Poll says area Jews support Palestinian state but fear risks to Israel

Nearly eight out of 10 Bay Area Jews believe Palestinians have the right to an independent state — if it doesn't threaten Israel, a new survey shows.

At the same time, six out of 10 say an independent Palestinian state will pose a danger to the Jewish homeland.

Those seemingly conflicting opinions are the result of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council's first poll of Jewish opinion in five years — and the first since the peace process took shape. It was released early this week.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC's executive director, doesn't consider the results contradictory. In his eyes, the responses show that local Jews back the Israeli government's decision to take risks for peace even if they don't trust the groups sitting across the negotiating table.

Nevertheless, seven out of 10 see a Palestinian state as inevitable.

"There's a sense of irreversibility about the peace process," Kahn says. "But people are anxious about it."

The 108-question survey, the most extensive ever undertaken by the local JCRC, was mailed this spring to a random sampling of S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation donors. Just over 900 Jews from San Francisco, the Peninsula and Marin and Sonoma counties returned the questionnaire.

The poll covers a wide range of issues in addition to the peace process: immigration, affirmative action, crime, church-state separation, welfare, anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.

On domestic issues, the survey hints that Jews aren't consistently following a traditionally liberal Jewish agenda, although they haven't moved as far right as other white Americans.

The 15 questions posed about Middle East peace, however, show that Bay Area Jews are willing to give negotiations a chance despite some reservations about security.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents don't trust the Palestine Liberation Organization, and 71 percent don't have faith that Syria would stick to any peace agreement.

But 74 percent believe the peace initiatives advocated by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government are good for Israel.

Earl Raab, a San Francisco sociologist and former executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC, says responses show that Bay Area Jews see peace negotiations as the only remaining option for a more stable future.

"People are being pragmatic," says Raab, who helped interpret the raw data. "They don't know what the alternative is."

Jews show less support for giving up the Golan Heights: Only 47 percent believe Israel should withdraw in return for a credible peace treaty.

Kahn says that reaction reflects the current debate within Israel. A July 3 Gallup poll, for example, shows that only 26.5 percent of Israelis are willing to give up the Golan.

"For so many years, American Jews have been told Israel could not afford to give back the Golan Heights. There hasn't been a concerted effort to convince us otherwise," Kahn says.

Surprisingly, Bay Area Jews over age 60 give slightly more dovish answers on Middle East peace negotiations than their younger counterparts.

"That's what I love about surveys," says Raab, himself a senior. "Sometimes they contradict what we learn in our living rooms."

Because older Jews have witnessed the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars, Raab says, they may see no alternative for Israel but to make peace with its long-time enemies.

"In a sense, they're more desperate for a solution. They're anxious for stability," he says. "They think: How many more wars can Israel go through?"

A similar sense of anxiety runs through Bay Area Jews on the topic of anti-Semitism.

Sixty-eight percent believe anti-Semitism is a serious problem in the United States. Raab saw an equally high response in the 1990 survey.

Yet their fears aren't substantiated by reality. While 38 percent personally heard anti-Semitic remarks in the past year, less than 3 percent experienced any discrimination and less than 2 percent encountered physical harassment.

Raab sees the high level of concern as a remnant of the Holocaust, and doesn't believe most Jews truly see anti-Semitism as a current problem in the United States.

"They mean it could become serious tomorrow," he says. "It's a sense of foreboding."

According to the poll — in which respondents answered each questionnaire statement by checking off whether they "agree strongly," "agree somewhat," "disagree somewhat," "disagree strongly" or "don't know" — Jews generally are even more united on domestic issues than on the Middle East.

In fact, respondents took their most unequivocal stances on three topics that have nothing to do with the peace process: abortion, guns and church-state separation.

Eighty-three percent strongly agree that women should have access to abortions without restrictions. And 84 percent strongly agree on the need for tougher gun control.

Eighty percent strongly disagree with a constitutional amendment for a moment of silence in public schools. And 88 percent strongly disagree with a constitutional amendment for spoken prayer in public schools.

Reflecting the nation's current debates, the poll also asks questions on affirmative action, welfare and crime.

Overall, 64 percent say affirmative action has gone too far. But 68 percent also acknowledge that repealing affirmative action would hurt race relations, and that some minority groups still need the government's help to overcome centuries of oppression.

Jewish women and Jewish men, however, don't see eye to eye on affirmative action. While 70 percent of the men say affirmative action has gone too far, only 54 percent of the women concur.

"The debate on affirmative action is often couched in race-based preferences. The fact that women have also been beneficiaries is sometimes not brought into the picture," Kahn says.

He attributes the gender gap to women's awareness of their advances under affirmative action, and possibly their perception of persisting obstacles in the working world.

"They may have heightened concerns about barriers that still remain," Kahn says.

Though Jews offer liberal responses to most questions about welfare and crime, a conservative bent shows up on two particular queries.

Sixty-two percent believe anyone convicted of three violent crimes should be imprisoned for life. Likewise, 61 percent say the government should stop welfare payment increases to women who give birth while receiving government aid.

What happened to the Jewish liberals?

Surveys over the past 10 to 15 years have shown Jews getting tougher on crime, Raab says. He believes the response results from general fears about security and lawlessness.

Kahn attributes the apparent support for "three strikes, you're out" to serious concerns that crime is threatening the quality of life.

"Crime is such an issue that there doesn't seem to be a purist stance on civil libertarian issues," he says.

He ties the attitude toward welfare mothers to a frustration with recipients who are "in part making their own situation worse," or impatience with social spending that apparently has failed to end poverty or has even exacerbated the problem.

Such responses, Kahn says, show that Bay Area Jews shouldn't be typecast as liberals.

"While there is a strong current of compassion on social issues, there is by no means a straight liberal perspective on all issues," Kahn says. "Much more credit should be given to the Jewish community for having an independent streak, if you will."