The Days Of Blind Support For Israel Among Australian Jews Is Over


The views of Australian Jews are more diverse than you might think, according to the latest results from a large community survey. Michael Brull delves into the results, with some surprising findings.

A new study of the Jewish community in Australia has revealed a dramatically lower rate of support for Israel and Zionism.

Support for Zionism has declined by about 10 per cent since the previous survey in 2009. Significant parts of the community also think Israel discriminates against non-Jews, and support negotiations with Hamas. There is also a sizable minority that doesn’t think Israeli control of the West Bank is “vital” for Israel’s security.

The study of the Jewish community in Australia, Gen17, was conducted under the auspices of Jewish Communal Appeal, and Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. The lead authors were academics Andrew Markus and David Graham. The survey statistically weighted the responses of an impressive 8,621 national respondents, making the study by far the best and most reliable information we will have about the Jewish community for some time.

The last major study, Gen08, also had Markus as a lead author, and was published in 2009. It is worth noting that it trumpeted in the third point of its executive summary what it thought was a pro-Israel consensus in the community: “Support for Israel unifies the Jewish community. There is evidence of division of opinion in response to many issues, but much of the difference disappears when Israel is considered; close to 80% of respondents indicated that they regarded themselves as Zionist, while only 13% did not.”

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament. (IMAGE: Ze’ev Barkan, Flickr)

This sentiment has been picked up and exaggerated in polemics by supporters of the Israeli government. For example, in 2014, Alex Ryvchin, a leading representative of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, claimed that Jews critical of the Israeli government are “miniscule” in number, and “represent virtually no-one”. Phillip Mendes, a self-proclaimed leftist supporter of Israel, similarly claimed in 2013 that “less than 1% hold anti-Zionist views”. Though their claims weren’t supported by the survey data, those who wanted to marginalise dissenting views on Israel had Gen08 to support their position that non-Zionists made up 13 per cent of the community.

Whilst Gen08 gave support for Israel pride of place in the executive summary, eager to trumpet the supposed consensus, Gen17 places the subject of Israel near the end. They bravely try to summon a similar sense of a pro-Israel community: “Israel is a strong unifying theme for Australian Jews. Among Melbourne and Sydney respondents, the vast majority (88%) feel a personal responsibility to ensure that the Jewish State ‘continues to exist’.”

This kind of loaded question seems designed to shore up the pro-Israel appearance – among those aged over 50, people “strongly agree” with this position at rates of over 60 and 70 per cent. Among the 18-39 age group, about half strongly agree with feeling a “sense of responsibility” that Israel continues to exist. To get to rates of 80 and 90 per cent, one has to include those who “tend to agree” that they feel a responsibility to ensure Israel continues to exist. This is a less impressive commitment.

Modern Orthodox Jews are particularly concerned about Israel. This compares to less literalist interpretations of Judaism, with seculars particularly distanced from Israel.

If we want to account for the decline in support for Israeli policies and Zionism, it’s not that the community has lost interest in Israel. On the contrary, Jews are a bit more likely to keep up with events involving Israel a lot (30 per cent) or quite a lot (38 per cent), than they were in Gen08 a decade ago (26 and 37 per cent).

As for Zionism, some 69 per cent of respondents identified as Zionist. 22 per cent did not, whilst 10 per cent declined to answer or did not know. This compares to Gen08, when 13 per cent said they weren’t Zionist, and 7 per cent did not know or declined to answer. The survey suggests that this “may be the result of a change in the question wording”. It concedes that the previous definition was “so general that those who were equivocal may have been persuaded to answer ‘yes’”. That is, it said Zionists refer to those who “feel connected to the Jewish people, to Jewish history, culture and beliefs, the Hebrew language and the Jewish homeland, Israel?” By this definition, many anti-Zionists might say yes.

Yet the fact is, in the Jewish community, Zionism is not an innocent question. Most Jews would already have a strong opinion on the subject, particularly those who dissent on Zionism. I think it is unlikely that the wording of the question was a significant factor in the decline.

However, it is worth noting what Gen17 admits: that the previous definition was “so general that those who were equivocal may have been persuaded to answer ‘yes’”. This seems like a tacit admission – 10 years later – that the survey was intended to artificially inflate the supposed Zionist consensus, which is looking particularly tatty in 2018.

