News about an Israel-backed survey that asked American Jews and Israelis living here where they would place their allegiance in the event of a crisis between Israel and America left Rabbi Michael Feshbach scratching his head.
“This is a periodic issue of Israelis being slightly tone deaf to the North American Jewish mind-set,” said Feshbach, rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.
The survey was commissioned by the Israeli American Council, a private nonprofit group based in Los Angeles that supports the Israeli-American community. Billionaire media mogul Haim Saban is a prime backer of the council.
Israeli embassies and consulates in the United States were asked last week by the council to distribute the poll via email, according to the daily Haaretz, which wrote about the survey on Sunday. Following publication, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to halt distribution of the survey. But “tens of thousands” of surveys were distributed, according to Haaretz.
Feshbach and other rabbis interviewed for this article said the survey raises the sensitive question of dual loyalty among American Jews.
“The dual loyalty question is dangerous, and Israelis don’t seem to understand that,” he said.
“The question of dual loyalty has a pretty nefarious history,” said Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. “But it’s usually anti-Semites who ask this question.”
He added, “the question is not, where does your loyalty lie, but what does it mean to be a patriotic American and a committed Zionist?”
[Updated Nov. 1, 2013: A new ADL survey reflects this concern. About 30 percent of Americans believe American Jews “are more loyal to Israel than to America,” the ADL found. It is a percentage that has remained unchanged since 1964.]
Respondents to the survey also were asked to what extent they make voting decisions for president or Congress based on the candidates’ attitudes toward Israel, and the impact of American Jews and Jewish organizations on American policy.
Surveys have shown that although Israel is important to American Jews, it is not among the top deciding factors when choosing a candidate. Ahead of the 2012 presidential election, an American Jewish Committee poll found that U.S.-Israel relations was the fifth most important issue, determining 22 percent of the Jewish vote.
Raskin said raising the question of one’s loyalty in case of conflict reminds him of discussions he had as a teenager in Jewish summer camp.
“I really don’t see a conflict between these two liberal democracies. [Living in a democracy] means you don’t always agree with everyone involved. It doesn’t compromise your convictions and commitments to those involved.”
Feshbach said the survey’s “denigration of the Diaspora” was similar to a 2011 ad campaign aimed to encourage Israelis living in the United States to return to Israel. The ads offended American Jews and Prime Minister Netanyahu shut down the campaign.
“What I would prefer to see is an emphasis on exploring what the Israel experience and the North American Jewish experience has to offer each other,” Feshbach said.
The survey is part of the Israeli American Council’s effort to expand beyond Los Angeles to other cities. American billionaire Sheldon Adelson has pledged to help fund the expansion, Haaretz reported.
It is unclear at what government level the survey was approved or whether Absorption or Foreign Ministry officials checked what types of questions would be asked, according to Haaretz. The survey had the symbol of the state of Israel on its first page.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington notified consulates to distribute the surveys, according to the Israeli newspaper.
The embassy declined to provide a spokesperson to discuss the matter with WJW.
“The PR side of this is pretty disastrous,” Raskin said. “Because it feeds into that nefariousness.”
Questions of minority loyalty typically arise during war time and in periods of social turmoil. Loyalty oaths were instituted in the United States during the red scare of the 1940s-’50s. But Jews as a small minority have been accused of being more loyal to their tribe than to their country since ancient times. And since the creation of Israel, the question of dual loyalty has been an uncomfortable companion for Diaspora Jews.
Said Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, “Jews should have a cultural and historic aversion to loyalty oaths.”
UPDATED Oct. 31, 2013
Speaking for the Israeli-American Council, public relations executive Arik Puder told WJW that the sole focus of the study is Israelis in the United States, but to reach them it is often necessary to survey American-born Jews as well. An Israeli husband might be married to an American wife, for example,
He said the council doesn’t know how many surveys went out, but that they have received more than 2,000 completed surveys.
Puder issued a statement fro m the council: “After it was brought to our attention by Haaretz, we recognized that 2 of the 38 questions in the survey [regarding loyalty and voting preferences] could be misconstrued and therefore we removed them. Furthermore, we have specifically asked Midgam [the Israeli firm that prepared the survey] not to provide us with any data about the answers for those two questions. We apologize for any misunderstanding.”
Puder said that when the council removed the two questions, they removed six follow-up questions.
JTA contributed to this article