Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Working Through Two New Polls on Antisemitism and BDS

Two very interesting surveys have just dropped on the subject of BDS and antisemitism in America.

The first is the AJC's survey of American Jews on the subject of antisemitism in America.

The second, a "Critical Issues" poll out of the University of Maryland, surveys all Americans on various Middle East policy related questions, including BDS.

Both have some intriguing findings that are worth discussing.

Start with the AJC poll. There's a lot of great stuff to unpack in here on how American Jews assess the lay of the antisemitic land. For one, it finally gives me some data on what American Jews think about BDS. Unlike Americans writ large, who've barely heard of BDS (we'll get into that more in the other poll), Jews have definitely heard about the BDS movement (76% are at least a little familiar with it, and 62% of "somewhat" or "very" familiar). There isn't a direct "do you support BDS" question, but they do ask about BDS and antisemitism. 35% say BDS is "mostly" antisemitic, 47% say it has "some antisemitic supporters", and 14% say it is simply "not antisemitic".

Of course, that middle response is vague -- it could mean anything from "BDS is not inherently antisemitic, but it's got a significant antisemitism problem" to "BDS is mostly fine, but sure, obviously it has some antisemitic supporters." Nonetheless, paired with some of the other responses -- such as the 84%(!) who view the statement "Israel has no right to exist" as antisemitic -- I think it is fair to infer that the majority of American Jews are, to say the least, not BDS fans.

In terms of broad assessments on antisemitism in America, things don't look great: 88% of Jews say it is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem and 84% say it has increased in severity over the past five years. The silver lining is that most Jews have not been victimized by either physical or verbal antisemitic attack and most Jews are not avoiding Jewish spaces or advertising their Jewish status out of fear of antisemitic attacks.

But perhaps the more interesting data comes in terms of where American Jews think antisemitism is coming from, and who is mostly responsible for it. It's no surprise that most Jews are Democrats, most Jews lean liberal, and most Jews have an unfavorable view of Donald Trump (by a 22/76 margin -- whoof!). It might be a little more surprising -- at least given how the issue has been covered by both the Jewish and non-Jewish press -- how Jews assess the threat of antisemitism and the response to it on an ideological level.

Jews strongly disapprove of how Donald Trump is handling the threat of antisemitism in the United States -- literally, 62% "strongly disapprove", the overall approve/disapprove spread is 24/73. In terms of where the threat of antisemitism is strongest in America, the answer is "the extreme right" -- 49% of respondents say it is a "very serious" threat, compared to 15% for "the extreme left" and 27% for "extremism in the name of Islam". Add in the "moderately serious" threat respondents and the extreme right gets 78%, the extreme left 36%, and Islamic extremism 54%.

But that's dealing with "extremists". What about mainstream political parties? Here we see something that I think should blow some doors off. Asked to assess the Democratic and Republican parties' responsibility for contemporary antisemitism on a 1 - 10 scale (where 1 is "no responsibility" and 10 is "total" responsibility), Democrats saw 75% of respondents give them a grade of 5 or below (i.e., the bottom half of the scale), versus 22% at 6 or higher (the modal response was a "1" -- no responsibility -- the second most common response was a "2"). For Republicans, by contrast, just 38% of respondents gave them a 5 or below score, while 61% scored them above a 6. Their modal response was an "8", the second most common response a "10".

The way it's been covered in the press, one would think that Jews are fearful of left antisemitism and furious at the Democratic Party for not tamping down on it. In reality, the consensus position in the Jewish community is that the most dangerous antisemitism remains far-right antisemitism, and that in terms of political responsibility the Republican Party is a far more dangerous actor than the Democratic Party is. That consensus has the added advantage of reflecting reality -- it's obviously true that right-wing antisemitism (the sort that gets Jews killed) in America is more dangerous than other varieties, and it's obviously true that the GOP has been nothing short of abysmal in policing itself and reining in its antisemitic conspiracy mongers (thinking instead that its Israel policies entitle it to a nice fat "get-out-of-antisemitism-free" card).

Now the question is whether Jewish institutions and the Jewish media (or -- dare to dream -- the mainstream media) will follow the lead on this, and start reallocating attention and emphasis accordingly.

Now let's move to the Critical Issues poll. It covers a bunch of ground on Mid-East policy, but it is in particular one of the first I've seen to try and gauge American attitudes towards BDS, so let's focus on that.

Perhaps the most striking finding is being slightly misreported -- the Jerusalem Post says it found that 48% of Democrats support BDS. But that's not right -- the true number is probably around half that.

