Nowadays, it’s become virtually accepted wisdom that Israel is becoming increasingly right-wing, and that this shift constitutes a major obstacle to peace. No less a figure than Bill Clinton made this claim at a Clinton Global Initiative conference in 2010. A 2011 study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies similarly declared, “Today Israel’s Jewish population is more nationalistic, religiously conservative, and hawkish on foreign policy and security affairs than that of even a generation ago, and it would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders.” A popular corollary of this thesis is that Israel, as it moves rightward, is becoming less democratic, less respectful of civil rights, and less tolerant of minorities.
Both halves of this thesis are wrong. In fact, Israeli politics have shifted sharply to the left; ideas once confined to the far-left fringe are now mainstream. And civil rights, democracy, and treatment of minorities have all been improving.
Twenty-one years ago, no one outside the far-left in Israel supported negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization or creating a Palestinian state. The mainstream left, represented by the Labor Party, certainly didn’t; when then–party leader Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992, he campaigned explicitly on promises of no negotiations with the PLO and no Palestinian state. And had he not done so, he wouldn’t have stood a chance of being elected. When Rabin violated that pledge by signing the Oslo Accord with the PLO in 1993, the move was hugely controversial, splitting Israel down the middle.
Since then, Israel has experienced 20 years of failed negotiations, in which Palestinians rejected repeated offers of statehood without even making a counteroffer. It’s experienced a terrorist war, the second intifada, which produced more Israeli casualties in four years than all the terrorism of the previous 53 years combined. It’s evacuated every inch of Gaza and gotten some 15,000 rockets in return. It wouldn’t be surprising if Israeli support for Palestinian statehood had declined. Instead, it’s increased. For years now, polls have consistently shown about 60 to 65 percent of Israelis supporting a Palestinian state.
Even Israel’s main center-right party, Likud, now publicly backs Palestinian statehood. Likud chairman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced this about-face in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University and has repeated it many times since. This would be noteworthy even if Netanyahu didn’t really mean it. For the fact of the matter is that the leader of Israel’s center right publicly declared support for Palestinian statehood, and far from being ousted by an indignant center-right public, he has been twice reelected by his own party.
In moments of honesty, even leftists acknowledge the significance of this development. As Geneva Initiative director Gadi Baltiansky, whose organization has been promoting a draft two-state agreement since 2003, said in September: “It’s true that the public wants a right-wing leader to implement the left’s policies, but it’s also true that the ideological map has moved left. ‘Two states for two peoples’ was once the motto of the extremist Hadash [Party]. Labor never called for it. Now it’s been uttered by the leader of Likud, even if he doesn’t do anything to bring it about.”
All the prime ministers who followed Rabin actually moved far to the left of the vision he outlined in his final Knesset address in October 1995. For instance, Rabin envisioned Israel living alongside a “Palestinian entity….which is less than a state,” and in fact, neither of the two agreements he signed with the PLO mentions a Palestinian state. Yet today, even Netanyahu openly advocates such a state.
Rabin also declared that Israel’s final borders “will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six-Day War” of 1967, specifying in particular that Israel’s “security border…will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” But according to both the New Republic and the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, even Netanyahu agreed last year to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines. And in 2008, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, explicitly offered the Palestinians the equivalent of the 1967 lines (with minor territorial swaps), including the Jordan Valley.
Rabin envisioned a “united Jerusalem, which will include both Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev, as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty.” Since Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev are major West Bank settlements located respectively east and north of Jerusalem, this would mean a Jerusalem vastly larger than Israel’s current capital. Yet since then, two Israeli premiers—Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak—have offered the Palestinians most of East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount.
Rabin vowed to retain the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza, but since then, Israel has withdrawn from every inch of Gaza. Rabin also pledged “not to uproot a single settlement in the framework of the interim agreement, and not to hinder building for natural growth.” Since then, Israel has uprooted 25 settlements without a final-status agreement (21 in Gaza and four in the West Bank). And in 2009, the “hardline” Netanyahu instituted Israel’s first-ever moratorium on settlement construction, a 10-month freeze that then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly termed “unprecedented.”
In short, not only has public opinion shifted to the left, but so have government policies, on both interim and final-status issues.
If so, why do many people nevertheless think that Israel has moved to the right? Presumably due to one seemingly anomalous fact: a change in how Israelis identify themselves. According to the Peace Index, a regular poll begun in 1994, only 12 percent of Israeli Jews self-identified as being on the left this past August, while 62 percent self-identified as being on the right—a dramatic change from the roughly even split of 20 years ago. This change was reflected in the last two Knesset elections, which gave a majority of seats to parties that self-identify as rightist or religious.
