The publication earlier this month of a Pew Research Center survey of Israeli society has sparked a heated controversy, particularly over two of its findings. The first revealed that an alarming 79 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that “Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.” The other showed that a similarly distressing 48 percent of Jewish Israelis agree that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” In a country that frequently touts its pluralistic and democratic values, these sentiments are especially troubling.
The extent of discriminatory attitudes in Israel has been the subject of a polarizing debate within Jewish communities worldwide for years, and Pew’s survey has brought these differences to the fore. Some have explained the findings by underscoring the fear Israelis harbor from constant security threats. Some have expressed understanding for why Israelis want Arabs transferred, citing these threats. Others have largely discredited the findings, and still others have used them as proof that Israeli society is racist and anti-democratic. Any one of these disparate views, including those expressed by the author of this op-ed, will elicit anger among some.
But perhaps the antidote to this anger, frustration and polarization would be an honest — albeit difficult — dialogue that illuminates our differences. Seeing our disagreements up close can help temper our views of those who have different ideas and can give our own perspectives greater depth. One can begin with Israeli Reuven Rivlin and a few of the Pew poll’s own advisers to see how this type of conversation is possible.
Responding to the Pew poll’s findings, President Rivlin has called for the Israeli public to engage in “soul-searching and moral reflection.” He has remarked that “the idea that the State of Israel could be a democracy only for its Jewish citizens is unconscionable and we must find a way to address this.”
Shibley Telhami, an adviser to the study and the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, opined that the findings indicate a “Jewish exclusivity” that “doesn’t bode well for Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel.”
But Tamar Hermann and Sammy Smooha — both Israeli professors and advisers to the poll — have called the question on expulsion problematic. They (and others) have observed that since the expulsion question simply refers to “Arabs” and not “the Arabs” or “all the Arabs,” respondents could interpret it in many ways. The question could refer to Arabs who support or have perpetrated acts of terrorism, Palestinians residing in Tel Aviv who do not have Israeli citizenship, or a variety of other scenarios.
Hermann and Smooha have pointed out that the results of their own polls differ from those of the Pew survey. Smooha’s 2015 Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel (cited in the Pew survey) found that 64 percent of Jewish Israelis disagree that “Arab citizens should leave the country and receive proper compensation.” Hermann’s Israeli Democracy Index 2015 found that 55 percent of Jewish Israelis disagree that “the government should encourage Arab emigration from Israel.”
Some fundamental — and seemingly contradictory — truths are uncovered by Hermann and Smooha’s surveys: 48 percent of Jewish Israelis agree that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred” and 59 percent agree that “it is good that Arab and Jewish citizens will always live together in Israel” (a finding of Smooha’s survey). 79 percent of Jewish Israelis agree that “Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel” and 71 percent disagree that “Jewish citizens of Israel should have greater rights than non-Jewish citizens” (a finding of Hermann’s survey). These statistics convey highly nuanced attitudes among Jewish Israelis.
Nonetheless, the surveys show that at least one quarter or so of the Jewish Israeli public holds decisively anti-Arab views: They do not believe Arabs should receive the same rights as Jews and they want Arabs removed from Israel. As Rivlin said, something must be done to address these attitudes and reverse them — irrespective of the exact percentage of people who have these views.
Rivlin, Telhami, Hermann and Smooha have started a valuable conversation by providing a panoramic and complex view of the issues that could not be achieved simply by looking at one perspective. Just as their reactions have unearthed important nuances, so too can a dialogue among ourselves provide greater depth and understanding of each other. Though it will be difficult, a discussion that includes both those who understand why Israelis want Arabs transferred and those who see Israeli society as racist and anti-democratic could yield positive results. Regardless of one’s perspective on the Pew poll, perhaps the conversation it could generate would be of benefit to all.
Justin Scott Finkelstein is an associate scholar at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.