Analysis from Israel

A regular reader of Odeh Bisharat’s op-eds in Haaretz might reasonably conclude that the Israeli Arab author doesn’t like his country very much. So I was stunned by the advice he offered his fellow Israeli Arabs in his latest column. Aside from being something you rarely hear Israeli Arab intellectuals say, it’s good advice–not just for his own community, but also for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews:

The time has come for the Arab leaders of public opinion to say outright: In spite of everything, we have it good here. It’s true that there’s a mountain of problems, but we want to be citizens of the state. Here we can fight to improve our living conditions, to protest, mobilize Jewish public opinion and conduct a battle against the extreme right. After all, the program that unites most of the [Israeli] Arab movements is based on the principle that Arabs are citizens of the state in which they will realize their national and civil rights. And in that case, it’s important to convey that the Arabs care about the state, because they care about themselves and their future.

The irony is that even though you never hear their leaders say so, most Israeli Arabs already agree with Bisharat. Polls have shown this repeatedly (here and here, for instance). The latest evidence came from last month’s Peace Index poll, a monthly survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. It found that Israeli Arabs are actually more optimistic than Israeli Jews about the country’s situation–in sharp contrast to what one would expect to find if, as both Israeli and foreign media outlets like to claim, Israel was suffering from a rising tide of anti-Arab racism.

Fully 40.3 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed Israel’s current situation “very good” while another 22.7 percent deemed it “moderately good,” meaning that 63 percent offered a positive assessment. By comparison, only 9.7 percent of Israeli Jews rated the current situation “very good” and 34.0 percent “moderately good,” for a total positive assessment of 43.7 percent. Israeli Arabs were similarly bullish about the future, with 32.9 percent predicting that Israel’s situation would be “much better” in the new Jewish year that began in October and another 21.5 percent expecting it to be “a little better,” for an overall positive assessment of 54.5 percent. The corresponding figures for Israeli Jews were 7.5 and 15.0 percent, for a total positive of just 22.5 percent.

Arab optimism extended across every field the pollsters checked: military-security (where 39.9 percent of Arabs forecast improvement), political-diplomatic (42.3 percent), socioeconomic (42.6 percent) and “disputes between different parts of the public” (31.6 percent). In every category, the proportion of Arabs who expected improvement far surpassed both the proportion of Jews expecting improvement and the proportion of Arabs expecting deterioration. Indeed, the proportion of Arabs who foresaw deterioration ranged from just 2.8 percent on socioeconomic issues to 13.2 percent on “disputes between different parts of the public.” Those last two figures are particularly noteworthy. If Israeli Arabs really felt threatened by rising racism, they would hardly predict improvement in “disputes between different parts of the public” by a ratio of almost 3:1 and improvement in the socioeconomic realm by more than 15:1.

Nevertheless, there’s one very real barrier to further improvement: Israeli Jews largely believe that most Israeli Arabs care more about the Palestinian cause than about their own country’s wellbeing, for the very good reason that this is what they hear, over and over, from Israeli Arab leaders. This obviously encourages anti-Arab sentiment and impedes integration. And as Bisharat correctly noted, it will be very hard to change this perception as long as Arab-Israeli opinion leaders refuse to say publicly that it’s false – that despite the “mountain of problems” Israeli Arabs face, and especially their deep disagreements with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, they nevertheless feel they “have it good here” and really do “care about the state.”

Bisharat’s advice, however, is no less applicable to the Jewish world–there, too, the refusal to “say outright” that things are good in Israel despite the problems is causing serious long-term damage.

As evidence, consider Sara Hirschhorn’s op-ed in Haaretz last week, with the self-explanatory title “Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids.” In it, the Oxford University lecturer lamented that young British Jews are turned off by Israel–not, as so frequently claimed, by “the occupation or the settlements,” but by “the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.” And to her credit, she acknowledged that liberal Zionist adults are largely responsible for this development: If liberals are to convince their children that a Jewish state is worth having, she wrote, “Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings—we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud—in spite of it all—in the State of Israel today.”

But of course, they rarely do. All you hear from most liberal Zionists nowadays, both in Israel and abroad, is a vile caricature of Israel: occupation, settlements, racism, discrimination, every evil in the modern pantheon. And when that’s all the kids have ever heard, why wouldn’t they end up thinking a Jewish state is a bad idea?

Problems obviously shouldn’t be swept under the rug; Israel is a good place to live precisely because it tries so hard to keep improving. But you can have too much of a good thing, and with regard to obsessing over Israel’s flaws, that point was passed long ago for both Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Jews.

Thus in both communities, as Bisharat and Hirschhorn correctly pointed out, the road to beneficial change begins with ceasing to focus only on the negative and remembering the highlight the positive as well. Saying outright that even Arabs “have it good” in Israel, unlike in so many Arab countries, might be an excellent place to start not just for Israeli Arabs, but also for Diaspora Jews.

Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2016

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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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