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Friday, July 22, 2011

Lies, damn lies and J-Street surveys

Yesterday, J-Street came out with a poll saying that Jews are still more pro-Obama than leaning towards Republican candidates, even though that support has eroded.

The general outline of that result is probably mostly true, but another of the survey questions - regarding J-Street itself - shows how the wording of a question can influence the answer.

Here is how the press release described the poll result that J-Street clearly wanted to uncover:
Efforts to prevent Jewish critics of Israeli government policy from participating in Jewish community events directly contradict the beliefs and values of most American Jews. When asked if groups like the JCC or Jewish Federations should allow Jewish organizations that publicly criticize certain Israeli government policies to participate in events sponsored by the Jewish community, 79 percent responded that they should allow these groups to participate.

This belief holds steady (77 percent) when presented with J Street’s perspective about  opposing policies like settlement expansion in the West Bank and with J Street’s critics’ perspective that J Street’s criticism undermines Israeli security and that “just calling itself pro Israel does not make J Street pro-Israel.” Notably, these results are very similar among Jews who belong to a synagogue (74 percent think J Street should be allowed to participate) and Jews who do not belong to a synagogue (79 percent think J Street should be allowed to participate).
Do 77% of Jews believe that J-Street belongs inside the "big tent" of Jewish organizations?

Here's how the general question was phrased:

Do you think Jewish community organizations such as local Jewish Federations and JCCs should allow or not allow Jewish organizations that publicly criticize some Israeli government policies to participate in events sponsored by Jewish community organizations?

Should allow 79%
Should not allow 21%
It is a generic question, designed to appeal to Jewish sense of fairness. Of course everyone supports multiple viewpoints and of course it is possible to be critical of specific Israeli policies while remaining inside the mainstream of the American Jewish community. But at some point, "criticism" goes beyond the pale - and the survey question does not attempt to identify where that line is.

On J-Street specifically, the question bias is stark:
As you may know, there is a Jewish organization called J Street which calls itself the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.

J Street supports Israel and its right to defend itself, and believes that it is acceptable to criticize some Israeli government policies, such as expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Opponents of J Street say that an organization which criticizes Israeli policy undermines Israeli security, and that just calling itself pro-Israel does not make J Street pro-Israel.

Do you think Jewish community organizations such as local Jewish Federations and JCCs should allow or not allow J Street to participate in events sponsored by Jewish community organizations?

Should allow 77%
Should not allow 23%
Keep in mind that most American Jews are not so involved in politics to have ever heard of J-Street, or to care too much about it. So the first sentence subconsciously defines J-Street for them by saying it is "pro-Israel, pro-peace" - concepts that everyone agrees with. That sentence frames the next two sentences.

The next sentence states, as a fact, that J-Street supports Israel and its right to defend itself - without defining what that means. They mention one specific Israeli policy they disagree with, but don't say (for example) that they support the US cutting aid to Israel based on that position.

The third sentence does not state anything as a fact - but as a claim. Opponents say something, but it is not established as fact the way the previous sentence described J-Street. So while J-Street is defined by the question itself as being pro-Israel, it says that its opponents only say that it is not.

Not only that,  the characterization of what J-Street's opponents believe is framed as a generic attack against any organization that is even mildly critical of Israel, subtly putting J-Street in a broad category of a group of organizations that criticize some specific aspects of Israeli policy while inherently being broadly supportive of Israeli policy.

Now that the question has thoroughly defined the parameters, the person being surveyed is primed to answer the way J-Street desires.

To make it clearer, here is another way the question could have been phrased:
As you may know, there is a Jewish political organization called J-Street.

J-Street claims to support Israel and its right to defend itself and says that it only criticizes some Israeli government policies. It would like the US to reduce aid to Israel unless Israel adheres to this American political organization's concept of what Israel should do.

Opponents of J-Street note that J-Street has lobbied for the US not to veto anti-Israel UN resolutions, and that both the Israeli public and government are overwhelmingly against J-Street's political positions as being dangerous to Israeli security.

Do you think Jewish community organizations such as local Jewish Federations and JCCs should allow or not allow J-Street to participate in events sponsored by Jewish community organizations?

How do you think that American Jews would answer that question?

J-Street's biased question could even be used to describe "Jewish" groups that support boycotting Israel. Which shows even more starkly how badly that question was written, and how you cannot believe survey results based on press releases by the organizations that issued the survey to begin with.