But this is misleading; because of the leftward shift of the past 20 years, the term “right” no longer means what it used to. Once, the right opposed any territorial concessions. Today, the right’s acknowledged leader, Netanyahu, publicly supports a Palestinian state. Many Israelis, therefore, now see no contradiction between supporting a two-state solution and self-identifying as “right” or voting for a self-identified center-right party such as Likud.
There is, moreover, one issue on which Israelis really have moved rightward: Due to the combination of two decades’ worth of failed negotiations, the massive upsurge in terror that followed the Oslo Accords, and the almost daily rocket barrages that followed the 2005 pullout from Gaza, polls have shown for years now that despite continuing to support a two-state
solution, about 70 percent of Israelis no longer believe it’s achievable anytime soon. And this has two important ramifications.
One is that since they no longer consider peace imminently achievable, Israelis are voting more than ever before on domestic issues. For instance, polls found that in 2013, roughly half the people who voted for Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home—the only Knesset faction that explicitly opposes a two-state solution—were actually two-state supporters. So why would they vote Jewish Home? Because the party campaigned almost entirely on economic issues, emphasizing Bennett’s record as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. And that attracted many Israelis who feel that if peace isn’t achievable, they’d at least like the government to lower the cost of living.
Even more important, however, is the fact that self-identified leftists—in the Knesset, the media, academia, and nongovernmental organizations—still insist that peace really could be achieved tomorrow if Israel wanted it. The fact that governments who put “peace” at the center of their policy goals have been elected twice over the past 15 years, most recently in 2006, and proved no more successful at peacemaking than their center-right rivals doesn’t faze them, nor does the dramatic increase in terror from every territorial withdrawal of the past two decades.
And so to many Israelis, the left increasingly looks delusional, because it’s propounding a conclusion that, in their view, contradicts the accumulated experience of the past 20 years. And since most people don’t want to identify themselves as delusional, Israelis are increasingly saying they’re on the right. This, coupled with their desire not to repeat the disastrous territorial pullouts of the past two decades, has also led many to shun parties that explicitly place themselves on the left.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Israelis still overwhelmingly support a two-state solution. Today’s “right-wing” Israel is a country where the majority hold political positions found only among Hadash, the Arab–Jewish Communist party, two decades ago.
The second half of the equation—that Israel is becoming more and more undemocratic and dismissive of human rights—is no less false. But before examining some of the ways in which democracy and human rights have expanded in recent years, it’s important to understand four reasons this canard has become so pervasive.
First, both sides in Israel’s political debate have a bad habit of trying to paint any idea they oppose as fundamentally illegitimate. When rightists dislike an idea, for instance, they call it “anti-Jewish” or “anti-Zionist.” When leftists dislike an idea, they call it “anti-democratic” or “anti–human rights.” But that doesn’t mean it actually is.
Take, for instance, several bills in recent years aimed at giving the public’s elected representatives control over Supreme Court appointments, which leftists have consistently slammed as “anti-democratic.” Former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, for example, declared that this would “set Israeli democracy back several years” and even “turn Israel into a Third World country.” Yet in almost every other democracy worldwide, Supreme Court appointments are controlled by the executive and/or legislative branches. Only in Israel are justices instead chosen primarily by unelected legal officials. (Israel’s nine-member Judicial Appointments Committee include three sitting justices chosen by the Supreme Court itself and two lawyers chosen by the Bar Association.) And to claim that appointing justices the same way as all other democracies do would somehow be “anti-democratic” is absurd.
Or consider the firestorm that erupted when the Ministry of Education decided in 2011 that Jewish kindergartens should open the week by singing the national anthem, “Hatikva.” (Arab kindergartens were exempted lest they find this offensive.) A University of Haifa professor declared that members of the ruling Likud party were competing “to see who can push us faster into the arms of fascism.” An Arab nongovernmental organization called the new rule “part of a growing trend of inculcating nationalistic and militaristic values.” A lecturer at a leading teacher’s college termed the directive “reminiscent of education in a totalitarian society.” Yet the decision was essentially no different than America’s practice of having public-school students open the day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. So here, too, Israeli leftists were absurdly claiming that a practice normal in other democracies was somehow anti-democratic.
Perhaps the epitome of hypocrisy occurred over several recent bills to declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. The outcry was led by former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who described her opponents as “dangerous, extremist parties that must be prevented from taking over and destroying the country.” Yet the most “extreme” version of the bill was a word-for-word copy of one that had been submitted by her own party, with her backing, in the previous Knesset. It morphed from being perfectly kosher to being “anti-democratic” solely because the sponsor was now a “right-wing” Knesset member.
