How we talk about Jews and the Iran deal

Discuss the Iran deal and Democratic senators who have been hedging for too long, or come out against the deal, and someone brings up Jews. I’m not talking about the irritating right-leaning Jewish publications that can usually be counted on to pretend like their hawkishness is representative of the community (though I’ve seen plenty of words from them too). I’m talking about mainstream media. For instance, this article about Sen. Ben Cardin’s opposition to the deal mentions that he is Jewish, apropos of nothing, in the second paragraph. This article, despite the URL, only mentions Republican opposition to the deal once (very briefly), but devotes quite a bit more text to how Sen. Corey Booker was facing “immense pressure from segments of the Jewish community in New Jersey” against the deal, and how Joe Biden spoke at a Jewish community center to convince South Floria Jewish leaders of the merits of the deal. This Wall Street Journal article stresses the pressure that Democrats in areas with large Jewish populations are facing from Jews to break with their party and oppose the deal. I’ve certainly seen enough random comments from people who figure Dems should be charitable in their assessment of dithering Democratic members of Congress who represent areas with large Jewish populations, because of their need for political cover.

One could be forgiven for thinking, based on some of this discourse, that we Jews – a a mere 2.2% of the US population – are the big threat to the deal.

There is, however, a glaring problem with that perception, which is that Jewish-Americans are more supportive of the deal than the public at large. As of the end of July, 49% of US Jews backed the deal (compared to 28% of the public) and 53% wanted Congress to allow the deal to go forward (compared to 41% of the public). Only 24% wanted Congress to block the deal, compared to 38% of the public. This poll suggests that Jews do tend to be more opinionated on the issue, as the share of Jews who were unsure or had no opinion was much lower than the share of the general public, but most of those opinionated Jews are opinionated in support of the deal.

When I brought these numbers up in a discussion the other day, one response that I got was when you’re talking about Democratic members of Congress in heavily Democratic areas, the relevant comparison isn’t all US Jews vs all of the US, it’s Jewish Democrats vs Democrats in general. The person making this point suggested that Jewish Democrats would be less supportive of the deal than other Democrats. But this argument doesn’t stand up to data either. According to that Jewish Journal-commissioned poll, 70% of Jewish Democrats supported the deal as of the end of July, with only 21% opposing. A Washington Post poll from roughly the same time found that 69% of Democrats supported the deal and 25% opposed. So Jewish Dems are similarly supportive of the deal, possibly a little more so, compared to other Dems.

Given these numbers, it’s hard for me to interpret all the focus on Jewish opposition to the deal as anything but anti-Semitic (or at least, misinformed by anti-Semitic cultural currents). Some of what I hear from deal supporters comes across to me as “Even liberal and leftist Jews aren’t trustworthy on foreign policy,” even though I’m quite confident that in most cases this message is unintentional. Some of what I hear from the mainstream media comes across as “Jews should be expected to have certain political positions – which happen to coincide with the Israeli government’s – regardless of what the data says about what US Jews actually think.” Yes, I realize that a lot of self-declared Jewish “leadership” – people at organizations like AIPAC and various Jewish federations – has been active in opposing the deal, and has tried to position their opposition as the True Jewish Position. And that is not helpful, and I expect it has played a role in giving people wrong impressions of what Jews think. But as Jim Fallows helpfully points out, the opposition to the deal is coming first and foremost from the Republican party (which doesn’t have a lot of Jews in it), including its members of Congress (there is only one Republican Jew in Congress), and a bunch of largely conservative Christian candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, in addition to the contributions of hawkish Jewish groups.

This would bother me less if it were a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Back in 2004, the leftist magazine Adbusters, which likes to take more credit than it really deserves for Occupy and pretend like it was nothing but an Adbusters campaign, ran an article entitled “Why Won’t Anyone Say They’re Jewish?” that called attention to the Jewishness of a bunch of neocons, listing them and putting little black dots next to the names of the Jewish ones. While Adbusters was hardly the only outlet to write about this, and took pains to make it clear that most Jewish-Americans are left-of-center (which honestly makes its article less bad than some out there – I am picking on them because I knew how to find the specific article) and that Jews are not monolithic in opinion, they’re still portraying Jews as uniquely responsible for the phenomenon and particular focus (i.e. Israel obsession) of US neoconservatism. And yet, if you look at this roundup, US Jews were more likely than the rest of the country to oppose the Iraq War over the years, were more likely across political ideology to oppose the war than others of the same ideology (Jewish Dems were more likely to oppose the war than non-Jewish Dems, and Jewish Republicans were more likely to oppose it than non-Jewish Republicans), and less likely to support US military action in general.

The idea that even if US Jews are mostly liberal and dovish, it’s a handful of hawkish conservative Jews that are driving US policy toward Israel, also seems rather dubious under scrutiny. As of 2006, 31% of US voters were Christian Zionists, defined as “a belief that Israel must have all of the promised land, including Jerusalem, to facilitate the second coming of the messiah,” meaning that there are many, many times more Christian Zionists in the US than there are Jews of any political ideology. These ultimately anti-Semitic (their beliefs require the deaths of Jews in order for Christianity to triumph) Christian Zionists have enormous and often-unacknowledged political clout in the US (including great clout within George W. Bush’s neocon-driven administration), and are responsible for a lot of shaping of US discourse and policy around Israel.

And yet, whether we’re talking about Iran, Iraq, or Israel, there’s so much focus on a handful of Jews, and not just by the sort of Jewish publications for which covering intra-Jewish debates for the Jewish community is part of their raison d’etre. The hawkish Jew stereotype persists across the political spectrum, and its cousin, the progressive-except-for-Middle-East-foreign-policy Jew, persists on the left. To be clear, plenty of Jews buy into these stereotypes as well – people internalize stereotypes about their own groups. I did, until I found more and more data complicating the picture, and I still have to kick myself from time to time when I realize I’m slipping back into it. Plus, to my annoyance, there are some hawkish Jews who find it useful to push their views as the consensus views of legitimate Jews (and then bring up the anti-Semitism of others propagating a stereotype that they themselves pushed). But people should still learn when their stereotypes are wrong and need to be unlearned, and people should think about the ways that these stereotypes tie in with classic anti-Semitic tropes accusing Jews of dual loyalty, untrustworthiness, and control of world events.

Next time you see someone attributing a senator’s reticence on Iran to the need to please Jews, consider the ways in which this narrative is oversimplified at best and pernicious at worst, and complicate it.

P.S. I know that there are people who oppose the Iran deal from the left – they don’t think a nuclear power like the US has any business trying to prevent other countries from gaining nuclear weapons, they see both the sanctions and the deal as imperialism. I’m not taking this segment of the population into account in this post because I suspect that it is too small to have an impact.

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