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Israel is developing a public-relations problem with younger Americans

The new Pew survey on American Jews got me thinking about another American faith community, that of evangelical Protestants. People often compare that group with Orthodox Jews, and of course, there is a basis for that comparison.

Both groups are far more religiously and politically conservative than other Americans. A strong majority of evangelicals have long been staunch Republican voters, and as Pew now reports, Orthodox Jews have trended in that direction too, going from 57% Republican or Republican-leaning in 2013 to 75% this year.

Yet, in other ways, evangelical trends are beginning to resemble those of non-Orthodox American Jews. Both groups are steadily declining in population share and are graying. The percentage of Americans identifying as evangelical has shrunk from 25% to 15%, and the median age within that community has risen to 56.  And most significantly for their futures, both groups evince a widening gap between older and younger members on social and political issues, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Already in 2014, Pew’s Religious Landscape Study found that evangelical Protestants who are millennials (those born from 1981 to 1996) are much more likely than their older co-religionists to support recognition of same-gender coupling and to accept alternative lifestyles, although they remain considerably more traditional on these issues than their peers in general society. The same study also found that younger evangelicals show greater support for stricter environmental laws and bigger government and view immigration favorably.

A new survey commissioned by researchers at the University of North Carolina and conducted in March and April of this year makes strikingly clear how the widening of this age chasm is now affecting evangelical support for Israel. It asked young evangelicals for their political leanings and found they are more likely to consider themselves centrist (37%), rather than conservative (31%) or liberal (31%). When respondents were asked whom they support in the “Israeli-Palestinian dispute,” 33% chose Israel, 24% chose the Palestinians and 42% percent remained neutral. Contrast this with a 2018 survey in which 69% of young evangelicals sided with Israel.

What this survey seems to demonstrate is that, as with American Jews, support for Israel among evangelicals is less a function of religious affiliation than it is of age. As Professor Motti Inbari, one of the researchers who commissioned the survey, put it, it has “become evident that Israel is developing a public-relations problem with younger Americans. We see it with evangelicals as with American Jews and other groups. What still remains unclear is whether these attitudes will change as this age group grows older… or whether their attitudes will remain critical of Israel even as young evangelicals age.”

The results of this survey may also shed light on another one, conducted last fall by YouGov, on attitudes toward Jews across the political spectrum. It found that respondents on the right, both young and old, were far more likely than those on the left to believe long-standing stereotypes about Jews, such as that Jews have too much power or that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States. It also found that black respondents, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, were far more likely to believe antisemitic stereotypes than white respondents.


But younger conservatives were also more likely, in some cases twice more than older conservatives, to believe anti-Semitic stereotypes. There’s that age gap again, the same as the above-mentioned one in regard to evangelical support for Israel. Is there a connection between them? Trying to pinpoint the reasons for survey findings is, of course, always an imprecise art, but here’s one conjecture.

Let’s begin by asking why, in any event, conservative-leaning Americans would be more predisposed to such stereotypes about Jews. Nothing in conservative ideology per se would seem to warrant that. But it becomes understandable when we consider that the talk shows and websites they tune in to rail against the power by various liberal elites in Hollywood, Wall Street, and academia, with obviously Jewish names figuring prominently in such diatribes. When George Soros becomes shorthand for all that ails America, it ought not to surprise that those drinking it in would see Jews as having too much power.

For liberal-leaning non-Jewish Americans, in contrast, American Jews who are overwhelmingly liberal-minded, are compatriots rather than threats. If they hold prominent positions in the commanding heights of American culture and business, all the better.

As for the survey’s findings on whether non-Jewish Americans see their fellow Jewish citizens as being too loyal to Israel, it’s a bit more complicated. We’ve emerged from a strange period of several years during which the most influential voice in right-wing politics regularly called American Jews “greatly disloyal” — not to America, but to Israel — for their Democratic politics.

President Trump was able to achieve the feat of putting a positive spin on a classic canard because he was directing his words exclusively to the one constituency — evangelicals — for whom exhibiting loyalty to Israel is not an accusation but a point of pride. Indeed, their own religious end-of-days eschatology makes them the second-most Israel-loyal community in this country.

While this unconditional support exists as long as evangelicals hold the view that the Holy Land’s government and citizenry can do no wrong, for the younger generation of evangelicals, who are turning less conservative socially and politically and are increasingly willing to second-guess Israel’s policies, the issue of loyalty may begin to rear its head even in this sector. Millennial conservative evangelicals might turn out to be a generation “that did not know Yosef.”

It’s worth remembering that the entire phenomenon of the evangelical-Israel lovefest these past few decades is a historical anomaly. The more “expected” state of affairs for Jews is the one based on the immutable axiom of Eisav sonei l’Yaakov. Jews have been suspected as fifth columnists wherever they’ve lived for as long as they’ve been in galus, long before there was a State of Israel with which to implicate them in divided loyalty.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 863. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com


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