The face in the mirror

Forget fear of extinction - Israelis fear themselves.

scared israelis illustration(Avi Katz) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
scared israelis illustration(Avi Katz)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
What are Israelis most scared of? From politics to daily life, Israeli society often feels dominated by fear, whether of terrorism, war or internal conflict.
The Jerusalem Report January survey asked a representative sample of Jewish Israeli adults “What scares you most when you think about Israel’s future?” We gave them a list of seven threats to choose from.
The results are shown here.
The Iranian threat ranked first, with 24% of respondents saying it was their greatest fear. Concerns about the level of the country’s education system came in second, with 18%. Fears of tensions between religious and secular Jews came a close third with 17%. The threat of Palestinian terror and war was a close fourth with 16%, followed by concerns over interpersonal relations (11%). In equal last place with 7% were the erosion of democracy and fears of extremists from the political left or right. But a closer look at the poll results shows that the threat from external foes is not the fear dominating Israeli society today. The opposite is true: the major threat to Israel, according to most Israeli Jews, is themselves.
When the responses are combined, 60% said their greatest fear for Israel’s future was an internal threat – just 40% in total said they most feared destruction by an outside enemy. But fear may not scare Israelis as much as it unites them. The Jewish state was born from the threat of destruction, and the continued quest for security dominates everyday life – from the bomb-proof room in each new home to the security check at the entrance to every shopping mall.
National security unites Jewish Israelis far more than Zionism, whose feuding factions have divided Israeli society. The overwhelming majority still serve in the Israel Defense Forces, an experience that remains the symbolic national glue for Jewish Israel. Surveys regularly show that the IDF is the most trusted of all national institutions, with support among Jews pushing 90%.
Tehran threat The single top-ranking answer was the Iranian threat – reflecting the results of other recent surveys that asked a similar question. But the mantra of the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran may be losing its scare power: A 2009 survey by the Center for Iran Studies at Tel Aviv University found that while 81% believed Iran would succeed in building a bomb, only 23% said they would consider leaving as a result. This number dropped to just 11% in a Haaretz poll in late 2011. A 2009 poll published by the Institute for National Security Studies showed that 79% did not believe Iran would attack Israel, while 80% did not think their lives Only 40% said they most feared destruction by an outside enemy would change if Iran has the bomb. In polls conducted since 2004, increasing numbers believe Israel is able to cope with a nuclear attack, reaching 67% in 2009.
Even more striking, the percentage of Israelis supporting a pre-emptive attack on Iran has fallen sharply – from 59% in the 2009 INSS survey to 41% in the Haaretz poll last year (though the two polls cannot be directly compared because they used different methodology).
The other external threat, “Palestinian terror, and war,” came in only fourth in our survey, with 16% placing it at the top of their worry list. Ironically, younger respondents chose this more than other people. Despite Israel’s national ethos of having more children than many other developed countries and vowing to secure their future, the country has apparently not succeeded in making them feel safe. Nearly half (49%) of 18-29-year-olds said they were most concerned about the Iranian threat or Palestinian terror. Twenty six percent of this younger group fear Palestinian terror, compared to just 14% of the oldest respondents. The contrast might be explained by the proximity of the youngsters to military service.
Education concern The second highest-ranked fear on the list is the level of education, with 18%, just six percentage points behind the Iranian threat. Education has regularly ranked highest in recent years when people were asked about the country’s most urgent problems. In a May 2011 survey, I found education topped a list of seven items with 26%, ahead of “final status accord with the Palestinians” (21%) and even “national security” (16%).
There is a certain irony that in the Jewish state, founded by the People of the Book, the deterioration of education is perceived as the second-greatest threat to its future existence.
Haredi-religious-secular tensions, with 17 percent, is actually tied for second place (inside the 4.5% margin of error) and probably reflects the angst over recent incidents pitting Haredim against both the religious and secular communities. But the problem has existed from the earliest days of statehood and never seems to improve.
In 1998, for example, a youth study for the Friedrich Ebert foundation found a plurality of respondent s thought the religious- secular cleavage was the most dangerous one for Israeli society. Our data confirms its stubborn persistence.We should note that a 2010 study found that youth are now more afraid of the Arab- Jewish schism than religious-secular divisions – another example of Israelis fearing themselves. This question was excluded from our current survey due to space restrictions.
Eleven percent of the Jewish sample feel that interpersonal relations is the most frightening aspect of Israeli life, reflecting growing concern over hostile daily interactions. Nearly twice as many older people as younger respondents said this issue was their top concern, and more than twice as many married people as singles. One wonders what’s going on in the most intimate of Israeli relations. Despite a wave of Knesset legislation and Supreme Court tussles that critics say is evidence of an anti-democratic current in Israeli politics, only seven percent chose the erosion of democracy as their greatest fear, ranked second-to-last. This too confirms the findings of my May 2011 survey, when Jewish citizens ranked democracy last in a list of the country’s most urgent problems with just 2%.Another seven percent feared extremists of the left or of the right. Since nearly all polls show more than twice or even three times as many right-wingers (between 45-50%) as leftists (15-20%) among the Jewish population of Israel, probably more of them fear the left.For a state that set out to conquer fear, Israel has generated a whole new source of fear for the Jewish people: ourselves.