What does it mean to be "pro-Israel"?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 7 2008 1:23 PM

What Does It Mean To Be "Pro-Israel"?

The election, and the creation of a new dovish Jewish lobby group, brings the question to the fore.

The J Street logo
The J Street logo

William Daroff is vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office at United Jewish Communities, an organization representing America's Jewish federations. In other words, he's a lobbyist. Daroff is also one of the country's better-connected Jewish operatives. In recent months, he has been called upon to moderate dozens of panels aimed at Jewish activists and professionals, dealing with the hot topic of the day: the 2008 election and the Jewish community.

This election has reignited an old debate: Which party is better for Israel—the Republicans or the Democrats? Assuming that Jewish voters care about this question, the parties have to make their case if they want Jewish voters to support them.

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Jewish representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties are invited to most of the panels Daroff moderates. After a long string of forums, Daroff has noticed that the two parties' line of argument is markedly different.

The Democratic representative will often say: Both parties are good for Israel; it's a bipartisan issue; let's move on to discuss health care or the mortgage crisis.

The Republican will respond: Not so fast. Democrats are trying to avoid the issue because they recognize their weakness and know that Republican support for the Jewish state is much stronger than theirs.

It's a cyclical debate with no end and little meaning until you define what it means to be pro-Israel. Historically, Israel has relied on support from both sides of the aisle, and it would clearly be better off if that situation continues. But at the root of the Republican claim is a niggling kernel of truth: Democratic voters do not side with Israel at the same rate and with the same enthusiasm as Republican voters do. At least if you accept the definitions most pollsters use to define a pro-Israel position.

Take, for example, a recent Gallup poll about Americans' most- and least-favored nations. Israel, fairly popular with Americans, is "viewed more favorably by Republicans than by Democrats," the survey reports. Eighty-four percent of Republicans rank it favorably, compared with only 64 percent of Democrats. This is hardly a new phenomenon: Back in 2006, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that Republicans favored alignment with Israel over neutrality in the Israeli-Arab conflict 64 percent to 29 percent. By contrast, only 39 percent of Democrats supported alignment with Israel, while 54 percent favored neutrality.

But is favoring "neutrality" less pro-Israel than favoring alignment with Israel? Does sympathizing with the terrible fate of the Palestinians make someone less supportive of Israel?

This question isn't of concern to only the political parties. A new organization, J Street, presents a similar challenge to those trying to define the meaning of being a pro-Israel American. J Street is a dovish new Jewish-American lobby group—self-tagged "pro-Israel"—that will push the United States to become more involved in its declared "No. 1 priority," achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Many of the people active in this group don't just believe that the U.S. government should be more active, but also that "active" means pressuring the Israeli government toward compromises. "Like a scout forcefully helping an old lady across the street?" I asked one of its leaders. "Perhaps," he replied. "Before she's hit by a truck." In the eyes of J Street members, this desire to save Israel from itself is what makes the project "pro-Israel." If pressuring the Israeli government was not traditionally considered a "pro-Israel" position, they argue, it is mainly because those traditional definitions were skewed.

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