What does Israel’s Arab minority really think?

Arab Israelis on the beach in Tel AvivArab Israelis on the beach in Tel Aviv

By Alexander Yakobson*

The Israel Democracy Institute’s ‘Israeli Democracy Index 2012’ – an annual comprehensive survey of the mood of Israeli society, widely considered one of the most authoritative in the field – provides some fascinating data about attitudes among Arab-Israelis regarding Israeli democracy and the state itself. The findings (not significantly different to previous years) certainly reflect a critical attitude towards the Israeli reality and government policies. But they also reflect something else: a huge gap between the responses of Arab-Israelis and the typical discourse of the Arab elite in the country; between opinion at the base and rhetoric amongst the political leadership of this community.

Findings

Before setting out the findings, we must ask how reliable they are. It is sometimes suggested that the relatively positive results of these kinds of surveys reflect the reluctance of Arab participants to express their views with full candor and their desire to appease the establishment or the Jewish majority. But one of the survey’s most interesting findings is the negative answer given by the great majority of Arab respondents to the question, ‘Do you think that the Knesset Members from Arab parties are more radical than the general Arab public?’ Only 24.4 per cent think so; almost half of the rest say the Arab MK’s are actually more moderate than the Arab public at large. This is obviously a very disappointing answer from the viewpoint of the Jewish majority. Those who gave it were clearly not afraid of anybody and not trying to please anybody. Precisely for this reason, it can be regarded as strengthening the credibility of the other answers in the survey: after having expressed support for their political leadership, the Arab citizens proceeded to give, on many important points, answers that are hugely different from what the leadership is saying.

There is a huge difference between the responses of ordinary Israeli Arabs and the typical discourse of the Arab elite.

The picture is thus complicated, and the fundamental attitude of the Arab minority towards the State appears to be deeply ambivalent. But given the prolonged national conflict, with no end in sight at this point, this ambivalence should be regarded as good news. The Arab parties express the negative aspect of this ambivalence well enough; but anyone reading the survey will notice that the other aspect exists as well, and it is not at all negligible.
Proud to be Israeli. Some 44.5 per cent of Arab citizens (compared with 89 per cent of Jewish Israelis) answered affirmatively when asked whether they are ‘proud to be Israeli’ (14.1 per cent ‘very proud’, 30.4 per cent ‘quite proud’, 20.4 per cent ‘not so proud’ and 29.3 per cent ‘not at all proud’). This reflects a decline from last year, when 52.8 per cent of Arabs responded positively, but it is still within the normal fluctuations over the last decade (between more than 40 and more than 50 per cent). Some argue that a state that defines itself as Jewish cannot, by definition, inspire feelings of patriotism among its Arab citizens – these findings tell a different story. It should be noted that the expression the survey uses is not ‘Israeli citizen’ but ‘Israeli’. In theory this should be the same thing, but in fact, everyone living in Israel knows that both Jews and Arabs often use the term ‘Israeli’ as a synonym for an ‘Israeli Jew’.

To my knowledge, none of the leaders of the Arab public would adopt the label ‘Israeli’, and many reject this term explicitly. The Arab leadership also rejects the term ‘Israeli Arab’ because it sounds too Israeli. The acceptable alternative is not ‘Palestinian Israeli’ or ‘Israeli Palestinian’ but ‘Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel,’ or ‘(Arab) Palestinian in Israel’. Under these conditions, the willingness of slightly less and sometimes slightly more than a half of the Arab public to adopt the label ‘Israeli’ and express pride in it is of great significance. A few years ago I spoke with a group of British journalists who questioned me about the situation of Arab citizens of Israel. After dealing with various specific points, I asked them: do you suppose that 45 per cent of Catholics in Northern Ireland would be prepared to say ‘I am proud to be British’? One of them replied, ‘I don’t believe there are 45 Catholics in Northern Ireland who are willing to say I am proud to be British, never mind 45 per cent.’ Of course, he may have been exaggerating.

Israeli democracy. In relation to Israeli democracy, 44 per cent of Arab respondents say Israel’s democracy is at the ‘appropriate level’, 7.8 per cent say Israel is ‘too democratic’, 37.2 per cent said it is ‘not democratic enough’ and only 11 per cent that it is ‘not democratic enough by far’. The last answer corresponds to what is routinely said by virtually the entire Arab leadership. In fact, the ‘vision documents’ of the Arab leadership claim that Israel is not a democracy at all. That is not the opinion of the Arab public.

With regard to political institutions, 51.3 per cent of the Arab population have confidence in the Knesset and 51.8 per cent in the president, while only 39.3 per cent have confidence in the government (the cabinet). This signifies, presumably, not political support for the present government, but rather confidence in the government as an institution.

