Analysis from Israel

The Israeli media were virtually unanimous yesterday in headlining a new Pew survey of Israeli opinion. All highlighted the finding that nearly half of Israeli Jews support expelling Arabs. The only reporter who thought to ask an expert what this figure really means was Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet. But to understand the expert’s answer, one other fact is helpful: Just a day before Pew published its survey, two of the Knesset’s three Arab parties publicly condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, on the grounds that this declaration might benefit the country in whose parliament they serve.

Aderet queried Professor Sammy Smooha about the Pew finding because he’s Israel’s leading expert in Jewish-Arab relations, having tracked the subject since 2003 through a series of comprehensive annual polls. Smooha said Pew’s results disagreed with his own polls, which consistently found that about three-quarters of Israeli Jews support coexistence with Arabs. He offered two explanations for this divergence.

First, the Pew question was vague and confusing. Respondents were asked simply whether they agreed or disagreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” That’s easy to answer if you believe that Arabs should either always be expelled or never be expelled. But what if, like many Israelis, you believe the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no?

Many center-rightists, for instance, favor expelling Arabs who openly support terror or seek to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, but not other Arabs. Many center-leftists believe East Jerusalem Arabs (most of whom are permanent Israeli residents but not citizens) should be forced to become part of the Palestinian Authority whether they want to or not, but not other Arabs. Thus for these respondents, the answer would depend on whether they interpreted the word “Arabs” in Pew’s question to mean “all Arabs” or “some Arabs.”

Smooha argued that most respondents who agreed with the statement interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” because if you read it to mean expelling all Arabs, the idea “is unrealistic and unfeasible.” Indeed, no Israeli party advocates expelling all Arabs, and very few individuals do; even diehard anti-Arab racists tend to make exceptions for the Druze, for instance.

His interpretation is reinforced by looking at voting patterns. According to Pew, rightist and religious Jews overwhelmingly support expelling Arabs. But the only right-wing party that actually advocates expelling sizable numbers of Arabs – Yisrael Beiteinu, which wants to swap certain Arab towns for the major settlement blocs under a final-status deal with the Palestinians – won a mere six seats in the last Knesset elections; the other rightist and religious parties, which advocate no such thing, won a combined 51.

In contrast, Pew found little support for expelling Arabs on the left. Yet the leading center-left faction – Zionist Union, with 24 seats – is also the one Israeli faction that advocates expelling large numbers of Arabs right now, as opposed to under some distant final-status agreement: The Labor Party, which accounts for most of Zionist Union’s seats, recently adopted a plan to unilaterally hand East Jerusalem over to the PA, thereby removing hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel.

In short, Pew’s results don’t fit actual voting patterns at all unless you conclude that most center-leftists interpreted its question as meaning “all Arabs,” and therefore disagreed, while most rightists interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” and therefore agreed.

This brings us to Smooha’s second explanation: He believes Pew’s finding primarily “reflects alienation and disgust with the Arabs more than it attests to agreement to grant legitimacy to the government to expel them.” In other words, many Israelis chose to interpret the question as meaning “some Arabs” – a position they could support – because they wanted to demonstrate their “alienation and disgust.”

But why would Israeli Jews want to do that? And why would they want to expel “some Arabs” to begin with? First, because they’re sick and tired of hearing Israeli Arab leaders openly support anti-Israel terror. And second, they’re sick and tired of ordinary Arabs – the ones who claim to support coexistence, and who I believe in many cases genuinely do – not only refusing to disavow these leaders, but reelecting them to the Knesset year after year.

The Hezbollah controversy, which broke after Pew’s survey was conducted, is a perfect example. Hezbollah has killed thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of non-Israeli Arabs. Yet the Balad and Hadash parties both condemned the GCC for declaring it a terrorist organization, because Balad thought the decision “serves Israel and its allies in the region” and harms “anyone acting against Israeli aggression,” while Hadash thought it serves Israel’s interests, helps maintain the “Israel occupation” and “proves that Gulf states are totally loyal to neo-colonialist and Zionist forces, the enemies of Arabs.”

