The other day, I came across a study conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland that surveyed the various attitudes and characteristics of the local Jewish community (full study here; executive summary here). I initially read it because I was naturally curious about the Jewish attributes of my new hometown.
But inside the study, I found the kernel of something very interesting, because the Portland JFed actually asked some questions about Jews' affiliation with "Zionism". This, I can tell you, is actually quite rare -- most surveys of Jews do not expressly ask about "Zionism". Instead, most discourse about Jewish attitudes towards Zionism takes more general questions (like "do you support Israel's right to exist") and then uses that to draw inferences about Zionism. A study which expressly asks its respondents "do you identify as a Zionist" is extremely rare. So while admittedly a survey of Portland Jews, specifically, only tells us so much (more on that in a second), it is a droplet of liquid in a parched data desert -- and I do think the findings are worthy of remark. Specifically:
Twenty-six percent of Jewish adults in Greater Portland self-identify as Zionists. Fifty-two percent do not identify as Zionists, and the remaining 22% either are not sure how they identify or prefer not to say.
That is a striking topline finding. Now, it can and should be complicated quite a bit, and I'll talk through that in a moment. But just on its own -- yeah, that's a potentially startling finding.
Before I go further, though, we should take stock of the limits. Obviously, Portland Jews are not necessarily a microcosm of American Jews. That said, the Portland Jewish population is approximately 56,000 individuals, against a metro population of approximately 2.51 million. That translates to the Portland area being a little over 2% Jewish, which is in line with the national average and what I'd expect to see from a mid-sized urban area that isn't especially known as a Jewish center. In short, we're not New York, Los Angeles, or D.C. -- but we're not Boise either. There's a real, sizeable Jewish community here. And generally perusing the data, our overall responses don't seem massively far off from national Jewish averages -- maybe a bit more liberal, but not massively so; maybe a bit more Israel-skeptical, but not massively so. For example, 46% of Portland Jewish adults report feeling "somewhat" or "very" attached to Israel, which is less than the national average (58%), but not by a massive margin. 77% of Portland Jews describe themselves as liberal or very liberal, against 10% who identify as conservative -- again, definitely more liberal than the Jewish population writ large, but not by a giant margin.
In other words, if you want to make a mental adjustment for Portland being Portland, you can -- but it's not enough to explain a nearly thirty point advantage for "not-Zionists" over "Zionists".*
So what do we make of the data?
To a large extent, the findings here resonate with the essay I wrote a few weeks ago for Third Narrative questioning the continued utility of the term "Zionism". It means so many things, to so many people, that it's hard to nail down what exactly people mean when they say they are, or are not Zionist. Indeed, if we look at the questions which track those typically used to infer someone is a "Zionist", the Portland picture looks very different. For example, 87% of respondents agree that "I consider it important for Israel to exist as a refuge for the Jewish people, now and in the future." 65% agree that "I consider it important for Israel to be a Jewish state." Hell, even a 57% majority agreed that "caring about Israel is an essential part of being Jewish"! Many people would say -- I might say! -- that those are the views that mark one out as a Zionist. Yet it seems there is a sizeable chunk of Jews who think it's important for Israel to exist as a refuge for the Jews and to remain a Jewish state, but who do not identify as Zionist. Indeed, it seems probable that most of those Jews who do not identify as "Zionist" still are agreeing with at least some of these archetypical "Zionist" sentiments.
Presumably, then, those Jews (unlike me) do not take "Zionism" to mean someone who believes in Israel as a Jewish democratic** state. Perhaps they instead see "Zionism" as meaning support for right-wing anti-Palestinian policies,*** or perhaps they think it means a personal loyalty to the state of Israel as their primary political affiliation. Or perhaps it's something else entirely. I won't get into the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist debate about whether they are "wrong" in their understanding. I will say that the fact that a majority of participants say they do not identify as Zionist, rather than marking that they are "unsure", suggests that the respondents have a reasonably clear idea of what Zionism is in their own heads -- albeit a definition that might differ from that used by Jewish community professionals or academics. And surely, at the very least, if there is this much muddling about the contours of Zionism amongst Jews, we can forgive similar or greater confusion amongst non-Jews.
In short, this little glimpse of data is one that cries out for follow-up. On the one hand, the top line figures give sustenance to those who cry again and again that we ought not conflate "Zionism" and "Judaism", that the attempt to posit an identity between the two is a bogus political maneuver. I'm a bit surprised I didn't see some of the usual suspects blasting out a headline "Survey: Majority of Jews 'Explicitly' Reject Zionism", with a lot of crowing about how this proves how out-of-touch the various communal institutions are and demonstrates that the true Jewish rank-and-file want nothing to do with the oppressive Zionist entity.
On the other hand, the answers to the more specific questions strongly suggest that, for Jews, not identifying as "Zionist" is not generally reflective of the sorts of positions associated with movement anti-Zionism. If anything, their answers confirm that the term "Zionism" isn't being used in a uniform way, making it very dangerous to make assumptions just based off affinity (or not) with the word. All of this, to me, is further evidence that "Zionism" as a term may be doing more to confuse than to clarify, and might be better off dropping it. But at the very least, it suggests a desperate need for more research.
* Indeed, the partisan divide here, while present, isn't as meaningful as one might suspect. 25% of "very liberal" respondents identify as Zionist, while 36% of conservatives do (the bigger divide is on the other end -- most of the very liberals who don't identify as Zionist explicitly say they don't identify as Zionist, while most of the conservatives who do not identify as Zionist simply say they "don't know"). The only political cadre for whom identifying as a Zionist carries a plurality is the moderates, at 44%.
** 97% of respondents "consider it important for Israel to be a democratic state," a figure which unsurprisingly blows the doors off all the other questions asked. For all intents and purposes, we can assume the virtually all the respondents who think Israel should be a Jewish state also think it should be a democratic state.
*** Just 43% of respondents agreed that "Israel lives up to its values with respect to human rights", against 58% who disagree. Aside from "American Jews have the right to criticize Israel’s government", this was effectively the only statement where the "pro-Israel" side did not carry a majority.