Racist Norms in Israel’s Religiously Divided Society (Reading The Pew Study)


How does one uphold liberal norms in the face of illiberal social and political realities? For those of us concerned about democracy in a viable Jewish majority state, there is no good news in the Pew report about religion and religious identity in the State of Israel and occupied West Bank. You can read the whole thing here. “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society” report examines the divides between secular (hilonim) and religious (either religious nationalist or modern orthodox {dati’im} or ultra-orthodox {haredim}) as well as between Jews and non-Jews.

What’s getting into the headlines are the hardened attitudes of Israeli Jews, particularly around majority-minority relations and the occupation, most particularly around the point of view expressed by almost half of Jewish Israelis in support of expelling Arabs from the country.

What’s not new is the anti-Arab animus in Israeli society. That can be traced back decades. What’s new and dangerous is the addition of religious factors into the political equation, especially the deleterious effect of orthodox Jewish religion undermining democratic norms and values in a Jewish majority nation state as that state turns into a bitterly unequal bi-national entity.

Most Jews across the religious spectrum agree in principle that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state. But they are at odds about what should happen, in practice, if democratic decision-making collides with Jewish law (halakha). The vast majority of secular Jews say democratic principles should take precedence over religious law, while a similarly large share of ultra-Orthodox Jews say religious law should take priority.”

These results are particular extreme in regard to Jewish-Arab, majority-minority relations.

“Israeli Jews are divided on the question of whether Arabs should be allowed to live in the Jewish state. The survey asked Jews whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Roughly half of Israeli Jews strongly agree (21%) or agree (27%), while a similar share disagree (29%) or strongly disagree (17%)”

Religion strongly colors these perspectives:

Datiim are especially likely to favor the expulsion of Arabs. Roughly seven-in-ten (71%) say Arabs should be transferred. Hilonim lean in the other direction: Most (58%) disagree and say Arabs should not be expelled from Israel, including 25% who strongly disagree. But even among these self-described secular Israeli Jews, about one-third (36%) favor the expulsion of Arabs from the country.

These attitudes should be correlated vis-à-vis the context of occupation and skepticism regarding the possibility of creating a two-state solution and peace.

As part of a broader series of international surveys, Pew Research Center has previously asked Israelis whether Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully. Over the last three years, there has been a sharp decline in the share of Israeli Arabs who say such a future is possible.

Overall, a slim majority of Israeli Jews (56%) say the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians, but a substantial minority (40%) say their government is not sincere in this effort. Israeli Jews are more united in their views of the Palestinian leadership: A large majority (88%) say Palestinian leaders are not sincerely pursuing a peace settlement.

 At same time, the report identifies what those of us on the left would consider a basic confusion about settlements and the occupation:

The building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has been a highly controversial issue amid efforts to reach a peace settlement. Many foreign governments and a United Nations panel consider these settlements illegal under international law codified in the Fourth Geneva Convention; Israel’s government disputes this interpretation. A plurality of Israeli Jews (42%) say the settlements help the security of Israel, compared with 30% who say the settlements actually hurt Israel’s security and 25% who say building settlements does not make a difference either way.

 The only good news:

A majority of Israeli Jews oppose making halakha the law of the land for Jews in Israel (64%), while roughly three-in-ten (29%) say Jewish law should be the official law of the land for Jews in their country.

 As for my own two cents:

What strikes me is the contrast between Jewish identity formation in Israel versus that in the United States. In the United States, Jewish identity is becoming increasingly fluid, as befits and benefits a liberal democracy and democratic norms. In contrast, Jewish identity seems to be increasingly entrenched, as makes sense in a country so many of whose members understand their reality to be one of siege.

The philosophical takeaway is this. What does a report like this represent, perception or reality? The truth of the matter is that perceptions and realities mold each other, fold into each other. These anti-democratic perceptions both mirror and contribute to an anti-democratic reality in Israel today. But there is another side to the political question. Is that hardened undemocratic reality something natural or essential to the DNA of the country and its reigning ideology, Zionism? Or are these historically contingent? At what point do we identify the collapse of democratic norms as a political one, and pin responsibility on the political class and leadership for failing to lead the country away from the current abyss over which the country is hovering? For anyone who cares about Jewish life in a democratic Israel, the only thing one can do one is to note that the anti-democratic values reflected in the report are in direct tension with what is in reality a complex and variegated place.

 One last thought about complexity. For Israel to flourish as a democratic and multicultural state, the future has to be based on shared secular norms and institutions, freed up from the “state.” But in terms of “society,” religion has been since the Second Intifada the primary site of contestation on the Israeli political scene. For the secular left and center, where the views are less hardened and the anti-democratic values are less entrenched, that means moving forward and coming to terms simultaneously with Judaism and with Islam.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Racist Norms in Israel’s Religiously Divided Society (Reading The Pew Study)

  1. dmf says:

    are things more fluid here in the US or more diverse, and are the views of the left less hardened?
    not sure how helpful philosophy/abstractions are here, my sense is that R.Rorty was on to something with his idea that democratic (representative, minority-rights,ballots not bullets,etc) institutions are better means for cultivating a thriving demos, so perhaps that akin to your secular solution but I don’t know if this kind of civility can bear much in the way of existential threats or deprivation, lord knows our own democracy is on shaky grounds these days…

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