Israeli Attitudes Toward Arabs Soften — But the Feeling's Not Mutual

Arabs Harden Opinions Towards Jews

Getty images
Not the Norm: Israeli Arab children play next to wall daubed with racist graffiti. Hate crimes grab headlines but a new study suggests that Jewish attitudes towards Arabs have moderated slightly over time.
getty images
Getty images Not the Norm: Israeli Arab children play next to wall daubed with racist graffiti. Hate crimes grab headlines but a new study suggests that Jewish attitudes towards Arabs have moderated slightly over time.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published August 03, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.

Despite widespread perceptions, Israeli Jews aren’t becoming more antagonistic toward Israeli Arabs. So concludes a new survey that also shows how Israeli Arab attitudes toward Jews have turned harsher.

The past four years have seen a wave of legislation that many Arabs and civil rights advocates view as attacks on the civil rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. The most prominent example, the so-called Nakba Law, permits cuts in government funds to private nongovernmental organizations and state-funded institutions that mark Israel’s Independence Day as Nakba Day, a common Palestinian reference to the occasion, which means “catastrophe day” in Arabic. The term, which offends many Israeli Jews, connotes for Israeli Arabs expulsions, land expropriations and loss of rights that they associate with the day.

Religious leaders and social activists have also mounted campaigns that are openly hostile to equal rights for Arab citizens. Most famous was the plea by right-wing rabbis in 2010 for Jews to refuse to rent or sell homes to Arabs. So-called “price tag” vandalism attacks against mosques by right-wing settlers in response to what they view as offensive government concessions to the Palestinians have also turned lately to Israeli Arab targets within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Earlier they took place only in the occupied West Bank.

But the Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel, an annual survey, suggests that the Israeli Jewish public does not support these developments. In fact, the survey’s findings indicate that even as some mainstream politicians, rabbis and activists on the right are upping the ante against Israel’s Arab minority, the general Jewish public is becoming more conciliatory.

“Whatever the media thinks, Jews have not become more extreme,” said Sammy Smooha, a senior professor of sociology at The University of Haifa who directed the survey, during his presentation of the survey’s findings at a June 30 conference in Jerusalem. The conference, attended by Jewish and Arab academics, public figures and politicians, was dedicated to debating the study.

The survey, which interviewed 700 Jewish citizens and 700 Arab citizens, is co-sponsored yearly by Haifa University and the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that declares its mission as advancing democratic values in Israel. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7%.

Among other things, the survey’s findings suggest that the 2010 plea issued by state-funded rabbis to keep Arabs from moving into Jewish neighborhoods has fallen on deaf ears. According to the survey, the number of Israelis who are prepared to accept Arab neighbors has climbed by 10 percentage points over the last decade — and 7 percentage points since 2008. A majority of Israeli Jews are still against the idea, but the portion accepting it has grown to 45.7% from 34.5%. Openness toward Arabs attending Jewish schools has also grown, to 54.8% from 51.5%.

Over the past decade, mainstream political forces, especially within the Yisrael Beiteinu party, have raised question marks over even the citizenship of Israeli Arabs. The leader of the party, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, argued that citizenship and its attendant rights should be contingent on pledging allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. But this campaign seems to have had little if any impact on public opinion.

When the campaign was at its height, during the general election of 2009, the proportion of Israeli Jews who said that Arabs have the right to live in the state as a minority with full citizenship rights was actually at a high of 78.8%. Today, the figure is down slightly to 75% — but still 2.4% higher than it was a decade ago.

Smooha told the Forward that he believes that the politicians’ antagonistic stands toward Arabs has helped them in their competition against each other for hard-line Jewish voters, but has not swayed the attitudes of others toward Arabs. “The anti-Arab campaign is just successful in helping them to keep their constituents,” he said.

Nevertheless, some academics have dismissed the survey’s findings.

“If the political system does not reflect the will of the people, then Israeli politics is different in its politics than any democratic country, and I don’t trust that,” said Amal Jamal, author of the 2001 book “Arab Minority Nationalism in Israel: The Politics of Indigeneity.”

Jamal, a member of Israel’s Druze minority and head of Tel Aviv University’s graduate program in political science and political communication, told the Forward in an interview that he thinks the statistics show only that Israeli Jews have become savvier in telling pollsters what they think people want to hear. “Public diplomacy is part of the Israeli political culture; people want to be seen abroad as a prosperous democracy and peaceful society,” he said.

Jamal believes that a large section of the Jewish public is on board with hard-line politicians, but that this sector of the public just “doesn’t want to be that blunt.”

Meanwhile, in contrast to its findings on Jews, Smooha’s survey of Arabs shows that those citizens have become more antagonistic toward the state and toward Jews.

Over the past decade, the proportion of Israeli Arabs who deny Israel’s right to exist has skyrocketed to 24.5% from 11.2%. Only 12.2% feel that Israeli citizenship is the most important aspect of their identity — down from 29.6% in 2003. And some 58.6% think it will be justified if Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza start a third intifada should the stalemate in the peace process continue.

Smooha believes that the figures reflect a spiral of disillusionment in the Arab sector stemming from the collapse of the Oslo process, Israeli military actions in Gaza and the growth of the Jewish radical right in the Knesset and in public life. In his understanding, while these phenomena failed to radicalize the Jewish public, they “succeeded in reinforcing the alienation of the Arab minority and in engendering growing fear of a collapse of democracy among the elites of the center and the left.”

Muhammad Darawsha, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nongovernmental organization devoted to Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel, said that the figures point to a deep crisis in relations between Arabs and the state. An “internal intifada,” or protests by Arab citizens like those seen in October 2000, is a real possibility, Darawasha warned. Twelve Arab citizens died in those mass protests as a result of what an official government commission later judged to be excessive force by Israeli police.

“October 2000-type clashes could happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, and we should cherish the moment it’s not happening,” Darawasha said.

Arab antagonism has some surprising expressions. When questioned on the Holocaust, one-third of Arab respondents replied that it didn’t happen — even though the Holocaust is part of the compulsory curriculum in Arab schools.

According to Darawsha, this doesn’t reflect a real conviction that there wasn’t a Holocaust. Arabs, too, he seemed to argue, are not always truthful in such surveys. “It’s more a matter of poking peoples’ eyes — saying that we know if we deny this, it will hurt you,” Darawasha said. “In order to make the Jews more upset and angry, people are prepared to poke their eyes.”

Paradoxically, though anger and alienation among Arab citizens toward Jews and the state are growing, Arabs also displayed a desire for further integration with both. Some 72.8% want to see Arab parties joining coalition governments. No Arab party has ever been brought into government, though ultra-Orthodox parties opposed to Zionism and to the state have been.

More than 45% of Arabs were also open to their children attending Jewish high schools, and more than 55% were open to living in Jewish neighborhoods. Still, these were down from 71% and 66%, respectively, a decade ago.

In Smooha’s reading, though, these levels remain notably high. And the reason for this, he said, is that Arabs view integration as a “channel of social mobility.”

This mindset led Arabs surveyed to take issue with their political leaders. Some 76% said that their leaders should deal more with settling daily problems and less with Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians. They were similarly skeptical about the energy that their leaders invest in trying to curb the Jewishness of Israel, with 62.4% supporting the idea that Arabs should fight more for civil and socioeconomic equality than for peace with the Palestinians and a change of the state’s Jewish character.

Smooha said: “Most Arabs in Israel today are pragmatic: They want a better standard of living, better services, less exclusion, and social and economic equality… a solution to their daily problems.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com



Would you like to receive updates about new stories?






















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.