A second reason for the canard relates to the nature of democracy itself: Anyone with an idea, however stupid or evil, is free to tout it and even try to enact it, and some of those people even get elected to public office. In any democracy, objectionable proposals periodically arise, and Israel is hardly unique in that regard: Consider last year’s proposal by the mayor of Borgaro, Italy, to run separate bus lines for gypsies and other town residents. What distinguishes a properly functioning democracy is the existence of self-correcting mechanisms that keep such ideas from being implemented.
So when private members’ bills seeking to deprive political nongovernmental organizations of foreign funding were submitted a few years ago, Israel’s own self-correcting democratic mechanisms solved the problem: Newspapers, civil-society groups, and other Knesset members vociferously objected, and the bills were iced. The same happened when it emerged, a few years ago, that certain bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox communities were making women sit at the back of the bus. Israel’s own democratic mechanisms—including media coverage, cabinet and Knesset discussions, and petitions to the High Court of Justice—soon got the practice stopped.
The problem is that such issues generally get massive media play when they first arise, and then very little once they are resolved. Anyone who follows the media inevitably hears about many objectionable initiatives that, precisely because Israel is a functioning democracy, never come to pass.
A third crucial factor is that news from Israel is invariably reported devoid of comparative context. Take, for instance, the wave of vandalistic attacks on mosques in recent years that is frequently cited as proof of Israeli “racism.” Such attacks are clearly abhorrent. But they are actually far less common in Israel than in many other Western democracies. During Israel’s worst years for such attacks, 2009–2014, Wikipedia lists a grand total of 24. By comparison, after a Muslim extremist assassinated filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland, researcher Ineke van der Valk counted 117 “incidents” at Dutch mosques in 2005–2010, including graffiti attacks, vandalism, arson, and more. So Holland, whose population is twice that of Israel, had almost five times as many mosque attacks over a comparable time period, despite having suffered far fewer casualties due to Islamic extremism. In short, data that make Israel look racist when shorn of comparative context actually show it to be more tolerant and less violent than the Netherlands, generally considered a paragon of tolerance.
Another factoid cited to demonstrate a worsening problem in Israel’s treatment of non-Jews is the country’s infant-mortality rate. In 2011, it was 2.6 per 1,000 for Jews and 6.8 for Muslims, a gap of 4.2 births per 1,000. In isolation, that may sound like proof of shocking discrimination. Yet in Britain that same year, the majority-minority gap was significantly larger, at 4.8 births per 1,000 (3.7 for whites and 8.5 for those of Pakistani origin). And in neither country is the gap due solely, or even primarily, to discrimination. For instance, consanguineous marriages, which produce more fatal birth defects, are more common among Muslims than non-Muslims; additionally, infant mortality rates are higher among teenage mothers, and teenage mothers are more common in the Muslim community.
And that is the final factor behind the anti-Israel canard: As with infant mortality, differential outcomes don’t automatically indicate discrimination. They often stem at least partly from cultural differences. For instance, a study by Israeli–Arab researcher Dr. Rafik Haj found that Israeli–Arab towns have less money to spend on services than do equivalent Jewish towns in part because they collect taxes from only 27 percent of residents, while Jewish towns at the same socioeconomic level collect taxes from 63 percent of residents.
Similarly, the fact that no Arab party has ever served in a governing coalition doesn’t mean that Arabs per se are “excluded” from government; indeed, there have been several Arab ministers and deputy ministers from non-Arab parties. What excludes the Arab parties is their political positions, such as their consistent opposition to any and all counterterrorism operations. Since all non-Arab parties view counterterrorism as a core government responsibility, this essentially precludes their sitting in a coalition together.
In short, when evaluating news from Israel that sounds racist, anti-democratic, or discriminatory, four tests should always be applied: Is the “objectionable” proposal actually standard democratic practice? Have Israel’s own democratic mechanisms solved the problem? How does Israel compare with other Western countries on this issue? And to what degree is the problem due to factors that have nothing to do with discrimination?
But since no country in the world has yet figured out how to eradicate racism, discrimination, or gaps between population groups, there’s one final question that must also be asked: Are things getting better or worse? In Israel, the answer is that they’re getting better.
