Do Israelis Agree with Their Own Declaration of Independence?

Israel's Declaration of Independence

Advocates of a Jewishly diverse and inclusive Israel sometimes point to the Declaration of Independence as proof of Israel’s fundamental support for civil liberties. The Israeli Declaration of Independence says that the State of Israel will:

… it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions …

In principle it would seem so. According to Hiddush’s 2011 Religon and State Index, 83% of Israeli Jews believe in freedom of religion and conscience.

However, the Dec, 2011 Peace Index poll found that only 18% of Israelis (21% Jews, 8% Arabs) believed that Israeli was fully implementing the freedoms in the Declaration of Independence. Even more disturbing was the survey’s finding that only 62% of Israelis (63.5% Jews) even thought it should.

What does this mean?

The numbers looked a lot better when one included those who believed Israel should mostly implement the declaration of independence’s commitment to freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture irrespective of race, gender, or religion. Then the number rose to 87% in support. Yet partial support of course begs a question: which freedoms should be denied?

The survey did not probe further to see which principles Israelis were willing to pass on. To answer that question we need to look at other surveys. Other studies suggest two issues may be at play here: the Israeli understanding of democracy and a tendency to endorse principles in the abstract but not in the specific.

Israelis by and large support democracy as a concept, but their definition of democracy is not strongly associated with pluralism or respect for minorities. According to the 2011 Democracy Index , 82% of Israelis said that democracy was the best form of government. 83% of Israelis agreed that a government run by elected representatives was somewhat good, good, or very good. Yet when asked what social concepts were associated with democracy only 50% said freedom and 6% said “pluralism and respect for minorities”. Only 9% associated the word “Jewish” in the phrase “Jewish state” with democracy and tolerance. Only 46% agreed that people should be allowed to harshly criticize the government in public.

Other studies show that Israelis overwhelmingly endorse freedom of religion in the abstract, but seem to fall short when asked to apply it to the specific situation of the state. In fact the numbers on specific items like recognition of all streams of Judaism, marriage, or Shabbat observance were much closer to the Peace Index finding of 63.5% of Israeli Jews.

The same Hiddush survey that found that 83% supported freedom of religion, also found that only 61% support recognition of all streams of Judaism. Clearly full freedom of religion would require recognition and equal status for all streams.

Support for civil marriage also falls in this range although the numbers vary by survey. Avi Chai’s recently released survey reports that 51% would consider it as a possibility, whereas Hiddush finds 62% in favor of all forms of marriage: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and civil. Presumably freedom of marriage would also be required as part of a full implementation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence support for freedom of religion.

The numbers for public Shabbat observance also fall close to the Peace Index finding. According to the Avi Chais study, the percentages agreeing to having restaurants, stores, and malls open on Shabbat all fall between 58% and 68%.

The discrepancy between a commitment in principle and the willingness to apply it in practice is not unique to the Hiddush survey. The 2011 Democracy Index found a similar pattern when looking at the question of freedom of speech. 76.2% of Israelis endorsed freedom of expression , regardless of their views. However, only 46% believed that one should be allowed to harshly criticize the government in public.

Suspicious of Freedom or Protective of Identity?
Much press has recently been devoted to Haredi extremism. However, one can’t blame the 36% of Jews who fail to fully endorse the declaration of independence on the Haredim. At present they are only 7% of the Israeli population.

In fact focusing on the Haredim as an out group is counter productive. If one wants to promote pluralism and democracy, one has to model healthy attitudes towards pluralism. Perhaps part of the distrust of full freedom of religion and ethnicity comes from the way Israel currently manages diversity?

Perhaps Israelis really do want a pluralistic and free country like that described in the Declaration of Independence, but are uncertain of how that could ever be accomplished without loss of identity? Are 36% really against pluralism and the full freedoms of the Declaration of Independence? Or are they for maintaining their identity?

We seem to be stuck between two models for relating to minorities, neither of which are constructive: accommodation and scapegoating. In doing so we are teaching ourselves that getting along comes at a price. We need to be able to take away freedom so that we can fight back when the accommodations become too great and resentment builds.

Proponents of diversity and pluralism usually see them as opportunities for self-determination and self-expression. However, in an environment where we vacillate between self-denying accommodation and scapegoating, freedom and diversity become just one more way to make people lose themselves. No matter which model we follow someone loses.

To avoid conflict the wider secular society avoids challenging Haredi values and culture. Instead we pass laws on education and national service and then give Haredim and other minorities exemptions. When violence erupts because a minority group dislikes the practices of another, police remove the peaceful actors from the scene rather than the violent ones.  We tell the peaceful ones to stay away and leave the minorities alone.

This works as long as the minority stays in its own space, living, working, and studying in enclaves. To avoid conflict we therefore create single gender schools and army units, special classrooms with mechitzas, and even gender segregate work spaces and public events. So long as these public events are attended only by the members of the minority, no one cares overly much even if all of these are paid for with the public dollar. Such accommodation is meant to create tolerance, but by isolating us in separate spaces, it actually pushes us further apart.

Inevitably though the two worlds collide. Accommodation in a shared space creates resentment. Thus wider society shifts abruptly to scape-goating: those Haredim, those Arabs. For example, what started out as upset over the treatment of a little girl by a thuggish religious pretender quickly turned into an extended conversation about how much Haredim as a class took from society and didn’t give back. In the eyes of some, the haredim, though only 7% of the population, single-handedly became responsible for all present an future Israeli economic stress.

Any therapist worth their salt will tell you that there is most definitely an alternative: stop over accommodating and insist that all sides empathize with and respect the needs of the other. Each side must take a hard look at what they truly need. Each side must focus on the needs rather than demanding a specific path to fulfill them.

We need to demonstrate that there is a third way between self-denying accommodation and resentful stereotyping. Without a third way, freedom and diversity is not a safe concept.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Public Opinion Surveys | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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