It should be noted – the Jewish Communal Appeal, one of the two organisations involved in the study – is not exactly an unbiased organisation. Plainly, it has an interest in increasing donations, and establishing legitimacy in doing so. It is also funded by various Jewish philanthropic organisations.

Whilst this study has improved in some ways, other questions about Israel – like Zionism – aren’t a great indicator for the level of support for the Israeli government’s policies. For example, there’s no question about Israel’s commitment to peace, about the wars on Gaza, the blockade, or any direct questions on the settlements. The only question about the occupation is framed through the lens of Israel’s security.

Israeli Defence Force soldiers prepare to enter Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, an assault which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians – most of them civilians – and 66 Israeli soldiers, plus six Israeli civilians. (IMAGE: IDF, Flickr)

Nevertheless, 80 per cent of Jews identifying as Zionist dropping to 69 per cent is a precipitous decline. Whilst the survey seems to suggest close to 69 per cent identified as Zionist in 2008, I regard this as somewhat unlikely. It is hard to imagine what percentage exactly can be accounted for by the changed wording of the question – I would guess that it would account for one or two per cent, or perhaps up to three or four per cent, but most of that would be in the ‘I don’t know’ category.

As for the 22 per cent who now identify as non-Zionist, their views are not meaningfully probed in this survey. Nor are the 10 per cent who did not answer or did not know. Some of this cohort may identify as non, post, or anti-Zionist, but not feel comfortable identifying their position as such in the survey. But it is striking that some 31 per cent of the community is totally unrepresented by Jewish communal organisations.

For the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, who are heavily non-Zionist, they are at least very likely to be involved in religious organisations. Secular and progressive Jews, on the other hand, are probably more likely to want secular organisations to include and respect their views.


Age not a strong factor

Age, the survey reveals, isn’t a particularly strong predictor of Zionism. The youngest, from 18-29, are the most Zionist in the community. This is a feature of the community that differs from its counterparts in, say, the US. This is likely because Jewish kids are increasingly likely to go to Jewish schools, which heavily push a pro-Israel line. Jews in the US would then likely leave home to attend a university, where they would be exposed to a different kind of liberal environment, and start asking difficult questions.

Jews in Australia can stay close to the community as a young adult. It is only when they get older, and join the professional world that they may start to get a comparable experience, and start to distance themselves from communal orthodoxies.

A better predictor provided from the survey is religious identification.

Charedi Jews (strictly orthodox) are perhaps the least Zionist community, but they only make up a tiny minority of 4 per cent of the community. The biggest parts of the community are the Modern Orthodox and the traditional, who form a relatively religious and centre-right bloc, as compared to progressives, seculars, and no-denominations. The modern orthodox and traditional are more or less dominant in communal organisations, whilst progressives (and Conservatives) are often frowned upon for their non-literalist interpretation of the religion. Progressives are Zionist at about 70 per cent, whilst seculars hover in the 50s. The non-denominational are maybe 63 per cent Zionist (I’m roughly summarising statistics in the above graph).

I think it is fair to conclude that relatively secular and progressive interpretations of Judaism are generally conducive to a more relaxed attitude towards Zionism and Israel.

It is hard to compare other questions to Gen08, as not all were asked last time.

In the last survey, some 29 per cent supported dismantling all or most settlements in the context of a peace agreement. 21 to 25 per cent didn’t know or refused to answer. This time, 32 per cent support the relatively bolder position of Israel negotiating with Hamas to achieve peace. Whilst the modern orthodox and traditional were relatively less supportive at 24 and 26 per cent, seculars supported this at a rate of 48 per cent, and progressives at a rate of 42 per cent. Non-denominationals were lower, at a rate of 31 per cent.

That is, non-denominationals were less supportive than Progressives of negotiating with Hamas, but also less likely to be Zionist. One possible explanation is that Progressives are becoming more open to adopting a type of liberal Zionism, where they can have some reservations about Israeli conduct, whilst still being strongly connected to and supportive of Israel in general.

Progressives also were likely to believe Israel discriminates against non-Jews (49 per cent), was corrupt (51 per cent), and that control of the West Bank isn’t vital for Israel’s security (32 per cent). Non-denominationals were more supportive of the Israeli government’s perspective than progressives, but still more critical than the dominant grouping of traditional and modern orthodox.

