Debate over U.S. Jewish stance on Mideast intensifies after poll

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The debate over just where American Jews stand when it comes to the Middle East peace process heated up this week with the release of a survey whose respondents were sharply critical of the current Israeli government.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of local community relations councils and national agencies, joined the battle at its annual plenum here this week, issuing its first-ever study of affiliated Jews. San Francisco Bay Area Jewish leaders instru- mental in organizing the survey included Earl Raab, emeritus executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, and Rabbi Doug Kahn, current executive director.

According to preliminary results and analysis released by JCPA — the full survey is not yet available — the survey reaffirms long-held positions in the organized Jewish community, ranging from opposition to school vouchers to general support for Israel.

The sample of 6,800 affiliated Jews in 14 communities across the country comes amid a continuing battle between liberal and conservative Jewish institutions that have conducted extensive polling of American Jews in recent months in an effort to influence the Clinton administration's policies on the Middle East peace process.

Unlike other Jewish opinion polls, the latest survey isn't a scientific sampling, said JCPA officials.

The questionnaires were sent by mail to randomly selected grass-roots federation donors and/or Jewish newspaper subscribers.

In a separate survey, the same questions were put to a sample of board members of local community relations councils in an effort to determine whether they are in step with the grass roots on whose behalf they claim to speak.

The survey was a "reality check," intended as a tool for local and national Jewish officials, according to Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of JCPA, formerly known as National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

In most cases, the organizational leaders agreed with the community at large.

"Our fingers are, in fact, on the pulse of the community," Rubin said.

In one break, however, the survey showed strong support among grass-roots Jews for the 1996 welfare reform law, which significantly reduced access to food stamps, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income for poor people as well as legal immigrants. That law was strongly opposed by most JCPA member agencies.

Opinion polls always generate some controversy, with many believing that the way a survey is carried out or the way the questions are phrased can predetermine the outcome.

But the debate intensified in the Jewish community after the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum presented its poll directly to President Clinton at a White House dinner last year.

Using Clinton's own pollster, Penn and Schoen, that survey found that 84 percent of American Jews believe the administration should pressure both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to act more constructively and be more forthcoming in peace negotiations.

Those results prompted the more hawkish Middle East Quarterly to commission its own poll.

In its poll, the Middle East Quarterly found that only 24 percent of American Jews said Clinton should pressure Netanyahu to move faster on trading land for peace.

While the JCPA survey appears to break the tie on Middle East issues, with 70 percent of the grass-roots respondents supporting pressure on both Netanyahu and Arafat, it is likely to do little to silence the debate.

Among the other findings related to Israel:

The grass-roots respondents split 52 to 47 percent over whether American Jews should "support the policies of the duly elected government of Israel" regardless of their individual views on the peace negotiations.

The respondents also criticized Netanyahu's treatment of Palestinians, with 60 percent saying that he has unnecessarily provoked the Palestinians. Among CRC leaders, the criticism jumped to 68 percent.

On the question of Jewish settlements, 62 percent of the grass roots and 64 percent of leaders agreed with the statement that "Israel should freeze further settlements" on the West Bank.

On a Palestinian state, 79 percent among both the grass roots and the leadership said the Palestinians have a right to an independent state that doesn't threaten Israel. At the same time, 56 percent of those who said the Palestinians had that right said such a state would threaten Israel.

On matters relating to religious pluralism, 80 percent of the grass roots said men and women should be allowed to pray together in the vicinity of the Western Wall and 89 percent said Israel should recognize conversions performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Among the Orthodox surveyed, 24 percent said men and women should be allowed to pray together and 26 percent said Reform and Conservative conversions should be recognized.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed were Orthodox.

On U.S. domestic issues, the survey found:

Sixty-one percent of grass-roots Jews said the welfare reform law is a "good thing," compared with 49 percent of CRC leaders.

On the voucher issue, the grass-roots individuals opposed school vouchers by a margin of 3 to 1; the leadership surveyed opposed vouchers 5 to 1.

JCPA plans to use the survey to bolster its opposition to vouchers as the national debate over giving tuition or tax credits to parochial students intensifies.

Among those grass-roots respondents who send their children to Jewish day schools — 14 percent of the people surveyed — 54 percent favor vouchers.

Among the Orthodox Jews surveyed, 74 percent approve of vouchers.

On the issue of affirmative action, the sample showed some disagreement between organizational leaders and grass-roots activists.

While both groups strongly oppose the use of quotas in hiring and college admissions, 47 percent of the grass-roots respondents — compared with 68 percent of leaders — approve of gender, race or ethnicity as one criterion in selecting qualified individuals.

JCPA was scheduled to launch a yearlong review of the issue during its conference here.

The federation communities that participated in the survey were: Atlanta; Bergen County, N.J.; Cleveland; Columbus; Dallas; Detroit; East Bay, Calif.; Houston; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; Philadelphia; San Francisco and Seattle.

New York, the largest Jewish population center in the United States, elected not to participate.

Lawrence Sternberg, director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy at Brandeis University, ran the survey.

A breakdown of individual community results found in the survey will not be available for several weeks, Sternberg said.