Democracy losing ground to nationalism?

Public opinion on anti-boycott law is not solely influenced by ideological leanings

anti boycott law survey (photo credit: data collection: New Wave Research)
anti boycott law survey
(photo credit: data collection: New Wave Research)
STRIKES, PROTEST MOVEMENTS and demonstrations are a beloved part of the Israeli national language.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that the so-called “Boycott Bill” – making it a liability to call for or support a boycott against a body because of its association with the state or the occupied territories – passed so easily in the Knesset, by a vote of 47 to 38, in early July – and 35 parliamentarians did not vote at all.
The law is so vaguely worded that experts say it will be almost impossible to apply. It says that anyone who knowingly and publicly calls for, supports or joins an economic, cultural, or academic boycott against “another person or factor” only because of the latter’s association with the State of Israel – and, critically, anything under the state’s control – is committing a civil offence and is liable for damages. The injured party does not have to prove monetary damages.
For many, the bill is a way to stick it to those troublesome lefties. But how can Israeli society, which cherishes its ability to hold and express eight million opinions for 7.75 million people, allow anyone to curtail a right that seems to have been bestowed upon Jews like a 614th commandment: “Thou shalt argue”?
Several opinion surveys have been published trying to gauge public support for the measure. A headline in the largest mass daily, “Yedioth Ahronoth’s” weekend paper, loudly proclaimed that an absolute 51% majority supports the law, according to the survey it commissioned from the major polling agency Dahaf. Those who actually read the data learned that in fact this reflects the results for the Jewish population; from the full sample (500), the population was evenly tied, 47%-47%, and neither side had a majority. Furthermore, a 56% majority said either that the law was not justified and should not have been enacted, or that it is justified but still should not have been enacted.
Two days after the bill was passed, a survey by the research group Panels for the Knesset television channel showed a 52% majority (of the whole population, with 500 respondents) in favor of the law, with just 31% against. In other words, Israeli society is somewhere between split down the middle and majority in favor of the law – despite some awareness of its dangers.
In our The Jerusalem Report survey, we tried to understand why respondents do or don’t support the law. We theorized that the main sentiments behind support for or opposition to could stem from the perception that the “Boycott Bill” relates to the ideological boycotts proposed by certain groups and members of the far Left against Israel’s policy in the occupied territories or from the perception that the bill is related to issues of freedom of expression and democracy.
Support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement can be found almost solely among the hard-core Left in Israel and abroad. But according to most other surveys I have conducted, only about 15-20% of the total of Israeli Jews call themselves left-wing. Usually more than half of those actually define themselves as “moderate left.” The remainder is only 5- 10% of Jewish society and out of those, only a small portion would be supportive of BDS.
Therefore, the vast majority of Jews in Israel (and probably in the world) are viscerally opposed to boycotting the state, and many oppose boycotting the settlements too.
Certainly the politicians who supported the bill – especially its main sponsor, Zeev Elkin of Likud – claimed that it was a bill to protect Israel.
Thus, it is reasonable to assume that if people feel the law is really only about limiting boycotts against Israel, a majority would support the law, even if they define themselves as generally holding left-wing views.
If, however, citizens feel that the primary significance of the law is that it limits freedom of expression, they might be expected to oppose it, even if they also oppose boycotts.
This indeed was the perspective of many public voices – from “The New York Times” editorial to the Knesset Speaker, stalwart member of the Likud, Reuven Rivlin. Despite his ideological leanings, Rivlin has often come out against legislation that he feels is anti-democratic, drawing a clear line between democratic principles and left-right leanings. Following the passage of the law, Rivlin wrote a scathing op-ed, almost an ode to democracy, in the “Haaretz” weekend paper.
Which view is more important to the public – the belief that the law would protect Israel against boycotts or the fear that it would harm democratic freedoms?
WE ASKED THE FOLLOWING question: “Recently, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting Israelis from calling for a boycott against Israel or supporting one.
Which position best reflects your opinion?
1. “I would never support a boycott against Israel, but the law risks harming democracy and the freedom of expression for Israelis – therefore the law is not justified," or
2. “Israel is under attack from all over the world, and therefore, even if the law hurts democracy and freedom of expression, we can’t allow attacks on the state from Israelis, too – therefore the law is justified.”
The results of the whole sample largely confirmed the findings of other surveys that the Jewish public is divided, with a slight plurality favoring the law. But the apparent division belies absolute majorities both for and against among various subgroups.
