“Jewish and democratic” Israelis as confused about democracy as is their state

by Yaniv Reich on November 30, 2010

Israelis love to think about themselves as little ‘d’ democrats, but they have a very peculiar way of understanding democratic principles.

A new poll released today by the Israel Democracy Institute brings into full, awkward view the contradictory, mutually inconsistent definitions of democracy that cohabit the Israeli psyche.

First the (semi) flattering news. 51% of Israeli Jews, the slimmest of majorities but a plurality nonetheless, said that Jews and Arabs should have equal rights. Indeed, just a smidgen above half the population of the so-called “light unto nations” believes that Jews and their neighbors ought to have equal rights. One need not wonder too much about what the other 49% thinks. And I would suspect that more specific questions about actual implementation of equal rights, like, say, the right of return, would see even that 51% plummet into the infinitesimal.

The other findings make for more depressing reading. A quick overview:

  • 53% said the state should “encourage” Arab citizens to leave, aka ethnic cleansing.
  • 55% said Jewish cities should receive more funding than Palestinian citizens’ ones, aka apartheid, or more generously, Jim Crow
  • 46% of Israelis wouldn’t want to live next to an Arab, 25% near a gay person, and 17% near Ethiopian Jews.  This paints a gross picture of racist, discriminatory attitudes.
  • 62% said that Palestinian citizens of Israel should not be able to vote about foreign policy matters.
  • 34% of secular Jews oppose equal rights for Arabs, as do 51% of traditional Jews, 65% of religious Jews, and 72% of haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews).  Thus, ideals of racist supremacy appears to be highly correlated with religious fervor, rendering problematic the “democratic” part of the “Jewish and democratic” mantra.
  • 55% of Israelis support the statement “Israel’s situation would be much better if Israel considered the rules of democracy less, and focused more on keeping law and order.”

The most hopeful result was the first finding I presented, that a slim majority claims to support equal rights.  These sentiments sit in contrast to other recent poll results of Palestinian attitudes which found, among other things, that 51% of Palestinians support only nonviolence in their effort to end the violent colonization of their land and the brutal military occupation that protects it.

On the one hand, a tiny majority of Israelis think Arabs should have equal rights, but then larger majorities think the state should “encourage” ethnic cleansing of the country’s leading minority group and that those minority communities should, as a matter of policy, receive discriminatory funding.  This is not even “separate but equal”, the Jim Crow doctrine used to justify segregation before the US Supreme Court struck it down in Brown vs. The Board of Education.  This is advocacy for separate and unequal—as a matter of policy.  It is difficult not to conclude that the racist character of a state that implements such a vision (and Israel very severely discriminates against its Palestinian citizens; to see just one, not well known example from the recent press, see this) is worse than Jim Crow.  It is something much closer in spirit to apartheid, even if a bit softer inside the Green Line than apartheid South Africa was.

There can be no charitable interpretation of these findings.  They represent a sick and distorted worldview, which has severe consequences for the millions of non-Jews that share the current state, as well as many more millions that live under Israeli rule without the right to vote, assemble peacefully, visit family members, farm their land free of harassment, and so on.

Who in this context can possibly take the motto “Jewish and democratic” seriously anymore?

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