Split society

A healthy democracy should actively work to reduce perceptions of division and alienation among its citizens.

secular/religious Jew 370 (photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)
secular/religious Jew 370
(photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)
The Israel Democracy Institute this week released its annual survey examining attitudes to various indicators related to democracy. The authors note that “clear and consistent connections can be found – not for the first time – between the opinions of respondents on democracy-related issues and background variables, such as national identity.”
While not surprising, these divisions should raise concerns.
Whether ethnic and religious tensions can be surmounted on certain issues is likely key to fostering economic and political prosperity.
The most positive finding relates to predominant feelings that the state is doing well. Only 20 percent felt the state was in a bad or very bad situation. Among Jewish respondents asked about institutions, some 90% had the most trust for the IDF. Arabs were less keen on state entities, trusting the Supreme Court most (49%) and the media (48%).
Sixty-seven percent of Jewish respondents felt a Jewish majority should make major decisions on peace and security.
Some 64% agreed that Jews are the “chosen people,” with 20% saying they are “not at all” chosen.
On the issue of which should take precedence, the Jewish or democratic attributes of the state, 32% felt the former should be paramount while 29% said the latter; the rest felt they were equally important.
The trend has been toward an increasing belief that democracy is paramount. Part of this may be due to the heightened debate and frequent assertions that “Jewish” and “democratic” are contradictory or pose a fundamental problem for the state.
Haredim appear to reject many democratic principles (85% think Jewish religious law is paramount). Thirty-four percent of Arabs said that Israel could be a Jewish-democratic state.
When it comes to peace, inexplicably, 13% of Arabs felt that no one has the authority to sign a peace treaty withdrawing from the West Bank and 45% desired a referendum.
This may represent support for a binational state, but the surveyors did not probe this question. Yet 15% of Arabs felt “to a very great” part of the State of Israel, and 59% felt to some extent part of it. Some 39% felt proud to be Israelis.
Trends among younger people were more disturbing.
Only 46% of Jews aged 18-24 felt to a large or very large extend a part of the state. Since this is precisely the age when many Jews are conscripted to the IDF, the result is perplexing; are large numbers of soldiers so alienated from society, or do the trends in army avoidance, approaching 40% of Jewish women and 25% of Jewish men, mean that they feel less connected to the state at this key stage? Paired with recent surveys showing many Israelis are considering moving abroad, this may reflect a worry trend.
Most worrying was that a majority of Israelis claimed there were moderate or high tensions between Jews and Arabs (91%), Mizrahim and Ashkenazim (68%), and religious and secular people (85%). Whereas 71% of Jews said tensions were high with Arabs, only 47% of Arabs felt so.
At the same time, 56% of Jewish respondents said they did not want foreign workers as neighbors. Between 42 and 47% of Arabs and Jews agreed that they did not want to live next to one another. Among secular Jews, 31% said they did not want to live next to haredim while 33% of haredim agreed they did not want to be next to nonobservant Jews. Large numbers of all groups said they would not want a homosexual couple as a neighbor.
Politicians and the media play a major role in cultivating tensions and sending negative messages about divisions in society. Every political campaign that is run arguing to keep the ultra-Orthodox out of certain neighborhoods encourages the acceptability of such sentiment. That so many Arabs say they are proud to be Israeli and identify with the state is encouraging.
Responsible leaders would examine if these trends can be built upon, while working to reduce perceived tensions between Sephardi and Ashkenazi citizens. At the same time, it is important to address alienation among young people. A strong state cannot have half of those starting their careers feeling that they have no clear place in the country.
Such surveys concern themselves with the health of democracy, and a healthy democracy should actively work to reduce perceptions of division and alienation among its citizens.