For the past six months, thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets every week demanding to protect and strengthen democracy. As part of the protest, many demonstrators chant slogans in favor of equality for all the country’s citizens in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
In light of the rekindled discourse about equality, the Human Rights Index survey by Zulat for Equality and Human Rights and Reichman University’s Institute for Freedom and Responsibility sought to examine what equality means in the eyes of the public. To what extent do Israelis support equality, both in the principled-theoretical sense and in its actual manifestation in government policy? Accordingly, the survey asked one question about equality in principle, and three questions about current policy moves that have a bearing on the issue of equality.
The findings reveal a complex picture. In response to the question about equality in principle versus preserving Israel’s Jewish identity, only a minority of Jewish respondents support the embracement of equality as a supreme value, while a relative majority of 45% believe that equality should not be allowed to prevail over the Jewish identity of the state. Among Arab respondents, there is a big difference in the opposite direction: the vast majority support civic equality above all.
Moreover, in response to the three questions about policy moves that actually go against equality, most Jewish respondents favored two of the government’s measures. Only in one case (plans to change the law that forbids discrimination in services) was there overwhelming opposition by the entire Israeli public, with only slight differences between the different groups. When placed next to the other two policy measures surveyed, it is very easy to understand how such a change might affect all respondents personally.
The data for the current survey, conducted on 4-9 May 2023, was collected online by iPanel among 1,514 adults who constitute a representative sample of Israeli society, including 1,207 Jews (in Hebrew) and 307 Arabs (in Arabic), with a maximum sampling error of 2.5%. The findings were weighted for the true representation of Jews and Arabs in Israel, as well as against the results of the November 2022 elections.
Supreme Value: Equality Versus Jewish Identity
Respondents were asked to choose to what extent they agreed with one of the following two contradictory positions about equality in principle: “Israel should embrace equality as a supreme civic value” or “The value of equality must not prevail over Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.”
Among all Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, 40% chose equality as a supreme value. Although this is a minority, it still is a relatively tiny majority compared to the 37% who favored the subordination of equality to the country’s Jewish identity. However, among Jewish respondents, the results were almost the opposite: approximately half (45%) believe that equality must not prevail over Jewish identity, and only a third of Jews prefer equality as a supreme civic value. Among Arab respondents, a large majority of 70% support equality as a top value. About a quarter of both Jewish and Arab respondents opted for neither position (by choosing one of the two options, “neutral” or “don’t know”).
The response to this question revealed deep gaps between political camps. For example, of the respondents who in November 2022 voted for parties in the current coalition (almost all of them Jewish), 63% chose the position that equality must not be allowed to prevail over the Jewish identity of the state. In contrast, among voters of the opposition parties, 60% chose equality as a top value. It is no wonder that three-quarters of respondents who self-identify as left-wing support equality, but even among those who define themselves as centrists, support for equality as a supreme value significantly exceeds support for Jewish identity (48% versus 24%). Also, one-fifth of self-defined right-wing supporters favored equality, which tallies exactly with the number of right-wingers who said they voted for an opposition party in the November elections.
An analysis according to demographic characteristics reveals the same familiar and consistent patterns when it comes to questions of identity: the sharpest differences are found between Jews of different levels of religiosity; support for positions perceived as left-wing is higher among secular Israelis; support for positions considered right-wing rises with the level of religiosity.
More moderate differences exist between other demographic groups as well, such as between those who identify as Ashkenazi or Mizrahi and, to a lesser extent, between respondents from different socio-economic classes, but these minor disparities do not alone explain or predict the breakdown of opinions.
Furthermore, in accordance with well-known trends of recent years, significant differences were found between young and older Israelis, both Jews and Arabs. Only a quarter of Jews aged 25-34 chose equality as a supreme value that trumps Jewish identity, compared to 44% among those aged 65 and above. Among Arabs, 55% of the youngest age group (18-24) refrained from expressing an opinion (“neutral” or “don’t know”), and 42% chose equality as a supreme value. In contrast, over 75% of older Arabs in all age groups over the age of 25 chose equality as a top value.
