Pew on Tuesday released its study of religion in Israeli society and there are enough interesting findings and figures in it for me to mine a year’s worth of posts. The headlines have focused on one finding in particular though, which seems like a good place to start. Pew found that 48% of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel” while 46% disagreed. Looking at the poll’s crosstabs, this difference of opinion is reflected among most demographic groups with a few exceptions, and it has led people to understandably raise the question of what this means for Israel’s non-Jews and whether Israel has already chosen to prioritize Jewishness over democracy. It is a question that must be dealt with, and it goes to a larger question of what it means to have a Jewish state.
There is context to Pew’s findings on Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward Arabs. The interviews were conducted between October 2014 and May 2015, so while the current lone-wolf terrorism phenomenon is not responsible for the numbers on Arab expulsion or transfer, the polling did begin a couple of months after the most recent war in Gaza and concurrent with the start of vehicular attacks in Jerusalem and the particularly horrific massacre at a synagogue in Har Nof. The polling question itself is also more ambiguous in the original Hebrew used by Pew in the actual questioning than in the English translation and uses wording that is often interpreted by Israelis to refer to compensating Arabs to leave rather than expelling them (מישראל ערבים להעביר או לגרש צריך). The wording also leaves unclear whether this means all Arabs, or only Arabs that commit or support terrorist attacks. In addition, this comes against a backdrop of some Israeli Arab politicians openly cheering on Israel’s avowed enemies, which was demonstrated starkly this week when MKs from Hadash and Balad condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to label Hizballah as a terror group on the laughable theory that Hizballah only seeks to defend Lebanon’s territorial integrity (that Israel is not occupying any part of Lebanon according to the United Nations doesn’t appear to matter).
Nevertheless, none of this really matters. It explains why Israeli Jews responded ithe way they did, but it does not and cannot justify it. The number of Israeli Jews that expressed support for expelling Arabs needs to prompt serious introspection. It is the ugly equivalent of Trumpism, no less worthy of condemnation and concern than the nativist throngs who cheer Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. or tell non-white protesters at his rallies to go back to where they came from. The ongoing terrorism against Israeli civilians and the 67% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who support knife attacks on Israelis are only going to harden Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward Arabs and make this situation even worse, but it is an impulse that must be resisted. Israel is a Jewish state rather than a state for only Jews, and Israel’s founders never envisioned it otherwise. Part of having a Jewish state is running that state in accordance with Jewish values, which involve treating the Arab minority in Israel with respect and absolute equality. Democracy demands no less.
Part of having a Jewish state is also focusing on the state’s raison d’être, which brings me to whether democracy also demands that Jews receive no preferential treatment in Israel at all. Shibley Telhami in the Washington Post noted that 79% of Israeli Jews agreed that Jews in Israel deserve preferential treatment, and added, “so much for the notion of democracy with full equal rights for all citizens.” This may seem to make sense at first glance, but the analysis quickly breaks down. As Brent Sasley wrote for Matzav last week, Israel is an ethnic democracy and debating what it means to be Israeli is not a rejection of democracy but a quest to figure out the social and political boundaries of the state. Unless one believes the canard that Zionism is racism, the fact that Israel gives equal rights to all citizens but gives advantages to Jews when it comes to immigration – or that Israeli Jews would like to receive official preferential treatment in other areas – does not make Israel non-democratic, nor does it make Israel racist. It is a manifestation of why Israel exists, which is to right the wrong of millennia of persecution, discrimination, expulsions, and attempts at extermination around the world.
To understand why Israeli Jews believe they should receive preferential treatment, one only needs to look at the Pew numbers on anti-Semitism. 99% of Israeli Jews view anti-Semitism around the world as common, 64% view it as very common, and 76% say it is increasing. The first instance of religious persecution in recorded history was committed by the Seleucids against Jews, giving rise to the Hasmonean revolt and the Hanukkah story. Jews during the Middle Ages were expelled at various times from England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. History’s most devastating and unprecedented genocide was carried out against Jews. Israel was and is deemed necessary to guard against the historically inevitable, and to suggest that Jews should not be able to ensure that Israel remains majority Jewish or that Jews don’t deserve a little affirmative action is to be remarkably blind to Jews’ travails. Few fair-minded people deride the United States’ claim to providing full equal rights for all its citizens because of admissions and hiring preferences for minorities who were subject to past injustice or mistreatment. That Jews have their own state rather than being a minority elsewhere does not change the basic rationale that makes it acceptable to give Jews in Israel a boost the way that affirmative action is acceptable here. It is not racist to have a Jewish state, and it is not racist to worry about what happens if that state one day is no longer majority Jewish.
Nobody should downplay the survey results showing unacceptable levels of intolerance toward Arabs in Israel. Intolerance of minorities is indeed fundamentally antidemocratic, and those attitudes can never be allowed to manifest themselves in Israeli policy. But nobody should turn other numbers in the study into an indictment of Israel as an inherently racist or antidemocratic project. To do so is not only to ignore acceptable practice right here at home, but to ignore the long and terrible history of why Israel is necessary in the first place.