When Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was booed by a crowd of American Jews at last weekend’s Jerusalem Post conference in New York City, it was yet another example of the few seeking to drown out the many within pro-Israel politics.
“A diplomatic solution is the best, most enduring path to achieve our goal of keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” argued Lew -- himself an Orthodox Jew -- through jeers and heckling from the audience. To the uninitiated, the unwelcome reception certainly gave the impression that American Jews and supporters of Israel oppose the nuclear deal that the Obama administration and world powers hope to finalize by the end of the month.
But this could not be further from the truth. While polling has indicated for months that the American public will support the emerging nuclear agreement, now, an extensive new survey confirms that this support is even stronger among American Jews.
According to the June poll, American Jewish voters favor by 59% to 41% an agreement that would require Iran to significantly restrict its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions -- higher than the 53-43 margin that CNN found recently among the general public.
And in a promising development for the Obama administration, American Jewish support for an agreement rose to 78% when respondents were presented with more information about the contents of a deal.
This news may fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, but it is entirely consistent with long-term polling of American Jews, who are in fact not hawkish on Israel or Iran. On politics and policy, they align closer with President Obama than with Sheldon Adelson and his Republican Jewish Coalition allies.
In this survey, American Jewish support for President Obama stood at 56%, higher than among the general public and more than nearly any demographic in America. Fifty-eight percent said that the president supports Israel, and that it is acceptable for him to make statements that are critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. While they like Netanyahu (56%), they clearly disagree with him on Iran, and the two-state solution, which 72% of American Jews support.
Sunday’s incident with Lew is proof -- if any were needed -- that a vocal, hawkish minority of American Jews tend to side more with Netanyahu politically and are more likely to attend a conference sponsored by the right-leaning Jerusalem Post. These are the voices who have driven the pro-Israel conversation in this country for years -- the only voices that our elected leaders used to hear from when it came to Israel. But they are hardly representative of the community at large.
Most American Jews support the president in believing that diplomacy, and not military action, provides the best chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. If finalized, the emerging deal would cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon, and would impose the most intrusive inspections regime in history, allowing inspectors full access to Iranian facilities, including underground sites.
Moreover, U.S. and Israeli defense officials have argued that there is simply no credible alternative to an agreement. They warn that without a deal, current sanctions and restrictions on Iran could well collapse, allowing Iran to expand its nuclear program unconstrained.
To prevent this outcome, some Israeli generals have chosen to break publicly with Netanyahu, calling the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran in the event of an agreement “a threat in decline.” According to Israeli press, the Israeli military has accepted the fact that a deal will be signed, and is preparing for the day after.
That certainly wasn’t the message that Netanyahu delivered in March, when he went behind Obama’s back to denounce the Iran negotiations to the U.S. Congress. Of course, it’s the prime minister’s duty to express concern over matters affecting Israel’s security. However, American lawmakers who will have a say in approving any deal should know that the prime minister’s views are not held by Israel’s own security establishment and that he certainly does not speak for the majority of Jewish Americans on this matter.
The Obama administration will face many difficult choices in the grueling, final weeks of negotiation. But they should know that beyond the hecklers, the majority of Americans and American Jews have their backs -- for an agreement that is good for the U.S., Israel and the world.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is founder and president of J Street.