To appreciate the magnitude of the progress in Israel, one must understand that the pre-1967 “golden age” for which liberal Jews often seem so nostalgic was actually far from golden for many people. Anyone who belonged to the wrong political party (Menachem Begin’s Herut rather than the ruling Mapai) was systematically excluded not only from government, but also from the workplace: Much of the economy back then was state-owned, and state-owned companies wouldn’t hire anyone who couldn’t prove membership in the Histadrut, the labor union affiliated with Mapai. Jews of Middle Eastern origin, known in Israel as Mizrahim, were systematically excluded from the higher ranks of government, academia, state-owned companies, and any other institution affiliated with the state, all of which were dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. And Israeli Arabs weren’t just excluded; they were under military government until 1966. In short, the good old Israel may have been wonderful for the leftist, Ashkenazi founding elite, but it systematically discriminated against everyone else.
All that has since begun to change, especially over the past two decades. A study conducted by Momi Dahan in 2013 found that while the anti-Mizrahi discrimination of those early decades hasn’t been eliminated, the gaps have narrowed significantly. In 2011, the average Mizrahi household still earned 27 percent less than the average Ashkenazi one—but that’s down from 40 percent in 1995, a relatively steep decline in just 16 years. And among the economy’s top 10 percent, Mizrahim are now represented proportionally to their share of the total population.
Similarly, Dahan found, the percentage of Mizrahi 20- to 29-year-olds enrolled in higher education doubled between 1995–96 and 2006–07. Though it remained lower than the rate among Ashkenazim (13.7 percent compared with 20.7 percent), the gap shrank by over a third, from 11 to 7 percentage points, in those 11 years.
Mizrahim are also now routinely represented in the highest ranks of government and government institutions; they have served as senior cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, an IDF chief of staff, and more. In short, Israel has moved steadily from excluding half the Jewish population toward including it—a huge leap forward in terms of both democracy and human rights.
Women, too, have made notable progress. They still earn less per hour than men, but according to a 2014 study by the Knesset research center, the pay gap is identical to the European Union average. And while women remain underrepresented in many institutions, their representation has grown steadily. For instance, the Supreme Court got its first woman president only in 2006, but its second took office in January. Similarly, the IDF has opened many positions to women, including the air force and frontline combat units, and appointed its first female major general in 2011.
Women have even made significant strides in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Thirty years ago, for instance, women weren’t allowed to argue cases before the Haredi-dominated rabbinical courts. Today, women lawyers routinely appear before rabbinical courts. Haredi women are increasingly working in high-tech and even starting their own companies, and their employment rate now exceeds that for Israeli women as a whole. Last June, several Haredi Knesset members openly backed a woman, Dalia Itzik, for president of Israel. This is a dramatic shift from just a few decades ago, when Haredim held that a female president would violate Jewish law.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, has been the progress toward integrating Israeli Arabs. In terms of the letter of the law, Israel’s treatment of minorities has long compared favorably with Europe’s. To cite a few salient examples, Israel doesn’t have a law banning minarets, as Switzerland does, or a law barring civil servants from wearing headscarves, as France does; nor does it deny citizenship to Arabs just because they can’t speak the majority’s language, as Latvia does to some 300,000 ethnic Russians born and bred there. But over the past two decades, successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to create de facto as well as de jure equality. And while the job is far from done, the improvement has been impressive.
For instance, in 1996, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, only 23.7 percent of Arabs obtained a high-school matriculation certificate that met university entrance requirements, compared with 42.4 percent of Jews. By 2012, the gap had shrunk by a third even though the Jewish rate rose to 51.0 percent, because the Arab rate had risen even faster, to 38.2 percent. And while the improvement has encompassed the entire Arab community, it’s been particularly steep in places where local governments have made education a priority. The Druze towns of Isfiya and Yarka, for instance, boosted their matriculation rates by about 20 percentage points just from 2012 to 2013, while the impoverished Druze town of Beit Jann now has the second highest matriculation rate in Israel. As Haaretz reported in 2013, moreover, heavy investment in the construction of Arab schools has brought average class sizes in these schools down by 28.5 students, identical to the nonreligious Jewish state schools.
In higher education, Arab progress has also been significant. In 2005, according to the statistics bureau, only 4.2 percent of all master’s degrees were awarded to Arabs. In 2013, the figure was 8.6 percent—meaning it more than doubled in just eight years. During those same eight years, the proportion of Ph.D.s awarded to Arabs rose by 40 percent, from 2.5 percent to 3.9 percent. Clearly, these figures are still too low, given that Arabs constitute 13 percent of the workforce and 20 percent of the population, but the Jewish–Arab gap is steadily narrowing. The increase in Arabs with advanced degrees will presumably narrow the income gap as well, since people with more education generally obtain better-paying jobs.
The number of Arabs working in high-tech almost sextupled from 2009 to 2014, according to a Bloomberg report in November; the boost came partly from a government program that, as Haaretz reported, subsidizes starting salaries for Arab high-tech workers by up to 40 percent. And at Israel’s premier technology university, the Technion, Arab undergraduates now constitute 21 percent of the student body—slightly higher than their share in the population—thanks to a special program to recruit them and then give them extra support to keep them from dropping out.