All this was too much even for the far-left Haaretz, which usually defends Arab MKs’ every outrage. In a blistering editorial, it pointed out that Hezbollah attacks also kill many Israeli Arabs (most of whom live in the north, which is Hezbollah’s primary target) and demanded, “Could it be that the representatives of the Balad and Hadash parties are willing to accept this, just as long as Jews are killed too?” It then lambasted “the absence of diplomatic logic” in claiming that Hezbollah fights the “Israeli occupation” when it actually does no such thing, being too busy dominating Lebanon and helping to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

Finally, it wrote, these parties, “with their own hands … are crushing Israeli Arabs’ struggle for equal rights and recognition of their unique status in the Jewish state” by lending support to the claim “that Israeli Arabs are enemies of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Memo to Arab MKs: When even Haaretz won’t support you, you’ve really lost every last Israeli Jew.

I’ve explained before why Israeli Arabs keep reelecting these parties despite claiming that they don’t reflect the voters’ priorities. But however justified the explanation, the combination of ever more outrageous behavior by Arab MKs and the growing “alienation and disgust” reflected by the Pew poll clearly creates a combustible situation. And at some point, if a new and different Israeli Arab leadership doesn’t emerge, it’s liable to explode.

Yet rather than helping to cultivate such a new leadership, both American Jews and Israeli leftists have been enthusiastically supporting the very Israeli Arabs who are doing the most to destroy coexistence. Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh, for instance – who condemned the GCC for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but won’t condemn Palestinian knife attacks because “I don’t think it’s my place to tell the people how to resist” – was feted by Jewish groups when he visited America last year.

Thus, it’s high time for Arabs and Jews alike to realize that supporting arsonists like Odeh is no way to foster coexistence. Otherwise, the “alienation and disgust” reflected in the Pew poll will only keep growing.

Originally published in Commentary on March 9, 2016

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Jewsraelis: A Review of ‘#IsraeliJudaism’ by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs

Through 2,000 years of exile, Judaism survived because rabbinic sages reshaped it into a portable religion rather than one anchored to a specific land. But what happens once a Jewish state is reestablished? Judaism is changing once again, Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs argue in #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution—only this time, from the bottom up.

The book, published in Hebrew in 2018 and English in 2019, is based on a survey of beliefs and practices among 3,005 Israeli Jews. The survey was commissioned by the Jewish People Policy Institute, where Rosner is a senior fellow; Fuchs was the project’s statistician. A book based on a survey could easily become an indigestible mass of statistics, but Rosner and Fuchs have produced a highly readable (and superbly translated) analysis of what this data actually tell us.

What they tell us, the authors say, is that a “new Judaism” is emerging in Israel—one that values Jewish tradition, though not strict adherence to halacha (Jewish law), and that views national identity as a crucial component of Judaism. For instance, 73 percent of Jewish Israelis say being Jewish includes observing Jewish festivals and customs. And 72 percent say being a good Jew includes raising one’s children to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, while 60 percent say it includes raising one’s children to live in Israel.

This fusion of religious and national identity characterizes 55 percent of Israeli Jews, whom Rosner and Fuchs infelicitously dub “Jewsraelis.” The rest divide roughly equally among people whose identity is primarily Jewish (17 percent), primarily Israeli (15 percent), and primarily universalist (13 percent).

Israeli Judaism necessarily differs from both the Diaspora and pre-state versions, since its national components, like army service, aren’t possible outside a Jewish state. Moreover, Judaism is present in Israel’s public square to a degree impossible elsewhere, from public-school classes on the Bible (since it’s part of Israel’s cultural heritage) to the country’s complete shutdown on Yom Kippur. Unsurprisingly, this produces fierce arguments over what Judaism’s public component should look like, including efforts to dictate it through legislative or executive action.

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