Seeing unlikely progress in haredi, Israeli Arab communities

Israel's 72nd year will not be remembered as one of the great cohesion.

Joint prayer for world health in Jerusalem on April 22, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Joint prayer for world health in Jerusalem on April 22, 2020
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With two election campaigns nastily fought since last Independence Day (and another election having taken place just three weeks before it), Israel’s 72nd year will not be remembered as one of great cohesion.
Quite the contrary, it was a year in which those running for office – from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down – vilified various sectors of the population. First the Israeli Arabs, then the haredim (ultra-Orthodox); now extreme right-wing messianists, then lily-livered leftists.
The discourse in the traditional media was shrill, and on social-media platforms it was even worse. Many waited impatiently for Election Day to finally arrive – if only to put a merciful end to the corrosively divisive discourse. It was as if in another minute we would all be at each other’s throats.
And it is that background that makes various surveys released over the last few days just before Independence Day so interesting, as they reveal a nation much more cohesive than what is generally believed to  be the case. Moreover, they reveal a country where – contrary to the perception one can get from reading the newspapers and watching the nightly news programs – two groups, Arabs and haredim, feel much more a part of the country than most imagine.
And this is something one finds here not uncommonly: the phenomenon whereby a perception of underlying unhappiness is belied by statistics and surveys.
For instance, one common storyline here and in the Western media is that Israel is a land that has lost its appeal, and that people – if just given a chance – would love to leave and just go live elsewhere to get away from the conflict and the tension and the worries. Recurring stories about Israelis lining up for European passports – to places like Portugal and Germany – feed this myth.
The reality, as evident from Central Bureau of Statistics figures published every year before Independence Day, is quite different: Israel is in absolutely no danger of hemorrhaging population.
On the eve of Independence Day 2020, Israel’s population stands at 9.2 million, including some 6.8 million Jews. Twenty-two years ago, when Israel celebrated its Jubilee, the country’s population stood at 5.75 million, including some 4.6 million Jews. At that time, 35% of the world’s Jewish population lived in Israel. Today, that number stands at 45%.
In other words, the perception of various trends often does not necessarily line up with reality. Another perception – one reinforced by the hopefully now concluded election cycles – is that everything in the country is failing, a feeling one can easily get by listening to the nonstop media conversation about Israel’s failures and inadequacies (true and imagined) in dealing with the coronavirus.
Back in 2018, former prime minister Ehud Barak famously gave voice to this everything-is-falling-apart sentiment when, in a Kan Radio interview, he was innocuously asked how he was doing, and he replied: “Personally, excellent; nationally, horrible.”
Asked why “horrible,” he replied: “Look around. You don’t read newspapers? You don’t see?”
But a survey conducted for the Israel Democracy Institute and released on Monday indicates that the population does not share those sentiments, and that a vast majority of Israelis (63%) believe the country’s successes outweigh its failures (only 8% believe the situation is the other way around, and 22% say the failures and successes are equal).
That indicates a country that, contrary to what Barak would have one believe today as much as in 2018, is not falling apart. A country falling apart does not have more successes than failures.
Another prevalent perception is that the Arab population (some 21% of the country) and the haredim (8% of the population) feel completely marginalized and not part of the mainstream.
If true, that is a ticking social time bomb, as those two segments constitute nearly one-third of the country – a huge number to feel cut off from the national project.
However, the IDI survey found that both haredim and Israeli Arabs feel more connected and part of the country than ever before. Among haredim, 93.5% replied that to a large or fairly large degree they feel a part of Israel and share its problems, way up from 68.5% last year. Among Arabs, this figure is 77%, up from 42% last year.
Those numbers show a significant identification with the country. They were supported by a different survey released last week by the Jewish People Policy Institute. That survey found that 65% of the Israeli Arab public and 74% of the haredim replied: “very much” or “a fair amount” when asked if they feel like “real Israelis.”
When it comes to the Arab population, there is no small irony in this. It is the sense that they were being marginalized, and Netanyahu was pushing them outside the mainstream, that led them to the polls in very high numbers over the last two elections, reaching 59% in September, going up to 67% in March and bringing the 15 Joint List MKs into the Knesset.
And the more that Israeli Arabs take part in the political process, the more they seem to identify as Israeli. Interestingly enough, according to the JPPI survey, only a small percentage of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens self-identify as Palestinians (7%), a figure way down from last year, when 18% did so. By contrast, fully 23% call themselves Israelis (significantly up from only 5% last year), while 51% refer to themselves as Israeli Arabs.
In addition, 85% of Israel’s non-Jewish population said they feel “somewhat or very comfortable in Israel,” a figure that flies in the face of the claims of Israel’s virulent detractors who shriek that Israeli Arabs – whom they often call Palestinian Israelis – cannot possibly feel comfortable or at home in “apartheid” Israel.
One conclusion from all these results is that the elections of the past year, along with the coronavirus that has thrust everyone in the same boat, has led both the Arabs and haredim to feel more attached and a part of the state than they ever have before. And that, as Israel embarks on its 73rd year, is a positive trend.