Analysis from Israel

If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

The first poll, published last month, unsurprisingly shows that 77 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of Israeli Arabs also believe last summer’s events worsened Jewish-Arab relations, and that negative stereotypes still abound. What it also shows, however, is that neither side considers this situation irreversible, and both are seriously interested in changing it.

For instance, a whopping 87 percent of Arab respondents said they still believe Jewish-Arab coexistence is possible. Even more astonishingly, the proportion of Arabs who said they identify with the Israeli flag shot up to 55 percent, from 37 percent last year, while the proportion that identifies with the Palestinian flag plunged from 34 percent to 8 percent.

Among Jews, the proportion who said they’d like to know the Arab population better shot up to 52 percent, from 38 percent last year. And this isn’t just talk: As Haaretz reported last month, both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites are studying the other’s language in record numbers. New classes are filling “almost as fast as the courses can open”; waiting lists are long; and both sides say they could easily fill many more classes were it not for the shortage of qualified teachers.

The other two polls–conducted independently by Tel Aviv University and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and released this week–show that Arab turnout in next week’s election is expected to hit a 16-year high. This is noteworthy, because the last time Jewish-Arab relations nosedived, following the Arab riots of October 2000, Arabs responded with a symbolic bill of divorce: boycotting the 2001 election. This time, they’re responding by turning out to vote in record numbers. As Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the Times of Israel, “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Moreover, many of them now want to use this citizenship not to push a separatist Palestinian identity, but to improve Arab integration. According to the TAU poll, 44 percent of Arab respondents think their Knesset members’ top priority “should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health.” Another 28 percent said the most important issue was “government treatment of the Arab population,” while only 19 percent prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Haaretz poll last month similarly found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem.

In part, as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month, this change in Arab attitudes stems from the fact that successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to reduce anti-Arab discrimination and increase Arab integration, and though the job is far from done, the progress has been noteworthy. But another significant factor, as Abu Ras correctly noted, has been the events of the Arab Spring, which gave Israeli Arabs a new appreciation of Israeli democracy.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” he told the Times of Israel. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

This clearly bodes well for Israel’s future. Yet if even Israeli Arabs now see the cup as half full rather than half empty, isn’t it time for the rest of the world to do the same?

Originally published in Commentary on March 12, 2015

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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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