The interpretation of polls is not as easy as it looks. For example, a recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes [PIPA] at the University of Maryland asked the following question:
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, do you think [country] should take Israel’s side, take the Palestinians’ side, or not take either side?
21% of Americans chose Israel’s side, 3% chose the Palestinians’, and 71% said that the US should not take sides in the conflict.
Some observers immediately concluded that Americans don’t actually support Israel as much as had been thought. Some said that this shows that the US should take a more ‘even-handed’ approach (implying that current policy is somehow unfair to Israel’s enemies).
For example, here is how Al-Arabiya spun the results:
Even Americans overwhelmingly said their government should not take sides.
In a finding that goes against the common assumption that Americans overwhelmingly support Israel, seven out of ten Americans said they thought their country should not take sides in the conflict. Of the rest, 21 percent said it should take Israel’s side compared to only 3 percent who supported taking the Palestinians side… [my emphasis]
Americans, said [PIPA Director Steven] Kull, are unequivocal that U.S. policy needs to be even handed in dealing with the situation. “There is a discrepancy in this sense between the public and government foreign policy,” he added.
I don’t think so. I think the question is seriously flawed.
In American English, ‘taking sides’ has a very negative connotation. We are for fairness, and ‘taking sides’ is being unfair; being prejudiced. I think that if Americans were asked if their government should ‘take sides’ on almost any issue, many would say no. Even the worst criminal deserves a fair trial.
We want our government to be fair, but that does not mean we don’t think that one side is not more worthy of support than the other. I’m willing to bet that most of that 71%, if asked, would have said “yes, we have to be fair to both sides, but the right thing to do is to support Israel”.
Kull’s reference to a “discrepancy…between the public and government foreign policy” suggests that the government is tilting toward Israel in opposition to what the public wants. Leaving aside the question of whether US policy really is tilted toward Israel (I’m prepared to argue that it is not), the poll results do not support this conclusion.
Now let me point out another area in which the poll is problematic. Just talking about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” evokes pictures of Israeli tanks and stone-throwing Palestinians. But this is a focus so narrow as to distort the real nature of the conflict.
Suppose the question had been “which do you support, the continued existence of a Jewish state or the Iranian-sponsored destruction of it by the proxy armies of Hamas and Hezbollah?” then possibly the answer would have been even more interesting.