Israel Isn’t as Polarized as You Might Think

May 4, 2017 | Yedidia Z. Stern
About the author: Yedidia Z. Stern is vice-president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of law at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author or principal editor of 20 books and co-editor (with Avi Sagi) of the journal Democratic Culture.

Despite the Jewish state’s relatively good security, its favorable diplomatic condition, and its thriving economy, a recent study reports that two-thirds of Israelis rate their country’s situation as “so-so” or “bad.” Yedidia Stern connects some of this pessimism to the idea that extremism is growing on all sides: that ultra-Orthodox Jews are ferociously opposed to the army and to Israeli society in general, that religious Zionists are in the grip of uncompromising messianic fervor, that elected Arab politicians give cell phones to jailed terrorists, and that the post-Zionist left is poisoned by self-loathing. Although one can find evidence for each of these perceptions, Stern argues, they paint a wholly unrealistic picture. (Free registration may be required.)

[In fact, it] appears that the internal conversation in each sector is shifting toward the center and that the swirling centrifuges that push us apart are slowing down.

Ḥaredim are increasingly integrating into Israeli society. Nearly 50 percent of ḥaredi men and more than 75 percent of ḥaredi women have joined the workforce. Ḥaredim in their thousands are flocking to colleges and universities. While Ḥaredim still prefer social seclusion, do not serve in the military, and are far from internalizing liberal values, they are now involved in the making of national decisions, participate in the Zionist project, and are feeling the touch of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which within a generation will raise this impoverished group to a middle-class income level. . . .

The typical positions of Israel’s Arab citizens regarding the state are different from the confrontational stance of their political leadership. According to [one survey], 55 percent of Israeli Arabs are proud to be Israeli. When asked which identity is most important to them, they mainly choose their religious (29 percent), Israeli (25 percent!), or Arab (24 percent) identity. Only one-eighth see “Palestinian” as most important. . . .

[Another] study found substantial overlap between the religious Zionist camp’s attitude toward democracy and that of the Israeli public as a whole. While religious Zionists are almost monolithically on the right, they display a plurality of views on questions of religion and state. Finally, the majority of the left is far from the unpatriotic stereotype attached to it. . . . [A]bout two-thirds report they are proud to be Israeli and four out of five feel part of the country and its problems. . . . [In short,] Israel is not what you think.

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