A Pew Research Center survey released this week highlights sharp political and religious divisions in Israeli society—not just between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, but among Israeli Jewry itself, which breaks down into four major groups. The belief in a need for a Jewish homeland unites most Israeli Jews, the study reveals, while other issues consistently divide them—such as weighing Jewish law against democratic ideals. Religious and secular Jews are largely isolated from each other. And the question of whether Arabs should be transferred or expelled from the state divides Israeli Jews nearly clean in two—a question whose wording some public opinion experts in Israel have criticized.
Steven M. Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who consulted on the study, compared the depth of differences between various Jewish communities in Israel to “having Oklahoma and Massachusetts joining neighborhoods in the same country.”
“Jews have the sense of—we’re one people, we know each other, we care for each other,” he says. “And yet here is a snapshot of a Jewish society that is riven with crevices that are repeated on several levels—social, political, religious, to some extent even economic.”
Cohen, who became an Israeli citizen in 1992, notes that the finding dealing with transfer or expulsion of Arabs comports with other survey findings, including that 79 percent of Israeli Jews believe Jews should receive preferential treatment in Israel. A similarly high number believes that the land of Israel is God-given to Jews. “We can’t look at this finding as an isolated fluke that owes the result to some poorly crafted wording that may have been misunderstood,” he says. “However one interprets that single question, it does suggest large support for an Arab-free Israeli society.”
For American Jews, Cohen says, the takeaway from the study should be that Israeli Jews themselves are divided—and many of them, while perhaps a minority, share a critical view of the current Israeli government. But there are key differences: Israeli Jews are more hawkish than their American counterparts, Cohen says; they are also less optimistic about a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they are more supportive of settlements in the West Bank.
For Israeli Jews’ part, Cohen says, there must be a realization that many of their political inclinations are highly unpopular in Europe and in America, and particularly among American Jews. “We risk alienating our biggest political and economic and military powers,” he says.
We spoke with Neha Saghal, Pew’s senior researcher for the study, about how Pew’s first Israel study came about, which findings surprised her most, and how the report should be interpreted.
This is Pew’s first study devoted entirely to Israel. Why did the Center decide to conduct this survey now?
In 2013, as you’re probably aware, we did a study of American Jews. And this one was a natural follow-up to that study. We realized that if we really want to understand Judaism around the world, there are really two countries that we need to study, and that’s the United States and Israel. Together, these two populations form an estimated 80 percent of the world’s Jews. It seemed natural to then move to Israel.
How does Israeli Jewish society compare with its American counterpart? What are some key similarities and differences?
On the religious level, Israel’s Jews and Jews in the United States do share things in common. And they recognize that they share things in common. Israeli Jews tell us that they feel they have a strong bond with American Jews, that they have a common destiny with American Jews. About 40 percent of Israeli Jews have visited the United States, as have 40 percent of American Jews visited Israel. Another thing that we find is that a majority of Israeli Jews say American Jews are having a good influence over the way things are going in Israel. We also find that among both American and Israeli Jews, remembering the Holocaust is considered essential to being Jewish. We also find that among both groups, there’s generally agreement on what disqualifies you from being Jewish and what doesn’t. Members of both communities say that not believing in God is not sufficient to be sort of kicked out of the tribe, so to speak.
All that being said, there are major differences between the two communities. On a religious level, we find that American Jews—and this is the broadest difference—identify with streams of Judaism very differently than do Israeli Jews. Reform and Conservative movements have a very small presence in Israel; together it forms just 5 percent. In the United States, those have a major presence.
We also find overall that American Jews are less religiously observant across a range of beliefs and practices than Israeli Jews. American Jews cluster in the middle. We have a majority of American Jews saying they attend synagogue every once in a while. Fewer say they attend never and fewer say they attend every week.
Israeli Jews don’t cluster in the middle. They cluster on the ends. They either attend weekly or they attend never.
When it comes to politics, we find major differences between Jews in both communities. One example is the issue of settlements. Forty-two percent of Israeli Jews say settlements help the security of Israel rather than hurt, which is 30 percent or so. But among American Jews, just 17 percent say settlements help rather than hurt the security of Israel. When it comes to politics, the two communities see things very differently.
The study revealed stark divisions in Israeli society—not just between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, but among Israeli Jews as a group. Was this kind of divisiveness expected, or did it surprise researchers in any way?
