Why are we interested in American public opinion about the Middle East situation? There is, of course, the general objective of better understanding our society and the attitudes of its people, which -- as a social scientist -- I heartily endorse. But there are also practical implications, given the connection of the U.S. with the Middle East over the years -- an involvement which ultimately can reflect underlying views of the American people who elect and send policymakers to Washington.
The U.S. most recently has been part of the effort to bring about a cease-fire in the deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas, with Secretary of State Tony Blinken saying the U.S. will attempt to restore its relations with the Palestinians and provide monetary aid to help rebuild Gaza.
At the same time, as is well known, the U.S. has provided more foreign aid to Israel than any other country in the world -- $146 billion since World War II according to the Congressional Research Service, and, according to the BBC, $3.8 billion in 2020 alone.
This extraordinary level of financial aid to Israel has become controversial in the wake of the recent conflict. As one example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (who himself identifies as a secular Jew) was part of an effort to pause military funding for Israel until there was a chance for further congressional review, although he dropped the effort after learning that the funds had already been authorized.
Gallup has a long history of measuring American public opinion on the Middle East, and my colleague Lydia Saad recently reviewed the overall trends in these attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians in a comprehensive update. These data make clear that Americans continue to be very sympathetic to Israel and that views of the Middle East are significantly related to underlying political identity -- as evident from the partisan debate on the topic now occurring in Congress.
Americans' views of the Middle East situation are also related to their religious identity and their religiosity, reflecting the importance of Israel and other Middle Eastern nations in the history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
I've looked in particular at these religious relationships in research reviews published in 2014 and 2019. In this current assessment, I will update those analyses with a look at attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians among major religious groups in the U.S., using, for the most part, the long-term Gallup trend question "In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?"
Protestants -- adults in the U.S. who identify with a non-Catholic Christian faith -- constitute 45% of the population according to Gallup's 2020 estimate, making them the largest religious group in the U.S. (although declining as a percentage of the adult population). Protestants, along with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (widely known as the Mormon church) and Jewish Americans, have the highest level of sympathy toward Israel of any religious group we measure.
A four-year aggregate of data from Gallup's annual updates, 2018-2021, shows that 69% of Protestants are sympathetic to Israel, with 16% saying their sympathies are more with the Palestinians and the rest not choosing either alternative or saying they do not know. By comparison, 60% of all Americans are sympathetic to Israel, 22% to the Palestinians. These attitudes among Protestants have been relatively stable over time. The percentage sympathetic to Israel has remained at or around the 70% level since 2010, while prior to that, from 2006-2009, Protestant sympathy for Israel was lower by about eight percentage points.
We do not have a direct measure of self-identification as "evangelical" in Gallup's annual World Affairs surveys, but a measure of church attendance provides a useful way of deconstructing the large Protestant group into meaningful subsets. The 2018-2021 data show that 73% of Protestants who attend services weekly or almost every week are sympathetic to Israel, compared with 62% to 65% of those who seldom or never attend.
These are not huge differences -- but they clearly show a connection between Protestants' religiosity and sympathies toward Israel. This is not surprising. Research reported in a recent paper in the journal Politics and Religion helps explain the historical connection between highly religious Protestants (including those defined as evangelicals) and Israel. The paper notes that the most significant correlates of evangelical support for Israel were agreement that "The State of Israel is proof of the fulfillment of prophesy regarding the nearing of Jesus' Second Coming" and that "Jews are God's chosen people."
At the same time, as noted above, previous Gallup analyses (and the research conducted by others) have consistently underscored the relationship between political identity and views of the Middle East, with Republicans as a group significantly more tilted than Democrats toward Israel. More specifically, Gallup's 2021 review noted that Republicans favor Israel over the Palestinians by an 80% to 10% margin, while Democrats are much more evenly divided -- 43% sympathetic to Israel, 38% to Palestinians.
Thus, it comes as no surprise to find that partisan identity is a significant correlate of sympathy for Israel within the Protestant faith. Some 83% of Protestants (based on the 2008-2021 aggregate) who identify as Republicans or lean Republican say they are more sympathetic to Israel, compared with 49% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. These percentages are tilted modestly more toward Israel than the comparable non-Protestant groups: 75% of non-Protestant Republicans are sympathetic to Israel, as are 40% of non-Protestant Democrats. This reinforces the conclusion that both religious and political identity are related to views on the Middle East.
Latter-day Saints, or Mormons
Latter-day Saints represent less than 2% of all American adults, making assessment of their survey-measured attitudes dependent on large sample sizes or aggregates across surveys. The total aggregate of Gallup surveys since 2006 in which the Israeli-Palestinian sympathies question has been asked produces a sample of 306 church members, with 79% sympathetic to Israel compared with 12% sympathetic to the Palestinians. This makes Latter-day Saints the second-most Israeli-supportive religious group, behind Jews.
Catholics are the second-largest religious group in the U.S., and as is true for many indicators, Catholics are almost exactly at the national average in terms of their support for Israel over the Palestinians. In other words, despite sharing the same Judeo-Christian heritage as Protestants, Catholics -- taken as a whole -- exhibit no unusual or disproportionate level of sympathy for Israel.