Among the whole Jewish sample, 48% supported the law despite its dangers to democracy, a plurality but not an absolute majority – compared to 43% who felt that the law threatens democracy too much to be justified. These results were confirmed by another question in the above-mentioned Panels survey for the Knesset channel, showing that precisely 43% of Israelis feel the law represents a threat to democracy, and 45% in the “Yedioth” survey who said they are worried about the future of Israeli democracy (both of these were surveys of the entire population).
Recalling that only 15-20% of Israeli Jews are left-wing, yet 43% opposed the law, we see that nearly half of the public views this as an issue that goes beyond Left and Right ideology (which is almost entirely defined by attitudes towards the Israeli-Arab conflict).
As on most issues reflecting broad national and political themes, the various sub-populations break down quite differently on this question. Among secular respondents, an absolute majority of 54% said that although they do not support a boycott, the law is dangerous for democracy – easily beating the 37% who said the law was justified despite the threat to democracy.
Respondents at all other levels of selfdefined religious observance showed the exact opposite results: 38% of traditional respondents said the dangers to democracy outweighed the benefits, while a 58% majority said that despite the dangers, the law was justified in order to limit boycotts.
Almost the exact same breakdown was found among religious respondents (38% to 56%) and close to 60% for the small sample of Haredim who answered the survey.
These polarized, mirror image attitudes among the secular and religious community on sensitive issues are well-known. But the question formulation highlights very starkly that for the secular folks, democratic concerns outweigh even intensely disliked positions; whereas for people who are even slightly more observant, the fear of boycotts makes it worth endangering a cherished democratic norm.
It is a mistake to assume that socioeconomic status is inevitably correlated to political attitudes – many times this is not the case, or sometimes they are correlated in counterintuitive ways. Yet in this survey, the differences were fairly clear: the highestearning respondents felt the law was not justified, by a small plurality of 50 percent opposed to the 46 percent who supported the law despite the threat to democracy, to protect Israel against boycotts from within.
Among the lowest earners, 40% said the law was unjustified, versus 52%, a clear majority, who justified it. Likewise, 47% of the highest educated respondents chose the answer against the bill, with 43% supporting it – a close breakdown; but among those with just some technical education beyond high school, only 35% rejected the bill for fear of threats to democracy, compared to fully 60% who said the bill was justified.
These findings reflect well-known and long-observed general patterns in Israeli society, where religious people embrace more right-wing views – and of late, show a clear preference for those views over democratic values, with lower socioeconomic groups sometimes leaning toward rightwing positions.
IT SEEMS, HOWEVER, THAT THERE is a solid new addition to this consistent profile of Israeli society: the age divide.
Among the various age groups, only older people broke down with a plurality against the law, reflecting concerns for democracy: 48% to 42%. Among the mid-range respondents, from 35-54, 43% were against the law and a 49% plurality supported it. But among the youngest – 18-34-year-old respondents , we found a greater and clearer split in favor of the law: 53% preferred to risk limitations on freedom of expression in order to ban boycotts compared to 40% who chose to protect democratic rights first.
That implies that the recent interest in young people as a growing source of hardline views must also be understood in terms of the flip side: the growing alienation of the more liberal 55+ group, which often – as in this case – stands in contrast to all respondents from ages 18-54.
This increasingly consistent finding – that young people (and to some extent the 30-50 range too) more than others are prepared to sacrifice democratic principles for nationalist ones – raises an interesting question: Is Israel’s national culture shifting away from the fractious, colorful and sometimes insufferably debating society to one in which conformism of thought and values is the basic social norm, for the sake of a more solid “Jewish national” identity, even though these notions remain highly undefined? Will that be the character of Israel in the future? In mid-July we also saw the outbreak of modest protests starting in Tel Aviv but spreading throughout the country, against the high cost of housing. The protest followed on the heels of the heady “cottage cheese” price protest, and the longer-running doctors’ strikes.
Wandering through the small gaggle of youngsters in Tel Aviv, one of them explained how difficult it is to rally for the housing cause: “It’s a problem for us – we are not a protesting society, so there are few examples of social action.” My jaw dropped – was this the same country in which former mayor of Tel Aviv Roni Milo once related how as a high school kid, he organized a strike against the teachers? But maybe indeed there is a generation of Israelis who feel that society leads them to keep their mouths shut on national and ideological issues – for the sake of a cause that is worth the price of freedoms.
But what cause is worth our freedom? •