By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — American Jews and African Americans often worked side by side during the civil rights movement, including when rabbis walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the march to Selma in 1965.
In more recent years, however, the relationship has become more complicated due to conflicts between the nation of Israel and Palestinians and the resulting political responses from groups like Black Lives Matter.
A new study from Lifeway Research explored African Americans’ thoughts about Israel, Jews, religious identification, news consumption and other issues. On many of the issues related directly to Israel, African Americans frequently say they’re unsure what to think.
“Needed social reforms in the U.S. may have distracted African Americans’ attention from following challenges in Israel,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “That hasn’t turned many African Americans against Israel but leaves many with honestly no opinion on matters of support, conflicts and even history.”
Thoughts on the nation of Israel
The study, sponsored by the Philos Project, found African Americans are more likely to say they carefully follow domestic policy (68%) than say the same about foreign policy (59%).
With Israel specifically, 42% of African Americans have a positive perception of the country. More than a quarter (27%) have a negative opinion. A third (32%) aren’t sure.
Three in 5 (61%) say a political candidate having pro-Israel policies would make them neither more nor less likely to vote for that candidate.
African Americans are divided on the amount of help the U.S. offers to Israel. While 3 in 10 say the U.S. is doing the right amount, 23% say it’s too much, 12% say it’s not enough, and 35% aren’t sure.
Half (52%) say they support Israel’s statehood, while 18% disagree. Three in 10 say they’re not sure.
Two in 5 African Americans (39%) say the international community denies basic recognition as a nation to Israel. A quarter disagree and 36% aren’t sure.
Among those who support Israel’s statehood, 71% say a reason they do so is because every nation has a right to exist, and 30% say it’s because Israel is the historic Jewish homeland.
Some African Americans point to religious reasons for their support: 28% say it’s because Jesus was a Jew, 25% say they support Israel’s statehood because it is important for fulfilling biblical prophecy, and 24% say the Bible says Christians should support Israel.
Another 24% say their support is influenced by Israel being the United States’ closest ally in an unstable region.
Still, other African Americans speak of Israel being a needed refuge for Jews after the Holocaust (15%) or the safest place for religious minorities in the Middle East (11%).
Civil rights connections
Many African Americans see historic connections between themselves and Jews during the civil rights movement. A significant number of African Americans also draw comparisons to their overcoming struggles as a people and that of the ancient Israelites.
Half of African Americans (49%) say Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong supporter of the Jewish people. Slightly fewer (42%) believe he was a strong supporter of Israel.
More than 2 in 5 (43%) say Jewish people in America were instrumental in the civil rights movement, while a quarter (23%) disagree.
Many African Americans say they think more positively about the nation of Israel because of the historic connections between the journey of their ethnicity and the journey of the Jews.
Around a quarter say their opinion of Israel has been positively influenced due to the historic parallels between the enslavement of Jews in ancient Egypt and blacks in America (27%) and due to the similarities between the two groups overcoming oppression: Jewish people in pursuing the promised land and African Americans pursing civil rights (26%).
Most (62%) say they are not familiar with the teachings of Black Hebrew Israelites, a group that contends black Americans are the physical descendants of the ancient Israelites. Few (4%) consider themselves to be a Black Hebrew Israelite.
More than a quarter of African Americans (28%) say they are seeing more black people they know express anti-Semitism than in the past.
Three in 10 African Americans (30%) agree with the subtle anti-Semitic phrase, “Jewish people have too much control of American finances.”
Around 1 in 5 (19%) believe Jewish people are blocking black progress in the United States.
When asked about a Louis Farrakhan quote claiming Jewish people have a “tremendous” influence in the U.S. government and as a result “black people in this country will never be free until they are free of that kind of control,” 41% of African Americans agree.
“While they may be unrelated, it is worth noting that at the same time the contributions of Jewish people in the civil rights movement have passed beyond the memory of the majority of African Americans, some are also seeing a rise in anti-Semitism,” said McConnell.
Media and faith influence opinions
African Americans say the news media (46%) has influenced their opinions about Israel. Several say the Bible (24%), friends and family (18%) and positions of elected officials (15%) have also influenced them. A quarter aren’t sure.
A third of African Americans (33%) say they have a Jewish friend.
When asked what has influenced them the most, African Americans are most likely to point to the media (34%) or the Bible (17%). Still, 26% aren’t sure.
Eight in 10 say they regularly get news from television. Around half turn to social media (48%) or websites (46%). Fewer point to the radio (37%), print media (29%) or news apps (27%) as a regular news source.
Still, African Americans aren’t convinced the news sources they follow are objective in their coverage of Israel. A quarter (26%) believe the reporting is objective. One in 10 believe the news is slanted against Israel, while 16% believe it is pro-Israel. Almost half (48%) aren’t sure.
Specific religious beliefs may also play into many African Americans’ support of Israel.
Two in 5 (41%) say the formation of modern Israel is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.
More than 3 in 5 African Americans (62%) believe God’s promise of the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants was for all time.
“No single source has influenced the majority of African American opinions on Israel,” said McConnell. “Media, faith and friends each influence some, but 1 in 4 aren’t sure of any influence.”
Divided over the Palestinian conflict
Seven in 10 African Americans say they sympathize equally with the hardships Israelis and Palestinians face.
Fifteen percent say they sympathize more with the Palestinians. The same number feel more connection to the Israelis. Those numbers are similar to a previous Lifeway Research study of the views of Hispanic Christians toward Israel.
Half of African Americans agree the state of Israel is regularly attacked with bombs and terrorist acts by Palestinians.
Close to half (46%) agree the Palestinian Authority denies basic recognition as a nation to Israel.
More than 2 in 5 African Americans (43%) say Israel denies the Palestinians’ basic human rights.
Around 2 in 5 African Americans (41%) believe the state of Israel has laws that discriminate against the Palestinian people. The same percentage (41%) say they aren’t sure.
Around a third (32%) believe Americans should boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Slightly more (38%) aren’t sure.
Most African Americans (70%) say they were unaware the platform of the Black Lives Matter movement accuses Israel of genocide and apartheid against the Palestinian people.
A third say that position does not change their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Almost a quarter (23%) say it makes them more aligned with the movement, while 9% makes them less aligned. Twelve percent say it does not change their opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Most African Americans (54%) say the platform doesn’t change their opinion of the Palestinians and Israel.
“African Americans see difficulties faced by both Palestinians and Israelis, and most are not taking one side on various aspects of the conflict,” said McConnell. “Yet 6 in 10 are concerned about the safety of Christians in areas controlled by the Palestinian authority.”
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.
The online survey of 1,019 African Americans was conducted March 22-April 2, 2019 by Lifeway Research. The study was sponsored by the Philos Project. Sample was obtained from a large national panel. Maximum quotas and slight weights were used for gender, region, age, education and religious group to reflect the African American population. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.6%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.