As would be expected, Republican Catholics are significantly more sympathetic toward Israel than Democratic Catholics. There is not a clear-cut linear relationship between church attendance and sympathy for Israel among Catholics, although those who never attend Mass are less sympathetic to Israel than other Catholics.
Analyzing Jewish attitudes presents a challenge for the researcher because Jews represent only about 2% of the U.S. population, and therefore -- like Mormons and Muslims -- their numbers in an average survey are very limited. I looked at our Gallup data extending back to 2006 and divided the sample into two groups of eight years each -- 2006-2013 and 2014-2021. The data from both groups show that Jews in the U.S. have been in the past, and continue to be, overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel, as we would expect.
The interesting factor is that Jewish Americans skew significantly Democratic in political orientation, and Democrats are disproportionately more sympathetic to the Palestinians. But analysis shows that Jewish political identity appears to be only slightly related to their Middle Eastern sympathies: 94% of Republican Jews are sympathetic to Israel more than to the Palestinians, compared with a slightly lower 87% of Democratic Jews. This difference is modest, and these Gallup data provide support for the conclusion that Jewish sympathy for Israel is a fundamental fact of life largely resistant to the impact of party identity.
Pew Research, using mail and online surveys, recently published a significant new analysis of Jewish attitudes, based on a very large sample of 4,718 Americans who identified as Jewish -- either saying their religion was Jewish or indicating that they identified as Jewish despite being religiously secular. Interviews were conducted from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020.
The Pew survey did not include questions asking directly about the conflict in the Middle East nor a forced choice between sympathies between Israel and the Palestinians, as in the Gallup data. Pew did, however, find that 60% of Jews say they have a lot or some in common with Jews in Israel and that 58% of American Jews feel very or somewhat attached to Israel. Pew's large sample size allowed for the disaggregation of Jews into those who identified as Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and those who didn't identify with any of these three groups. The data show that Jews who identify as Orthodox are more likely to answer affirmatively to the two questions about Jews in Israel than those who identify as Conservative or Reformed, with those without a specific identity showing the lowest level of identification with Israeli Jews. These findings are analogous to Gallup's Protestant data -- the more religious, the higher the sympathy toward Israel.
Pew also found that Jewish Republicans were significantly more likely than Jewish Democrats to say they have things in common with Jews in Israel and to say they feel attached to Israel. These differences are larger than the partisan differences detailed above from Gallup's forced-choice, "sympathies" question.
Like Jews and Latter-day Saints, Americans who identify as Muslim constitute a very small percentage of the U.S. population. An aggregation of Muslim respondents in Gallup's World Affairs poll over the past 16 years yields less than 100 interviews, too small to use as the basis for precise estimates of underlying Muslim population attitudes. The results from this small sample do reflect about a 10 to 1 ratio of sympathy for the Palestinians over the Israelis, suggesting that even with very large margins of error taken into account, Muslims in the U.S. exhibit the expected strong support for the Palestinians.
The group of Americans who do not identify with any formal religion -- the "nones" -- are the least supportive of Israel of any religious identity group except for Muslims -- with 42% of nones sympathetic to Israel, 36% sympathetic to Palestinians. Nones are strongly Democratic in political orientation, with 62% identifying with or leaning toward the Democratic party, so the nones' lack of sympathy for Israel is certainly to some degree a function of their disproportionate Democratic identity.
But there is more to it than politics. Among nones who identify with or lean toward the Democratic party, 33% are supportive of Israel, and 46% are supportive of the Palestinians, a significantly more Palestinian tilt than we find among all Democrats (44% sympathetic to Israel, 35% to the Palestinians). This allows us to conclude that the lack of a religious "tug" toward Israel among nones pushes them more in the direction of the Palestinians than would be the case if their attitudes simply reflected their underlying political identities.
The basic conclusion from these data is the reinforcement of the well-established conclusion that Americans' religious identity is significantly correlated with their attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians. Jews, Latter-day Saints and Protestants are above average in sympathies for Israel, while Muslims and nones are below average -- with Catholics' attitudes just about at the national average.
We also know that Protestants, Catholics and Jews with low levels of religious participation tend to be somewhat less supportive of Israel, although these differences are not necessarily huge.
Finally, we find that the strong relationship between Americans' partisanship and views of the Middle East manifests itself to some degree within these religious groups. Republican Protestants, Catholics and nones are all more sympathetic than their co-religionists who identify as Democrats, while Pew Research shows differences in attachment to Jews in Israel between Jewish Americans who identify as Republicans and those who identify as Democrats.
|*Jewish data are from years 2006-2021|
But from a broad perspective, as seen in the accompanying table, it must be kept in mind that a good deal of the differences among religious groups in views on the Middle East reflect the confounding effect of the underlying correlation between political identity and religious identity in America today. Efforts to establish which comes first -- politics or religion, and which is the most important in determining policy attitudes -- are complex indeed, much like the effort to disentangle the effect of genetics and environment on personality and IQ. At this point, it is probably safest to say that both politics and religion have an impact on American's attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians.