Some Israelis tend to take a dim view of Israeli society. However, the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index, which was published last week by the Israel Democracy Institute, reveals that our Israeli society is generally strong, optimistic, united and confident.
The positive attitudes that Israelis have are not only connected to personal happiness, but also to the state. The vast majority (81 percent) are proud to be Israeli citizens. Another fascinating, if surprising, fact is that the members of the “tribes” that are widely perceived as being excluded — the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities — also display a high-level of pride in being Israeli (69% and 55% respectively).
Moreover, Israelis have a positive attitude toward other Israelis.
Three-fourths of Jews and slightly more than half of Arabs believe that Israelis can always depend on other Israelis to help them out in times of need. Despite the nonstop parade of controversies and crises that we tend to wallow in as a result of drama-filled news broadcasts and boisterous Knesset sessions, a sense of comradeship continues to be one of Israeli society’s defining characteristics. There is no need to wax nostalgic about the camaraderie of yesteryear. Solidarity continues to power Israel’s national journey forward.
So, is Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah correct when he likens us to spider webs that will eventually be torn down by the nonstop determination of the Palestinian people? Israelis regard such statements as nonsense. Specifically, only 7% of Israel’s Jews believe that Palestinian society will outlast Israel’s. Even among Israel’s Arab citizens, less than one-third believe that Palestinian society is more durable than Israel. In short, Israeli society is confident of its strength, resilience and tenacity, even in a year when the so-called “knife intifada” raged across the country.
But it is not all rainbows and sunshine. The Democracy Index also found some troubling developments in Israeli society, such as a decline in the country’s freedom of expression. According to Freedom House, the Israeli press has in recent years dropped to the unflattering category of “partly free.” While this is an undeniable cause for alarm, let us keep in mind that most Israelis — Jews and Arabs alike — say they are not afraid to express their political opinions, even in front of people they do not know. This is an important insight into the current state of freedom of speech in Israel.
Another perennial hot button issue in Israeli society is racism. Israeli Jews and Arabs occasionally accuse one another of being racist. The Index, however, reveals that such accusations are usually exaggerated and do not reflect the true attitudes of Jews and Arabs toward one another. Specifically, more than two-thirds of each group is willing to accept a member of the other as a personal friend, work colleague and fellow citizen.
A large majority are willing to receive medical treatment from members of the other group and allow them to serve as teachers in their children’s schools. 70% of Jewish Israelis believe Jewish citizens should not be accorded more rights than other citizens, and a smaller majority opposes budgetary discrimination against Arab localities.
In contrast, a real problem in Israeli society is most Jews’ refusal to accept Israel’s Arab citizens as decision-makers in the highest levels of government and have them take part in crucial decisions on matters of peace and security. This attitude seems to stem from the fact that three-fourths of Arab Israelis do not think that Israel has the right to define itself as a Jewish state. As a result of this belief, many Jewish Israelis fear that Arab Israeli leaders would use their influence to advocate annulling the definition of Israel as Jewish state and establishing a “state of all its citizens.”
Another important question that the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index posed is, “Do Arabs pose a security risk to Israel?” Contrary to the prevailing image, the answer is, “No.”
The Arab community is currently undergoing a significant transformation and is becoming ever more Israeli. Only a small portion of Arab Israelis (12%) believes that their main identity is Palestinian. Twice that number states that their main identity is Israeli. In addition, the number of Arabs who trust the Israeli army (about one-third) is greater than the percentage that has faith in the Supreme Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel. To top it off, approximately half of Arab Israelis are optimistic about Israel’s future.
The findings of the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index throw cold water on the prevalent pessimistic notion that Israeli society’s sense of common purpose is eroding. The fascinating dramas that seem to dominate our lives occur within a society that is characterized by a high level of solidarity between citizens, united by their committed to and pride in the state of Israel.
How do you align with the views of Israeli citizens?
Yedidia Stern is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.