Between Principles and Actual Policy
The answers to the questions dealing with government policies that might harm equality indicate significant support among the Jewish public for two of the three measures surveyed. This comes as no surprise in light of Jewish respondents’ only lukewarm support for equality as a supreme value. However, some of the Jewish respondents who favored equality in principle also supported government steps that in practice harm equality.
One of the questions, which examined the degree of support or opposition to the policy of Judaization of the Negev and Galilee, was preceded by a brief explanation: “For years Israel has been promoting the Judaization of the Negev and Galilee, and even today there are plans to expand Jewish settlement in these areas and to develop communities intended for Jews there.”
A large majority of Arab respondents objected to this policy (74%). Even though the question was worded in a way that did not explicitly indicate a discriminatory or racist attitude toward non-Jewish localities, it is evident that Arab respondents immediately recognized the injury to their status as a result of such a policy.
In contrast, endorsement of this policy among Jews was overwhelming: 86% favored it, including almost two-thirds who strongly supported it. The enthusiastic support was not limited to the right-wing camp alone: among respondents who self-defined as Centrists (a group that often agrees with the Left’s positions), almost two-thirds favored the Judaization of the Negev and Galilee (strongly or slightly) and, to some extent, so did 41% of the Left. Among right-wing respondents (most of them Jews), no less than 92% supported the policy of Judaization of the Negev and Galilee (76% of right-wingers strongly supported it).
An in-depth analysis shows that Jewish respondents who chose equality as a supreme civic value in principle supported a policy that might contradict that equality, in view of the fact that a large majority (75%) supported the Judaization of the Negev and Galilee. It may be that they see no contradiction between equality and Judaization, or perhaps they do not see this contradiction as an obstacle if the policy fulfills what they perceive as a Zionist goal. Among those who believe that equality should be subordinated to the Jewish identity of the state, this principled position almost completely overlaps with support for the Judaization of the Negev and Galilee (92%). It is similarly evident that Jewish support for this policy cuts across party lines: 71% of voters of opposition parties favored the establishment of Jews-only communities in these areas. Among Arab respondents who chose equality as a top value (the vast majority), most concurrently objected to a policy of Judaization.
The seemingly neutral phrase used in the survey (“Judaization of the Negev and Galilee”) and the fact that the question did not explicitly state that this policy discriminates against Arabs appears to have made it easier for Jewish respondents to believe that it is legitimate and compatible with their Zionist-nationalist values. Yet another explanation for their broad support is that Jewish citizens are those who stand to benefit from this policy.
Another question, which examined the support for the policy vis-a-vis asylum seekers in Israel, was preceded by a description of the limitations imposed on them, the inequality in social benefits from the state, and their unstable civil status. In order not to bias the respondents, this question did not explicitly mention the violation of the principle of equality either and included two options regularly cited in public discourse, with one half asked about “asylum seekers” and the other half asked about “infiltrators”: “Asylum seekers [or infiltrators] are restricted in their ability to work, are not entitled to the same basic labor and social benefits as Israeli citizens, and in some cases run the risk of being deported.”
Among Jewish respondents, a clear majority of 63% supported restrictions on asylum seekers (support rose to 78% among those asked about “infiltrators”). Among Arabs, although a high percentage did not know how to answer (25% to 30%), opposition was still high: 60% opposed and 16% favored restrictions on asylum seekers (when asked about “infiltrators,” support for restrictions rose slightly to 21%, yet opposition more than doubled to 49%).
The political differences according to self-defined ideology stand out when it comes to restrictions on asylum seekers: a clear majority of the Right favored restrictions (76%), but unlike the question about the Judaization of the Negev and Galilee, the Center was more moderately divided with no absolute majority for any answer: almost half (48%) supported and 36% objected to restrictions; on the Left 60% opposed restrictions. However, the position of those asked about “infiltrators” was more clear-cut: a large majority on the Right supported restrictions in all cases, but the majority on the Center favored restrictions, too. Even the Left was divided quite evenly: 41% supported and 47% opposed restrictions on infiltrators.
