The controversial new poll of Jewish Israelis didn't say quite what the Haaretz headline said it did. But that doesn't mean there weren't other troubling findings: Huge segments of Israeli Jews—between a third and half of them—consistently expressed racist attitudes and voiced support for institutional discrimination when it comes to Israel’s Arab minority. It's not the majority of Israelis, or even the majority of Israeli Jews (in most cases), but nor are we looking at a fringe phenomenon.
For those of us who care about Israel, there's a temptation to ignore or to try to explain away this ugliness. But we need to set aside that instinct and examine these very real challenges facing the dream of a democratic Israel. Israelis themselves acknowledge that their society does not live up to the democratic ideal and that discrimination against minorities exists. Half of Israeli Jews, for instance, say that there is discrimination against Arabs seeking to work in government offices.
Evidence of racist attitudes is particularly evident on the matter of whether the Jewish homeland should give legal preference to Jews: Israeli Jews are evenly divided over whether the state should be more concerned with its Jewish citizens than its Arab citizens. Thus, the notion that some Israeli citizens are more equal than others based on ethnicity is far from taboo. And it gets yet more problematic: 59 percent of Israeli Jews say that Jews should receive preference over Arabs when it comes to working in government offices. A third disagree.Moreover, the sense that Arab citizens of Israel are seen as second-class citizens in the eyes of some Israelis is evident in responses dealing with “transfer”—the idea that Israel could shed responsibility for Arab citizens by expelling them or relinquishing Israeli sovereignty over the territory they live on. Depending on the formulation of the question, between 36 and 47 percent of Israeli Jews express support for transfer in this poll. Opposition in the survey ranges from 40 to 48 percent.
But we needn't yet eulogize democratic norms in Israel. 59 percent of Israeli Jews oppose—and a third support—the notion that Arab citizens of Israel should be stripped of the right to vote. That’s a strong statement that most Israeli Jews understand that limiting voting rights would violate a fundamental democratic principle. And enough Israeli Jews believe in democracy to draw this line.
And the notion of a shared society remains viable. Two questions asked if Israeli Jews were bothered by Arabs living in their buildings or sharing classrooms with their children. Narrow majorities of those who answered (leaving out those who didn’t have school-aged kids) indicated comfort with these scenarios. A far too large minority of 42 percent, however, said they would be bothered by this proximity in both questions.
The poll indicates strong opposition to the idea that the West Bank be annexed to Israel. In response to two questions, a plurality of 48 percent rejected the idea (which 36 to 38 percent supported), suggesting a desire by most Israeli Jews to separate Israel from the West Bank, rather than to entrench the occupation. That desire for separation, however, may also be bolstering one of the most discriminatory Israeli policies—the existence of separate road networks in the West Bank for Israelis and for Palestinians. Less than a fifth of respondents said that this was a bad situation which needed to be stopped; half thought it a bad situation that there was “nothing to be done about” (presumably meaning that security needs and the lack of a credible peace process make this necessary); and a quarter said that “this was a good situation.”
This poll has proven to be divisive. For vociferous critics of Israel, the poll confirms pre-conceived notions of what they see as an irredeemably racist society. Israel's reflexive defenders, meanwhile, latch onto the inaccuracies of the Haaretz report and seem to say, "Move on. Nothing to see here."
Both of these responses are wrongheaded for they lose sight of one basic truth: In the land between the river and the sea, Jews and Arabs will continue to live side-by-side for some time to come. They might live together in peace. Or they might live surrounded by violence. Racism, xenophobia, and hatred are a recipe for the later. All of us must take note of the findings of this poll and ask ourselves: What can I do to push back on extremism?