Analysis from Israel

It feels almost tasteless to be writing about good news while France is mourning a horrific terror attack. Yet there’s been so much good news from Israel over the last week that my biggest dilemma has been which item to pick. Having discussed immigration yesterday, it’s time to move onto Israel’s Arab minority–specifically, the stunning new Israel Democracy Institute survey in which 65 percent of Arab citizens said they were either “quite” or “very” proud to be Israeli in 2014, up from 50 percent the previous year.

To be fair, the poll was conducted between April 28 and May 29–meaning after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down, but before the summer’s war in Gaza, the shocking murder of an East Jerusalem teen by Jews, and other difficult events of the past several months. Thus had it been taken today, the number might well be lower.

Nevertheless, given the torrent of accusations of “racism” and “apartheid” that have been hurled at Israel for years now from both inside and outside the country, it’s quite remarkable to discover that as of eight months ago, 65 percent of Israeli Arabs were “proud” to be citizens of that “racist,” “apartheid” Jewish state, and 64 percent said they usually felt their “dignity as a human being is respected” in Israel. This raises the obvious question of whether perhaps Israeli Arabs know something about Israel that its detractors don’t.

In this regard, it’s worth considering some of the survey’s other surprising findings. For instance, 57 percent of Israeli Arabs said they have faith in the Israel Police–second only to the Supreme Court (60 percent), and significantly higher than the proportion of Jews who said the same (45 percent). This reflects the fruit of a decade-long effort by the police to rebuild trust with Arab communities after the nadir reached in October 2000, when policemen killed 13 Arabs in course of suppressing massive, violent Arab riots. Since then, police have tried hard to recruit more Arabs to the force, open more stations in Arab towns, and maintain a regular dialogue with Arab community leaders. And as the survey shows, this effort is working.

Even more astounding is that 51 percent of Arabs expressed confidence in the Israel Defense Forces–aka the “occupation army” that, according to Israel’s detractors, ruthlessly oppresses their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. This exceeds the level of confidence Israeli Arabs expressed in the Knesset, the media, or their religious leadership and suggests they don’t buy the canard of IDF brutality enthusiastically swallowed overseas. I also suspect the IDF–and Israel as a whole–benefited from comparisons with the real atrocities being perpetrated in Syria and the heavy-handed tactics used by Egypt’s military: The contrast with the meltdown in much of the Arab world can’t help but make Israel look more attractive.

Yet Israeli Arabs’ pride in Israel also reflects the concerted efforts to improve integration and narrow Jewish-Arab gaps that successive governments have made over the past two decades.

For instance, an affirmative action program launched in 2007 quadrupled the proportion of Arabs in the civil service over the space of just four years. It’s still significantly lower than their proportion in the workforce, but nevertheless constitutes dramatic improvement.

Similarly, a government program to subsidize employment of Arab high-tech workers helped quadruple the number of such workers between 2010 and 2013. And in Israel’s premier technological university, the Technion, Arabs now constitute 21 percent of the student body–slightly higher than their share of the population–thanks to a special program to recruit Arab students and give them extra support while they are there.

The gap between Jewish and Arab matriculation rates hasn’t disappeared, but it did shrink by more than a third from 1996-2012. Arabs remain underrepresented among master’s and Ph.D. students, but the percentage of master’s degrees awarded to Arabs more than doubled from 2005-2013 and the percentage of Ph.D.s rose by 40 percent. Concerted efforts to build more Arab schools have brought average class sizes down to the same level as in secular Jewish schools. And so on and so forth.

In short, while gaps and discrimination still exist, Israel has been working hard to reduce them, with considerable success. And Israeli Arabs have responded with growing pride in being citizens of the democratic Jewish state.

Originally published in Commentary 

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‘We need to talk’ about the role of non-Orthodox movements

The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.

Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.

Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.

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