Nearly 82 per cent of the Arab respondents ‘definitely agree’ that under no circumstances should violence be used to achieve political goals. The percentage of Jews that answered that way to the question is 75.5 per cent.

Equality. Asked whether Arab citizens are discriminated against (‘disadvantaged’, as the survey puts it) compared with the Jewish population, a large majority of respondents answered ‘yes’. One should not make light of this finding. But here also there are marked differences between the message from the public and the message of the leadership. Some 46.6 per cent ‘strongly agree’ with this claim, while 28.3 per cent ‘somewhat agree’ and 22.5 per cent ‘disagree’ or ‘do not agree so much.’

National security and state institutions. 16.8 per cent of Israeli Arabs say they would increase Israel’s defence budget, while 40.8 per cent would leave it unchanged. In 2011, when the question was asked in a different way, 45 per cent responded that it was ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to enhance Israel’s military capability. Some 42.4 per cent of Arabs say they have confidence in the IDF and a further 18.8 per cent have confidence ‘to a small extent’. Only 32.5 per cent have ‘no confidence at all’. It seems that even among those who do not have great confidence in the IDF, more than a few are of the opinion that there are other forces in the Middle East that inspire even less confidence
Some 62.3 per cent of Arab respondents say they have confidence in the police (25.1 per cent ‘a lot of confidence’ and 37.2 per cent ‘some confidence’) – a significant increase from the previous survey and slightly more, remarkably, than the percentage of Jews who say so. The editors of the survey comment that this may be due to increased recent police efforts to fight crime in the Arab sector. If indeed one year of relatively good work is enough to garner the police of the Zionist state an expression of confidence by a large majority of the Arab public, this indicates that the real relationship between the state and its Arab citizens is very different, and much more complex, than is commonly thought.

If so, there is an important lesson here for other parts of the Israeli establishment: a concrete action – even if not particularly dramatic – by official institutions, for the benefit of the Arab public, as part of the country’s citizenry, can certainly lead to increased confidence by the Arab citizens in these institutions.

Some 78 per cent of Arabs say they have confidence in the Supreme Court (compared with 72 per cent of Jews). Certainly, the Supreme Court is the most liberal branch of the Jewish state, which has done a lot to protect the civil rights of the Arab minority. But it is still unmistakeably a branch of the Jewish state. Not many radical critics of the Jewish state, within the country or abroad, are willing to give credit to its Supreme Court.

Israel’s future. When asked about their assessment of Israel’s outlook for the next fifteen years, a large majority of the Arab respondents estimated that the country will be able to defend itself militarily (62.8 per cent), and that it will not lose its Jewish character (68.1). Some 49.7 per cent think Israel will become much more religious, and 55.5 per cent believe its international isolation will grow. But the assessment that enjoys the highest majority is that Israel will retain its status as a high-tech leader (75.9 per cent). Some 60.2 per cent of Arabs (compared to 75.6 per cent of the Jewish population) say they are ‘optimistic about the future of Israel’. Just over half of those are ‘very optimistic’, the rest ‘quite optimistic’.

Conclusions

Of course, one may question the methodology and significance of any poll, but consistent findings in a series of authoritative polls are not something that can be easily dismissed. Anyone who studies the data closely, and factors in the difficult prevailing circumstances, must be impressed by the extent of optimism among Israel’s Arab minority. The findings should, I think, inspire some cautious optimism in the reader as well. After all, the data was collected after a period in which the Yisrael Beitenu party and parts of the Likud questioned the loyalty of the Arab minority in Israel in a highly inflammatory manner. The shameful public call by a group of municipal rabbis not to sell or rent apartments to Arab citizens, met only fairly mild disapproval from government leaders, and no official measures were taken against these rabbis, despite the fact that they are public servants paid by the state. Back in 2006, some Arab Knesset members publicly praised the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah whilst his missiles fell on Haifa and (the Arab-Israeli town of) Nazareth; this did not help the relations between Jewish and Arab citizens either. Indeed, anyone listening to the nationalist rhetoric on both sides could easily imagine that the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel were about to explode.

However, these and similar findings indicate that Jewish-Arab relations in Israel are actually much better – or less bad, if one prefers to put it this way – than the nationalist rhetoric would suggest. Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts a large shadow over these relations. But even absent a solution to this conflict (which would of course be highly desirable in many respects), there is much that can and should be done to improve the civic status of Arabs in Israel and the relations between the majority and the minority. The claim that the Arab citizens of Israel are essentially and fundamentally alienated from the state is plain wrong.

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Alexander Yakobson

* Alexander Yakobson is Associate Professor of Ancient History in the History Department of Hebrew University. His research on modern topics deals with democracy, national identity, the nation-state and the rights of national minorities in Israel and in Western democracies. He is a co-author (with Amnon Rubinstein) of Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights (2003). He is an op-ed writer at Haaretz and Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.