aggregate, which combines five surveys, we end up with only 128 Jewish respondents.

Even taking into account the large margin of error around this small sample, I think it's safe to conclude that the basic attitudes of Jews toward Israel have remained roughly the same. The 86% of Jews who are sympathetic to Israel in the 2015-2019 sample is not meaningfully different from the 93% we found in the 2001-2014 sample. (The change from 93% to 86% is suggestive of a slight drop, marginally significant, but not of analytical significance. The proportion of Jews who are sympathetic to the Palestinians was 2% in the earlier sample and is 7% in the more recent sample.)

Protestants, like Jews, also have above-average sympathy for Israel, with 70% saying they are sympathetic to Israel and 13% to the Palestinians. Catholics' sympathy for Israel -- 60% -- is at about the sample average, while those with no religious identity are significantly below average in sympathy to Israel, at 43%.

As was the case for American Jews, there has been little change in these attitudes among Protestants, Catholics and those with no religious identity since the 2001-2014 analysis.

We don't have a direct measure of "evangelicals" in our sample, but we can obtain an approximation of this group by isolating white, highly religious Protestants. The results show that 87% of this group are sympathetic to the Israelis -- essentially the same as Jews, meaning that on this one issue, there is a remarkable similarity between the views of Jews and evangelical Protestants. Trump's decision last year to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem may have been partly influenced by the support it would receive from the evangelical component of his political base.

Blacks' Sympathy for Israel at About the Democratic Average

Black Americans are overwhelmingly Protestant and highly religious, both characteristics -- as we have seen -- that are associated with higher-than-average sympathy for Israel. But black Americans are also highly likely to be Democrats, who are well below average in their support for Israel.

The results of these cross-pressures? Party identification seems to be the most important factor in determining blacks' attitudes toward Israel. Less than half of blacks -- 48% -- are sympathetic to Israel, and 27% are sympathetic to the Palestinians. That is similar to the overall 43% sympathy rating for Israel among all Democrats, and sharply lower than the 68% sympathy among non-Hispanic whites.

Partisan Identity Appears to Trump Religion When It Comes to Israel

The analysis of Americans' views of Israel is significant, given the importance of Israel to the U.S. Middle East strategy (with $38 billion in U.S. military aid going to Israel over the past 10 years) and the importance of Israel to many Christian and Jewish Americans, for whom the country is a part of their religious heritage.

While religiosity and partisanship do play a part in how Americans view each side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is important to note that support for Israel is greater than for the Palestinians in every political and religious group we analyze. And other results show Americans view Israel as a nation much more favorably than unfavorably, by more than a 2-to-1 ratio.

But the relative differences in these support levels across religious and political groups are large enough to help explain why disagreements on the level and type of U.S. support for Israel can remain contentious in contemporary discourse.

Some commentators have recently suggested that there is significant change going on in terms of some groups of Americans' views of Israel. Trump, for example, picked up on a broadcast report and tweeted that "Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party." Although we don't yet have sufficient data compiled in 2019 to examine recent trends, the stability of Jewish support for the Democratic Party over the past decade suggests that such a shift in allegiance is unlikely.

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup senior scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport
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