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How does the public view the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the start of this election year, Americans are taking stock of former President Donald Trump's indictments, the war in Ukraine and the meanings of Zionism and antisemitism. A study analyzed the findings of several polls conducted by the University of Maryland together with the polling firm Ipsos. Lead author Shibley Telhami told me first how Trump's indictment over his handling of classified materials may have affected public perceptions of the former president.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Twenty-seven percent of all respondents said their views became less favorable, compared to only 7% who said their views became more favorable.

MARTIN: Is partisanship the main driver of people's perceptions of Donald Trump?

TELHAMI: Yeah, I think there's no question that you have a partisan divide. Even if you look at this particular poll, the particular indicator about more or less favorable views of him, it's - typically you would expect far more Republicans to say more favorable rather than less favorable. The fact that you have almost even number is really quite remarkable.

MARTIN: What's remarkable about it?

TELHAMI: Because normally when - given how partisan American politics are, you'd expect that far more people would say more favorable than less favorable, even on something like this. And the shift in independents - 29% less favorable to 5% more favorable - is huge. So, yes, it's partly partisan. There's something else going on here that is hurting him. How much it's hurting him? We don't know.

MARTIN: What did you find about how the Americans you surveyed thought about the way the former president has been treated by the justice system?

TELHAMI: That is an issue where more partisanship shows up, right? So you have two-thirds of Republicans say he's been treated worse than most people charged with similar alleged crimes, and while 59% of Democrats say he's been treated better than most people charged with similar alleged crimes.

MARTIN: I want to turn now to another series of questions that you asked about Zionism and antisemitism. One of the findings that stood out to me was that most Americans were unfamiliar with the concept of Zionism, which I'm going to say is the nationalist movement that we trace to the 19th century advocating for a Jewish homeland. What do you make of that?

TELHAMI: The most interesting result is how many Americans, 62%, said they're either unfamiliar or they don't know enough to present their opinion on this issue.

MARTIN: And what about antisemitism? You did ask some questions about that.

TELHAMI: The big surprise to me in the answers about antisemitism is that even when you talk about it in expression as attitudes against Jews or attitudes against the Jewish religion, you still have almost a third, 31%, who don't know whether attitudes against Jews constitute antisemitism. And 36% say they don't know if attitudes against Judaism is antisemitism.

Over the years, I've been also measuring attitudes toward Muslims, and we find that Americans express more prejudice toward Islam as a religion than toward Muslims as people. It seems harder for people, given sort of the American ethos, to express prejudice against other people but easier to express prejudice against ideas or religions. So that, too, we found here. Not as much variation on this issue, by the way, across partisan divide.

MARTIN: Do you think that these attitudes are informing sort of public support for U.S. policies toward the Israeli war in Gaza?

TELHAMI: Democrats have become far more critical of Israel. And after the Hamas attack on October 7, there was a spike of sympathy the first couple of weeks with Israel. We found that much of that was lost a month later, especially among young Democrats, who became far more critical of Israel than before.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Ukraine, obviously the other kind of big foreign policy issue for the United States. What I found most striking was the steady drop in support. To what do you attribute that?

TELHAMI: Initially, after Russia invaded Ukraine, we found a really strong spike of support across the board for Ukraine and for American support for Ukraine. In May of 2022, we found a drop, and then the polls were steady in the support for Ukraine between May and October of 2022. And then suddenly after October 2022, we found a beginning of a drop. We measured that last spring, spring of 2023, and in June of 2023. And I think we see the same thing in the more recent poll that we've conducted in September-October of 2023.

So the way I have looked at this is it's partly a function of partisanship, because how it's playing out in our own politics, it became a partisan issue. And so therefore Republicans are going to be less supportive and increasingly more so as we get closer to the election. But early on, more American tended to think Russia is doing badly and Ukraine is doing well. And then it dragged on, they became less supportive. And then there was more reporting about, really, Ukraine is not making any advances in the war. It's harder than they thought. The war is going on. So you get a little bit of a drop. So I think that idea - the partisanship of an election year, as well of an assessment of who's winning and who's losing - those two tend to tell the biggest story about the shift in public opinion on Ukraine.

MARTIN: That is Shibley Telhami. He's a professor at the University of Maryland. Professor Telhami, thank you so much for joining us.

TELHAMI: My pleasure. Thank you for hosting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "UNRIVALLED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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