It is interesting to compare their position on asylum seekers of those Jews who in principle support equality as a supreme value and Judaization: a large majority (75%) supported Judaization, but only half supported restrictions on non-citizens when asked about “asylum seekers” rather than about “infiltrators” (in the latter case, support for restrictions rose to 62%, still slightly lower than the degree of support for Judaization).
When It Affects Me Personally…
The two questions about policy posed up to this point concern measures that benefit, or at least do not harm, the majority in Israel (Jews), but harm Arab citizens and a minority group of non-citizens (asylum seekers). In contrast, the third question in the survey looked into a policy that, if promoted by the current government, could also harm the Jewish majority. Amid the discussions on the formation of the current coalition, the possibility arose of amending the Anti-Discrimination Law, which caused a public uproar. Respondents were asked the following question: “Recently, the possibility arose of changing the Anti-Discrimination Law in Israel. According to the proposed amendment, private businesses would be able to deny service to certain customers on the basis of origin and religion, for example.”
Similar to the other questions, respondents were asked whether they support or oppose such a change. In a quite rare outcome, opposition to changing the law cut across sectoral and demographic lines, and even a majority of ultra-Orthodox respondents came out against it. The disapproval was unequivocal, as almost two-thirds of the entire population said they were strongly opposed, with no significant differences between Jews and Arabs (64% and 68% respectively). Even among respondents who self-defined as Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, or Sephardi, almost no statistically significant differences were found: close to three-quarters of all three groups objected to changing the law (among those who self-defined as “Israeli,” opposition was even higher at 87%). Young Jews aged 18-24, who often express more right-wing positions than others, also came out against a change that would allow discrimination (some 75%). Among Arabs, opposition was strong and consistent among both religious and secular persons and in all age groups, with the exception of the youngest group, aged 18-24 (53% answered “don’t know,” almost 40% were against, and only a handful were in favor).
Opposition to changing the Anti-Discrimination Law also cut across political camps. Evidently, among voters of opposition parties there was consensus (93%) against changing the law. However, a particularly striking finding is that an absolute majority of voters for coalition parties (71%) objected to it as well. In this case, too, in order not to bias the respondents in any political direction, the question did not mention who initiated the change (had it been mentioned that it was initiated by the current coalition parties, opposition among voters for the current government would probably have been slightly lower as an expression of political confidence). In yet another unusual outcome, respondents on the Right, Center, and Left showed quite a united front in their opposition: 73% of those who self-defined as right-wing came out against it (53% strongly opposed the move), and so did the Center (85%) and Left (90%).
The insights emerging from the survey are quite clear and illustrate the difficulty of promoting a communal society based on equality, despite the broad protests that have been sweeping the streets calling for democracy in Israel.
Generalizations about Israeli society, especially between Jews and Arabs, have grown increasingly difficult given the very large disparities between their positions on the most basic issues. It is indeed important to look at Israeli society as one body that contains everybody, yet at the same time there is no way to avoid a separate analysis of the different groups in order to faithfully reflect the variances in their values.
Among Israel’s Palestinian citizens, a clear majority sees equality as a supreme value, opposes policies of discrimination in favor of Jews and against asylum seekers, and are divided regarding restrictions on “infiltrators.” Of course, support for equality and opposition to discriminatory policies represent the respondents’ personal interests.
Among Jews, the findings indicate major reservations about equality if it conflicts with the state’s Jewish identity, and only a minority support it unequivocally as a supreme value. Furthermore, even among those who support equality in principle, a considerable number support policies that actually discriminate in favor of Jews and against Arab citizens. In other words, among Jews, not only is support for equality partial, but the meaning of equality as a value is also qualified and partial.
Only in one area is there agreement throughout all sectors: that it is wrong to change the law in order to allow discrimination, which might affect everybody personally. It seems that many Jews cannot perceive that harming Arab citizens (or non-citizens) violates the principle of equality and that such a violation might eventually enable harm to any citizen, themselves included. Alternatively (or in addition), it can be concluded that many Jews in Israel do not think that a discriminatory policy is morally problematic, as long as it strengthens the country’s Jewish identity. It seems that despite the intensity of the current pro-democracy protest, one of its essential components – equality – lags behind in Israel’s priorities, at least at this point in time.