Not My Grandfather’s Israel: The Growing Racism of the Modern Israeli Public

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"An apartheid Israel is not the Israel I imagined in my youth," the author writes. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

Recently a survey paid for by the New Israel Fund, and carried out by academics in Israel found that a majority of Israeli Jews support institutionally racist policies against Arabs. Such a survey was bound to be controversial. Some Jewish thinkers questioned the survey’s use of the term apartheid. The disturbing findings of the study were reported in Haaretz (see here and here) with some corrections being added to the articles post-publication. The quality and accuracy of survey has been questioned. Political surveys are never perfect. Words carry a variety of meanings and inferences, and any statistical survey will be prone to the challenges of using qualitative concepts. Surveys are often flawed, but that does not mean that they are wrong.
The Survey on the Subjects of Equality and Apartheid involved 503 interviews with a cross-section of the Israeli public (secular, Conservative/mazorti, religious/dati, Orthodox/haredi and Russian). The survey confirms what many of Israel’s critics have been arguing for some time; that Israel is heading in the direction of an apartheid state, or may effectively be one already. The Orthodox constituted the most extreme anti-Arab views, usually but not always followed by religious Jews. Those who self-identify as Conservative Jews are less ant-Arab, while secular Israelis and those of Russian origin are the least anti-Arab. For example, ninety-five percent of Orthodox Jews feel that there should be discrimination against accepting Arabs for work in government positions, and seventy percent felt that it is desirable for Arabs to be prevented from voting for the Knesset. Fifty-two percent of religious Jews, forty three percent of Conservative Jews, eighteen percent of secular Jews and seven percent of Russian Jews felt that such a voting restriction is desirable. In contrast, seventy-seven percent of secular Jews, seventy-seven percent of Russian Jews, fifty-one percent of Conservative Jews, forty-four percent of religious Jews, and only eighteen percent of Orthodox Jews felt that limiting the franchise was not desirable. The survey suggests that, in Israel at least, the more religious one is the more bigoted one becomes.
The survey’s most controversial aspects dealt with questions about population transfer and apartheid. The apartheid question was broached by introducing a hypothetical well-known American author who claims that Israel has the features of an apartheid regime, and then asked the participants to comment on this hypothetical author’s views. Thirty-one percent of all participants felt that there is no apartheid in Israel, with thirty-nine percent thinking that there is apartheid in “some” of Israel. The survey is clear enough on one point. Israelis may not feel that they live in an apartheid state, but significant majorities seem to be in favour of one. Sixty-nine percent of respondents would prefer not to grant voting rights to Palestinians who live in territory annexed by Israel. Moreover, significant numbers from all denominations were supportive of some kind of population transfer: forty percent of secular and Russian Jews, forty-seven percent of Conservative Jews, fifty-two percent of Religious Jews and seventy-one percent of Orthodox Jews indicated their support of transferring Israeli Arabs to Palestinian authority land. Across all survey respondents, forty-seven percent were in favour of transfer and only forty percent were opposed. A subsequent question on land swap surprisingly yielded less support and more opposition. A greater number of Israeli Jews would prefer some kind of population transfer to territorial land swaps.
The poll does demonstrate that a large number of Israeli Jews seem to accept discrimination against Arabs and that while Israelis do not perceive their country to be an apartheid state, they are mostly unopposed to it becoming one. The poll also demonstrates a population resigned to living in a country with some apartheid-esque policies. The final question of the survey asked about the use of roads in the Occupied Territories that are reserved for the use of Jews only. Exactly fifty percent said that this situation was not a good one, but that there was no other choice.
So what does this survey tell us? Assuming that the analysis is representative of Israeli public opinion it represents a frightening picture of Jews holding views that we certainly would not tolerate were they directed toward us. It also demonstrates how far the religious and especially the Orthodox elements of Jewry have warped Jewish values, rejected basic human decency. The Jewish philosopher Emmanual Levinas argued that ethics come before everything else, yet a constituency that proclaims itself the most steeped in Jewish religious tradition and ethics also declares itself the most overtly racist of all. Racism clearly runs counter to the values of tikkun olam and social justice. It blithely ignores the ethical lesson we repeat to our children every year during Passover when we recall our ancestors’ suffering as slaves. Preferences for institutional racism must necessarily reject our own historical experience of having suffered racism at the hands of others. For a people who have long experienced the pain and suffering of institutional racist discrimination, it is especially troubling to hear that Israelis seem to be supportive of such discrimination. Now Israeli Jews are the racists, and they know it.
Israeli and Diaspora Jews have long had a healthy interchange of cultural, political, and economic ties. Are Diaspora Jews to maintain our support of Israel, accepting that this support upholds the possibility of creating a de facto apartheid state? If apartheid is too strong a term, can we stand by a nation where racism by Jews toward Arabs is a fact of life? Where fifty-nine percent of Israelis claim that it is desirable to give hiring preferences to Jews over Arabs for jobs in government offices while fifty percent already think that such discrimination exists, implying that Israel needs more discrimination against Arabs. For those of us who abhor racism, but choose to support Israel, we must either leave our values at the border or work to protect the rights of all Israelis; Jew and Arab alike. The New Israel Fund may need to become a Diaspora-based Israel-focused Association for the Civil Liberties of all Israelis: Jew and Arab alike. So long as Diaspora money and Diaspora public support is sought by Israel, it is perfectly reasonable to claim a voice. But if that voice is not heard, what comes next?
My grandfather Hillel fled Germany before the Second the World War and lived in Israel until his death in 2002. This New Israel Fund survey leaves me relieved that my grandfather is not alive to see this day. He survived almost certain death as a persecuted minority in Nazi Germany because he found refuge in Palestine. His first home was near Yokneam, southeast of Haifa, not far from a Kibbutz where I lived in 1996 as part of the Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror. I have often reflected on how as a young man in Palestine, Hillel walked the same hills I later spent time living and working in. I recall my grandfather telling me about a Palestinian boy attacking him there, how he was taken utterly by surprise, and how he had to fight the boy off with a stick. Perhaps naively, he did not expect to encounter such anger from a Palestinian child. He knew little about their lives, or what it meant to them that he and countless others had recently arrived. After that day, rather than take up arms, Hillel put down the stick he used to fend off the boy’s attack and dedicated his life to learning more about the locals. He learned Arabic. He even began to compile a vernacular Hebrew/Arabic dictionary when none existed, written entirely by hand over the decades, almost until the end of his life. Hillel knew that communication and language were key to building a positive relationship between the Jewish settlers and the local Palestinians.
Hillel taught me that it did not matter what colour of skin someone had, what language they spoke, or what their name for God might be. He would never have managed to complete his dictionary without the friendship of local Arabs. All that mattered was what kind of a person he or she is. He simply refused to harbour any hatred either to the Germans who had displaced him, or the Arabs whom he displaced. For him to live to see the majority of Israelis self-proclaim their participation and acceptance of a racist and apartheid state would have been soul destroying.
An apartheid Israel is not the Israel I imagined in my youth, nor is it the Israel that people like Hillel took refuge in and toiled to create. People like me should use every means at their disposal to ensure that this never comes to be. Like Hillel, today’s Israelis must chose. They must either spare the rod and begin a true dialogue with their neighbours, or build the walls ever higher. Like Hillel, Diaspora Jews also face a choice: we must choose how to voice our support and how to deliver it. For me and for Hillel I will not sit idly by and watch the moral authority of a country that is so important to us wither under the walls of racism and violence. No Jew, indeed no human, should live that way or allow others to do so either.