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Survey: Christians favor Israel over Palestinians in Israel-Hamas war, but Catholic-Jewish relations hazy

More Christians are likely to support Israel rather than Palestinians in the the latest war between Israel and Hamas, a survey of American Christians has found, with Catholics standing out as the major Christian group least likely to support Israel and pro-Israel policies.

This was despite Jews' favorable view of Catholics compared to other Christian denominations, the researchers behind the survey wrote, indicating that relations between Jews and Catholics in the U.S. remain complicated despite the long strides the two faith communities have made over the last 60 years.

“We hope this study provides yet another impetus for American Jews and Catholics to rethink their relationship and start correcting these fissures,” wrote authors Motti Inbari, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Kirill Bumin, associate dean of Metropolitan College, Boston University.

of 2,033 Christian adults, conducted in March, was part of the researchers' ongoing research project measuring American Christian attitudes toward Jews, Israel and the broader Israel-Hamas conflict.

It found 40% of Christians support Israel, compared to just 8% who support Palestinians. One in 3 supported neither or both. Support for Israel remained highest among evangelicals, with 47% saying they either strongly supported, supported, or leaned toward supporting Israel, compared to 32% of Catholics.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community advocate for a free Palestine at the gates of Columbia University, in New York City, on April 28, 2024.

In a 2023 survey of American Jews conducted by Inbari and Bumin, said they viewed Catholics positively, compared to 32% who said they had similar perspectives of Protestants and Muslims and 21% who said they had such views of evangelicals.

Seven in 10 Christians said religious beliefs had little to do with how they felt about the conflict. The figure was highest among Catholics (79%) and lowest among evangelicals (62%), a third of whom credited their beliefs for their support of Israel.

Arthur Urbano, a professor of theology at Providence College, a Catholic institution in Rhode Island, said he wasn’t surprised by the high portion of Catholics who expressed that view given the Catholic Church’s complex position on relations with Israelis and Palestinians in general. Urbano was not affiliated with the survey.

Urbano noted that the church’s diplomatic relations with Israel, formally established in 1993, followed improved relations with Jews after the Second Vatican Council, the congress of 2,300 Catholic bishops called by Pope John XXIII beginning in 1962 to reconcile church doctrine with the zeitgeist. At the same time, he said, there existed “a small, but important Palestinian Catholic community for which the Catholic Church has pastoral responsibility.”

That’s knowledge Urbano said he finds lacking among many Catholics he encounters in college classrooms or at parish adult education classes, despite the church’s consistent support of a two-state solution to the conflict and recognition of a Palestinian state in 2015.

Palestinian Christians celebrate Easter Sunday Mass at the Catholic Holy Family Church in Gaza City, on March 31, 2024, amid the ongoing battles Israel and the Hamas militant group.

The church’s religious teachings on the meaning of the State of Israel, a subject he said was intentionally avoided during Vatican II, are vague. While they now require more consideration, “it’s not surprising that most Catholics, who probably only hear about Israelis and Palestinians from news media and not the pulpit, have a view that‘s mostly politically formed.”

Christian attitudes largely unaffected by the war

Christian attitudes about Jews and the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been largely unaffected by the current conflict, the survey found, with results similar to those found in previous ones.

“The scale of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not seem to impact how most respondents perceive the conflict and which party to the conflict they support,” said Bumin, of Boston University's Metropolitan College. “Once attitudes about the conflict are formed and crystalized, new information is not likely to significantly dislodge them.”

More than half of respondents said they supported Israel because Israelis had the right to defend their state, while 3 in 10 said it was because Israel is the closest U.S. ally in an unstable region. Slightly less said it was because Jesus was a Jew.

Nearly half said Hamas was mostly to blame for the war, while 39% said both sides were to blame. One in 5 said Israel’s response was mostly unjustified, compared to 45% who called it mostly justified.

Police prepare to break up an encampment on the campus of the Art Institute of Chicago after students established a protest encampment on the grounds on May 4, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. More than 2,000 people have been arrested nationwide as students at colleges and universities around the country have staged protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

One in 4 said it was “probably true” Israel was committing genocide, compared to 41% who said such charges were “probably false.” One in 5 said it was probably true that Israel was targeting Palestinian civilians, while more than half said that charge was probably false.

Age was a significant predictor of attitudes toward Israel, which the researchers said was partly evidenced by widespread protests against the war on college campuses. Respondents aged 50 to 64 were most supportive of Israel, while those under 30 were less likely to express strong support.

“Older people have the experience of viewing Israel and Jews fighting for their survival in a hostile world, while younger generations have seen Israel mostly as an aggressor toward the Palestinians,” Inbari said.

The survey also found that attitudes varied among first-generation immigrants based on how long they’d lived in the U.S.

“American pro-Israel culture changes immigrant attitudes over time,” Inbari said.

Conservatives were 28% more likely to strongly support Israel, the survey found, while adherents of premillennialism, the belief in Jesus’ second coming and subsequent 1,000-year rule, were 83% more likely to support Israel.

Temple University’s Students for the Justice in Palestine and Philly Palestine Coalition chant on April 25, 2024 during a rally and march on campus in Philadelphia. They are calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and for the university to divest from companies with ties to the Israeli government.

Meanwhile, Black Americans were much less likely to support Israel than those of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. The likelihood of strongly backing Israel also fell among those who support a two-state solution, those with a positive view of Muslims and those with a high level of education.

'An unspeakable tragedy which can never be forgotten'

The survey found Catholics were least supportive of Jewish interests and causes, with 29% saying the statement “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust" was "probably true."

Matthew Tapie, director of the Center for Catholic & Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University in Florida, called the statement an “immoral and repugnant idea" and one "absolutely opposed" to church teachings and “the solemn and serious attitude toward the Shoah” – the Hebrew word for "destruction" that is often associated with the Holocaust – exemplified by leaders such as Pope Francis and St. Pope John Paul II.

“The Shoah is an unspeakable tragedy which can never be forgotten,” said Tapie, an associate professor of theology who also serves as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s committee for ethics, religion and the Holocaust. “It is a major fact of history and must concern all people today.”

Tapie, also unaffiliated with the survey, said Catholics should strive to understand the views of both Palestinians and Jews, especially those in Israel.

A similar survey of American Christians conducted in July 2022 by Saint Joseph’s University’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations in Philadelphia found that American Catholic views of Jews since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Before that, the authors said, the church had taught that Jews were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion.

Adam Gregerman, a professor of theology and religious studies at Saint Joseph's and co-director of the institute, was also unaffiliated with the more recent survey. While it was difficult to find a consistent through-line in the newer data, he said, it's important to remember the positive strides that once-troubled Jewish-Catholic relations have made over the last several decades.

“For the most part, there’s much to celebrate in the relationship between Jews and Christians in America,” Gregerman said. “The trajectory has been a positive one. That really deserves the most attention.”

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