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The perils of conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism

Feelings about Jews are much stronger predictors of Republicans’ views of Israel than Democrats' views.

- June 5, 2024

Americans have engaged in heated debate since the Israel-Hamas war began last fall. A key question, for many, is whether anti-Zionist sentiments are a form of antisemitism.

Congress, at least, thinks that that’s the case. The House of Representatives passed a resolution by a wide margin (311 to 14) back in December declaring “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Opponents of Israel, however, strongly object to that characterization, noting the many legitimate reasons for criticizing the Jewish state.

What the data tell us

As I showed in a previous post, Americans’ attitudes about Jews are unsurprisingly associated with their opinions of Israel. But the strength of that correlation is far from overwhelming. It turns out that Republicans are also primarily responsible for producing the current relationship between anti-Jewish attitudes and anti-Israel sentiment.

Data from a nationally representative YouGov poll of 6,000 Americans (February-Match 2024), which the Democracy Fund commissioned as part of its Views of the Electorate Research Survey (VOTER), in the graph below shows that attitudes about Jews are a powerful predictor of Republicans’ opinions about Israel. Only about 20% of Republicans who rated Jews very unfavorably on a 0 to 100 thermometer scale are more sympathetic towards Israelis than they are towards Palestinians. This percentage, you can see, climbs up to nearly 80% among Republicans who rated Jews very favorably.

The blue line in the display, by contrast, shows that Democrats’ attitudes are only slightly related to their opinions of Israel. The graph shows that less than one-fifth of Democrats in the survey felt more sympathy towards Israelis than Palestinians regardless of how warmly they rated Jews as a group on the thermometer scale.

These findings echo earlier surveys

A similar pattern emerged in the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey. This massive 2019-2020 survey asked over 100,000 Americans if the U.S. should withdraw support from Israel and asked over 400,000 respondents to rate how favorably they felt toward Jews. Once again, attitudes about Jews were a much stronger predictor of Republicans’ opinions about Israel than they were for Democrats.

Why the differing relationships? 

It’s worth revisiting a longstanding pattern in the academic literature on racial attitudes to help understand why feelings towards Jews are such a stronger predictor of support for Israel among Republicans than among Democrats. Researchers in this field have long found that anti-Black prejudice is a much stronger predictor of Democrats’ and liberals’ views of racial policies like affirmative action government assistance for African Americans than it is for Republicans and conservatives.

Here’s the conventional logic behind this partisan contrast. Conservatives have ideological reasons (e.g., principles of individualism and limited government) to oppose these progressive racial policies. That makes them unlikely to support these policies, regardless of how they feel about the group who benefits from them. Liberals, on the other hand, have fewer ideological objections to affirmative action and government assistance to racial minorities. So their opposition to these policies, historically, comes down in large part to racial prejudice.

The same logic explains the distinct partisan patterns in the graphs above. Ideological principles, such as support for equality and minority rights, inevitably make liberal Democrats less overtly sympathetic towards Israel regardless of how they may feel about Jews. There are countless examples, in fact, of progressive Jews condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza on ideological and humanitarian grounds since October 2023.

Conservatives, meanwhile, don’t have the same ideological justifications to oppose how the Jewish state is handling the war. Republican leaders have also sent clear messages to voters about their unwavering support of Israel. The upshot is that rank-and-file Republicans’ opinions of Israel are shaped in large part by their feelings about Jews.

While far from an exhaustive analysis, the two figures in this post effectively illustrate the perils of conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Data from before and after the Israel-Hamas war began show that Republicans are largely driving the link between anti-Jewish attitudes and public opinion about Israel . There’s simply no empirical basis, then, to support the notion that Democrats’ growing opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza is somehow rooted in antisemitism.