American Jewish opinion no longer straightforward

NEW YORK — Where do American Jews stand on the peace process? It depends on whom you ask.

In the past, American Jews stood collectively behind the Israeli government on most major issues, but the historic handshake on the White House lawn two years ago has changed all that.

Now American Jewish opinion is a topic for heated debate. As one U.S. political observer remarked, "Everyone wants to pander to the Jews, but they don't know what the Jews want."

Of course, that sometimes means that public figures can take almost any position on the peace process and say with assurance: "This is what American Jews want."

And those who have the money to run advertisements in The New York Times — a popular method for voicing Jewish communal opinion — may not necessarily have the political backers to support their claims.

Take, for example, an ad that appeared in Sunday's Times. Sponsored by an ad hoc group of American Jewish organizations, the statement began like this:

"Mr. Prime Minister," it said, "As you continue the arduous journey to peace, know that American Jewry stands with the Government of Israel."

That being said, the rest of the story is more complicated.

After agreeing with a general statement about the peace process, it is not clear where the majority of Jews stand. And that makes these tough times for the politicians who appeal to U.S. Jews, and for the organizations that say they speak in their name.

American Jews support the peace process, but apparently not the details, according to an American Jewish Committee poll released last week in New York.

While 68 percent of respondents said they support the peace initiative — down from 84 percent in September 1993 — there is a growing distrust among American Jews of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And there is limited support for territorial concessions in the West Bank, while a majority oppose any significant return of the Golan Heights.

In its New York Times ad, the ad hoc group tells Yitzhak Rabin that it supports the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which is legislation authorizing financial aid to the Palestinians.

But, the poll said, 63 percent of American Jews said the U.S. should not give the Palestinians aid.

More ambivalence surfaced last June, when the organized American Jewish community was debating legislation to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations agreed on qualified support for the legislation.

But the Israeli government didn't want it, nor does President Bill Clinton. And, according to last week's poll, apparently neither do 80 percent of American Jews.

"Maybe they don't know where the embassy is to begin with," one pollster suggested. "Do you think they know that Jerusalem is the capital?"

Such snide questions may be appropriate. One result of the recent poll was a glimpse of what U.S. Jews don't know about Israel.

The years 1948 and 1967 apparently don't ring bells for many American Jews, and the majority don't know that Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu are in opposite camps.

"You don't have to pass an IQ test to have an opinion," said David Singer, director of research for the American Jewish Committee. "These opinions count in the real political world."

In fact, 63 percent of those surveyed in the poll said candidates' positions on Israel are an important consideration when they vote in presidential elections.

Can public figures appeal to Jews, who may support the peace process but oppose many initiatives intended to carry it out?

American communal and political leaders cannot even rely on that venerable appeal to the Jewish heart: "Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital."

When asked if Israel should compromise on Jerusalem, 33 percent of American Jews said yes.