I expected that there would be some division. Every society is divided—that’s not a huge surprise. What was jaw-dropping to me, and what was really interesting to me, was the extent of the differences, the magnitude of the differences. One example that I think is really key is when we asked Jews in Israel whether Israel can be a democracy and a Jewish state at the same time, generally people agreed that it can—76 percent overall. Then we asked a follow-up question: If there is a contradiction between halacha and the principles of democracy, which should take precedence? Here, we find that that the groups that comprise Israeli society split. Among the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox], nearly 90 percent say halacha should be given preference. Among Hilonim, who are the secular group, 90 percent say democracy should be given preference. Public opinion is a mirror image, and it’s completely divergent. So 90-point differences on a key question concerning Israeli society and politics and how it should be organized is quite interesting.
The most controversial finding is that 48 percent of Israeli Jews agreed or strongly agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” (Forty-six percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.) Some Israeli public opinion experts criticized the question’s wording, noting that it didn’t specify whether that action would be voluntary. How did researchers settle on this wording, and how should the response be interpreted (or not interpreted)?
We always think through questions in a group setting, and we involve expert advisers in coming up with the question. Then we field-test the question at several different stages. The pre-test showed that people were understanding the question. We weren’t getting too many people saying “I don’t know” or “I’m confused by the question.”
In terms of how to interpret the results, I think it is important not to over-interpret the question; at the same time, it’s important not to under-interpret the question. The question wording is very important here. We didn’t ask, “Should all Arabs be expelled from Israel?” We did not specify whether it should be done immediately or in the near future or when, and we did not specify what areas of the country Arabs should be expelled from. So I think the question is designed to pick up sort of a broad, I would say “gut check” on Israeli Jews’ views on coexistence with Arabs, and not to test a specific policy proposal, because there is no policy proposal currently on the table.
One important thing to keep in mind as a pollster, constructing a question that tests two or three different concepts in the same question is quite problematic. We refer to that as double- or triple-barreling. One question that has been asked multiple times in Israel is: “Arabs should be encouraged to leave Israel with proper compensation.” If I say no to that question, which part am I saying no to—that Arabs should leave Israel, or that they should be given proper compensation? What if I want them to leave but I don’t want them to receive any money? That makes it difficult to interpret the question.
I think the question itself that we tested picked up a broad sentiment toward Arabs, and I would also add that it is consistent with other findings that we have in the survey. We also find that the optimism toward a two-state solution among Jews is low: Less than half of Jews say that it is possible for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully.
To the extent that the finding is being interpreted as “Jewish public opinion in Israel is in favor of expelling all Arabs or transferring the entire population,” I think that’s an over-interpretation of the findings.
The survey was conducted between October 2014 and May 2015—a time of relative calm in Israel. Given the wave of violence that has preoccupied Israelis since last fall, if the survey were conducted now—or over the last few months—do you think the results would be different?
It’s hard to say exactly. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we would get greater optimism about the two-state solution or more sympathy toward Arab populations, or anything that would suggest that attitudes may have softened since then. It’s hard to say if they have hardened or not. But I would certainly say, I wouldn’t think that they would have softened.
What has the reaction been like in Israel?
I think the reaction has been tremendous. There’s a lot of debate on the substantive findings and what it means for Israel. In some ways, in Israeli society, we’re getting the sense that people feel a mirror has been held up. You look in a mirror and sometimes you like what you see, and sometimes you don’t like what you see, and other times you think, oh, I’m really not graying that much—that’s just the light on this day and this mirror is crooked. So, you know, take that for what it’s worth.
What findings surprised you most, besides the magnitude of the differences?
One other thing that’s quite interesting: We asked about instances of discrimination. Overall, Arabs in Israel are considerably more likely than Jews to perceive discrimination in Israeli society—not just against Muslims, but against a whole host of other groups, including women, Mizrahi Jews and Oriental Jews, Ethiopian Jews, gays and lesbians; all throughout, Arabs are more likely than Jews to say that they feel that these groups face a lot of discrimination in Israeli society. Of course, the biggest margin was when it came to Muslims: 79 percent of Arabs said that Muslims face a lot of discrimination in Israeli society; just 21 percent of Jews agree.
However, in this study, we also asked Muslims a whole series of questions on whether they had personally experienced instances of discrimination because of their religious identity. One question we also asked was, in the past 12 months, has a Jewish person expressed sympathy for you because you are a Muslim? And we had 26 percent say yes, whereas lower proportions said they had been questioned by security forces—17 percent or so; suffered property damage was about 15 percent. A higher proportion said that a Jewish person in the last 12 months has expressed sympathy toward them because they are Muslim. And that was very interesting.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.