Arab and Jewish consumption patterns, moreover—a good indication of living standards—have converged, as the online journal Mida reported in November. Average outlays per family in urban Arab localities are lower than in wealthy Jewish cities such as Tel Aviv, but higher than in other Jewish-majority cities such as Haifa or Ashdod. And on a few issues, Arabs actually surpass the Jewish population: For instance, 93 percent of Arab households own their own home, compared with 70 percent of Jewish households.
Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of the Jewish–Arab organization Sikkuy (the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality), summed up the dramatic advances in integration in a Haaretz column in August 2014. “In the past,” Gerlitz wrote, “if Israeli Jews did not go to Arab communities, they never saw Arabs, except for laborers. But now, if they go to a pharmacy they are likely to be served by an Arab pharmacist…. If they go to the emergency room, they are likely to be treated by an Arab doctor….Jewish college students in Israel often have Arab lecturers. There are Arab department heads and even one Arab college president. Former President Moshe Katsav was convicted of sex crimes and sent to prison by a panel of judges headed by an Arab.”
None of this means that discrimination doesn’t still exist; it does. But significant efforts have been made, and are being made, to reduce the gaps, and these efforts are working.
Nor, contrary to the accepted wisdom, is anti-Arab prejudice on the rise, according to Professor Sammy Smooha, of Haifa University, who has been tracking anti-Arab prejudice since 2003. “The data don’t support the view that there has been an ongoing radicalization of Jewish attitudes toward Arabs,” he wrote in the
annual report he published last May. “In fact, they indicate stability in Jewish attitudes over the last decade.” Smooha noted, moreover, that this stability was maintained even though Arab attitudes toward Jews and Israel really did become more extreme between 2003 to 2012, though the trend reversed slightly in 2013. And in some respects—such as the proportion of Jews who say they would be comfortable having Arab neighbors—Jewish prejudice has declined markedly in the past decade.
If Smooha’s conclusion sounds counterintuitive, the culprit might well be social media. Vile statements abound on both Jewish and Arab social networks, and while such sentiments always have existed, they used to be kept decently private. Now they’re out in the open for everyone to see, which creates the perception that racism has become more prevalent even though the data do not support it. Clearly, there’s a danger that seeing racist ideas constantly validated on social media could harden views on both sides. But it could also have the opposite effect, by spurring greater public efforts to combat prejudice.
Smooha’s finding that Arab attitudes truly have radicalized over the past decade also merits more attention than it usually gets. It’s an unavoidable fact that Palestinians have been at war with Israel since its inception, and many Israeli Arabs—including all their elected representatives—vocally side with the Palestinians in this war. Under these circumstances, it’s fantasy to think that all prejudice can be extirpated; the Palestinian–Israeli conflict creates a real source of mutual suspicion that can’t simply be waved away.
But by comparison with other countries in similar circumstances, Israel has done remarkably well. Not only has it consistently upheld Arab political and civil rights for decades—Freedom House awards it a top-flight ranking of 1 out of 7 for political rights and 2 for civil rights—but it has also managed to steadily increase Arab opportunities and integration and make most of its Arab citizens feel that despite the problems, Israel remains a good place to live. Indeed, an Israel Democracy Institute survey conducted last May found that 65 percent of Israeli Arabs were “quite” or “very” proud to be Israeli, while 64 percent said they usually felt their “dignity as a human being is respected” in Israel. And even after the difficult events of the past summer and fall, a Statnet poll taken in November found that only 23 percent of Israeli Arabs would prefer living in a Palestinian state, while 77 percent prefer to remain Israeli.
The irony, as Gerlitz noted in his Haaretz article, is that this growing integration might actually be exacerbating Jewish–Arab friction. He blamed this on a backlash from Jewish extremists, but the truth is that increased integration among any two population groups often initially exacerbates tensions, as people who previously had little to do with each other suddenly have to learn to live and work side by side. That happens everywhere, even in countries where the situation isn’t complicated by an ongoing war in which many members of the minority vocally identify with the enemy.
The very fact that Arab integration is advancing rapidly in some ways makes the situation in Israel now particularly flammable, and it clearly isn’t helped by the fact that certain parliamentarians, both Jewish and Arab, have been doing their best to fan the flames. Nevertheless, the kind of problems that stem from growing integration are infinitely preferable to the alternative—because ultimately, they bode much better for Israel’s future.
Originally published in Commentary Magazine, March 2015 issue