The survey first asked how much people had heard about BDS -- and for a majority of respondents (including 55% of Democrats), the answer was "nothing". They hadn't heard of BDS at all. The next-most common response was "a little" (29%), while "a good amount" and "a great deal" combined for just 20%. Only those who had heard at least "a little" about BDS were then asked whether they supported it or not. Overall, 26% of respondents supported it ("strongly" or "somewhat"), while 47% opposed it, and 26% were neutral. For Democrats, that split was 48% support (14% "strongly", 34% "somewhat"), 37% neutral, and 15% opposed. So that's where the 48% figure comes from -- but again, it excludes the majority of Democrats who've never heard about BDS at all. Add them in (and assume they'll be at "neither support nor oppose"), and the percentage of Democrats supporting BDS probably falls into the mid-20s.

Now obviously, that's itself noteworthy. But it's hard to know what to make of it, especially given that most of those who have heard about BDS still have only heard "a little" about it. That in itself is worth pointing out -- for all the indigestion this issue is causing the Jewish community, it's barely made an imprint on the polity writ large: 80% of all Americans have heard little or nothing about it. It's hardly some sort of generational wave that's caught the attention of the nation.

Still, it would have been interesting to know if those who had heard more were more or less likely to support the campaign -- my guess is actually it would yield greater polarization (those who've heard a lot about BDS would be more likely to either strongly support or strongly oppose it). But -- probably because the number of respondents who've heard more than "a little" about BDS is so small -- we don't have data at that level of granularity.

In any event: What does seem to be the case is that there is a sizable -- though still minority -- chunk of Democratic voters who (a) haven't heard that much about BDS and (b) say they support it "somewhat" (recall the "somewhats" vastly outstripped the "stronglys"). My suspicion is that this represents a set of voters who (a) are pretty pissed off at Israel and Netanyahu right now, and don't feel particularly inclined to think it is pursuing an end to the occupation in good faith, and (b) view BDS vaguely as a means of exerting pressure on Israel to change course, or if not that, at least signal that they don't endorse its current tack. In practice this probably means only supporting more "moderate" forms of BDS (if you even want to call it that) -- sanctions against settlements yes, full-fledged academic boycotts no -- and as I've written before that is actually a predictable consequence of BDS going "mainstream": it will lose some of its harder edges (much to the consternation of its founding, more radical core).

Basically, these are people who are looking for ways to signal "what Israel is doing is not okay", and while I strongly doubt they are ride-or-die on BDS, absent other avenues for expressing that sentiment they'll at least be open to some form of "BDS" -- albeit probably not the more radical iterations of it that, say, characterize the PACBI guidelines. The challenge for pro-Israel Democrats isn't, I think, that the 2020 Democratic electorate is going to demand that the US treat Israel as a pariah state. The challenge is that these voters are looking for ways to vent their frustration at Israel, and are going to want their candidates to speak in terms of sticks as well as carrots with respect to how Israel is engaged with. We're already seeing a bit of that -- and it's frankly a healthy move.

The survey asks a few more message-based questions about BDS (again, only to those who've heard at least a "little" about it), leading questions of the "is it antisemitism or is it legitimate" variety. I'm very much not a fan of the wording of those questions, and don't think they tell us much other than effective messaging frames to make people more positively disposed towards BDS (including that "Opposing Israeli policy does not equal anti-Semitism" is the salt of Israel discourse -- there's no recipe that isn't tastier with at least a sprinkle of it, so why not just toss it on everything?).

The final question the survey asks on this topic returns back to all respondents (not just those who've heard of BDS) and asks about "laws that penalize people who boycott Israel". One can quibble again about the verbiage here (the laws in question impose no criminal penalties, they just bar government contractors from also boycotting Israel -- but then, wouldn't many naturally view that as "penalty", albeit a non-criminal one?), but the numbers are nonetheless striking: 72% of respondents (including 62% of Republicans) oppose such laws. So that's probably something worth keeping in mind (again, might I recommend replacing those laws with general prohibitions on nationality-based discrimination? I bet that would poll much better).


LWE said...

Due to both advocates and opponents of BDS (who both encouraged it for their own reasons) there’s some ambiguity over what exactly does it constitute - e.g., it appears that some people view a settlement boycott as part of BDS, while some consider it to be too limited to be considered BDS. This can confuse people who heard of it “only a little”.

LWE said...

It does seem, however, that calls for total boycott are becoming more popular as a whole - there had been sporadic calls for a total boycott of China on the Internet, and a petition for a total boycott of Turkey over Operation Peace Spring. Predictably, all this had even less success than BDS is far.

LewLorton said...

NOT for publication please.
There are two typos - you use mode as an adjective when I've only ever seen the word used as an adjective in the form modal.