Only 10 per cent of Modern Orthodox disagree about the West Bank being vital for Israeli security – and 17 per cent of traditionals. Presumably, they envisage occupation forever. Though again, it should be noted that these questions are loaded, and are unlikely to capture the nature and extent of Jewish unease with Israeli conduct.

Seculars – who are the second largest Jewish demographic in Australia at 21 per cent – are the least Zionist, and most critical of Israeli policies. 65 per cent are in favour of giving up territory for peace. 47 per cent disagree that the West Bank is “vital” for Israeli security, and 48 per cent support negotiations with Hamas. 59 per cent think Israel discriminates against non-Jews. That is, seculars are the most critical bloc in the community, followed by Progressives. Conservatives are more Zionist than progressives, at a rate of about 10 per cent, but about as critical of the Israeli government. They are, however, a very small minority.

Israel’s ‘security wall’, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda).

If the seculars were represented in communal organisations, they would presumably be less pro-Israel. About 70 per cent of the community does feel connected to communal life. 14 per cent feels neither connected nor unconnected – I have no idea what that means – and 16 per cent feels unconnected. The number one reason Jews don’t feel connected to communal life (at slightly over 30 per cent) is “your secular outlook/lifestyle”. About 15 per cent feel they don’t fit in, 10 per cent just aren’t interested, and about 5 per cent feel excluded because of their views on Israel (4 per cent in Melbourne, 6 per cent in Sydney).

The number one way suggested to improve or change communal life is to fund fee assistance for Jewish schools, which are expensive. At 20 per cent is “greater acceptance of alternative attitudes towards Israel”.


We’re not that religious

It is worth noting – the community is generally not particularly religious. About 14 per cent of the community attends synagogue every week – including 45 per cent of the modern orthodox, and 8 per cent of the traditionals. 29 per cent only bring kosher meat home. The community is more heavily culturally Jewish than religiously observant.

The community is also getting a bit more secular. Comparing religious identification with upbringing, the biggest decline among traditionals, with 36 per cent growing up traditional, and then only 30 per cent identifying traditional when adult. The “main thrust” of switching that follows “reflects a trend towards secularisation”, towards “more progressive” interpretations of Judaism.

There are other interesting findings for the community in the survey, particularly the continuing increasing trend towards intermarriage. Yet the most significant thing is that the bloc of Zionists in the community has diminished to 69 per cent, and that 69 per cent includes liberal Zionists who are increasingly at odds with the right-wing drift of the Israeli government. The imperative of Jewish organisations to uncritically defend everything they do will naturally clash with the more secular and progressive Jews.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how the Jewish establishment can arrest these trends. If the drift occurred among millennials, they might try to find fun and free events to draw in youths, and try to use that platform to push Israel. Yet the biggest problem is older Jews, who are relatively secular. Broadly speaking, they are either disconnected or not interested in communal organisations. The communal organisations don’t have much of a basis to connect with that constituency. There isn’t a glue of religiosity to bring the community together, Israel isn’t connecting as it once did.

The Western Wall, a holy site for Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the Old City in Jerusalem. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)

Secular Jews are also less likely to experience (or perceive) anti-Semitism, and more likely to regard it as not a big deal (51 per cent of the whole community said it was “not a very big problem”).

The Jewish establishment can continue to brainwash kids on how great Israel and Zionism are. But as those kids grow up, and integrate into the rest of Australia, it is likely they will continue to experience a distancing, if not disillusionment from Israel. For Progressive and secular Jews, who are more integrated with Australian society, they are likely to reflect attitudes around them. As Australian public opinion, and liberal opinion in particular turns on Israel, so the secular and progressive communities will increasingly reflect those trends.

It may be that the best hope for the Jewish establishment in this respect is to give up on the seculars and progressives, and try to strengthen ties with the political right, who are more firm and reliable supporters of the Israel government.

It has traditionally been said that Jewish organisations speak for a majority of the community when they defend Israeli actions. It is increasingly clear that they speak in the name of a hawkish part of that majority, a hawkish part that represents a section of the majority, but by no means a consensus position.

With some 30 per cent of the community unrepresented, this survey establishes that the days of a consensus position on Israel are over. The community is more diverse than the establishment has admitted. And it seems likely that by the time the next survey takes place, the consensus will have eroded even further.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).