In the period leading up to Israel's 2009 parliamentary election, several polls I conducted among the Jewish population turned up a consistent finding: The youngest respondents (18-35 ) disproportionately described themselves as right wing. They also supported Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party slightly more than others. Then weeks before the election, Haaretz reported on polls among high-school students in which Lieberman won simulated elections outright.
The nationalist, right-leaning trends among young people have been making headlines ever since, with sensational surveys showing intolerance and weak democratic values. But the polls have not clearly explained what's behind the apparent trend - why young people express such attitudes.
A new study of Israeli youth initiated by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and conducted by the Macro Institute for Political Economy, in which I participated, sought answers. To that end, in the spring/summer of 2010, we commissioned the Dahaf Research Institute to survey Jewish and Arab young people, 800 respondents between the ages of 15 and 18, and 800 aged 21-24 years. The poll, supplemented by extensive in-depth interviews, probed in detail their personal, social and political attitudes.
The answer is, it's complicated, and facile observations that youth are becoming fascist are not very helpful. I believe that pollsters should analyze with empathy rather than cynicism, if we are to contribute constructively to the debate; that means accepting contradictions and searching for their meaning.
The findings convinced me that young people here are not so much angry as they are craving the normalcy that has always eluded Israel. When normalcy evades them, they find convenient enemies to blame.
Here is evidence of the youthful quest for calm: The top personal goal is simply to raise a family. Sixty-five percent of Jews ranked family first out of five options (interestingly, just 43 percent of Arabs did; also 34 percent of them ranked "higher education" highest, four times more than Jews ). Ninety percent of all interviewees described themselves as optimistic. More than three-quarters of Jews and nearly 90 percent of Arabs feel personally safe. The interviewees revealed an interest in Facebook, sports and the opposite sex. For young people, the personal realm may be the arena where they feel they are "normal."
From their descriptions, it's not clear why young folks would even bother with politics. Politicians seem toxic. One interviewee said: "[Politicians] are all shit!" and "They're busy with money and bribes and not with what they should be doing. Instead of investing effort in the state, they're investing in cars."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears intractable to them. These young people have no positive associations with peace, having come of age during three wars (the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War and Cast Lead ) and no peace agreements. Whereas roughly 70 percent of adults today support negotiations, according to the monthly Peace Index surveys, among the young people polled, just over half (including Arabs ) do. Three-quarters of the Jewish respondents in our survey don't believe negotiations will bring peace. The plurality of Jews (46 percent ) prefer to "maintain the current situation, of the conflict," rather than move toward either a two-state or a one-state resolution. Sixty-three percent define themselves as "right wing," compared to 48 percent in 1998 (and about 45 percent of Jewish adults in Israel today, in my research ).
Apparently unwilling to question mainstream narratives regarding the futility of peace or the venality of politics most young people in Israel are no vanguard for social or political change. They do, however, crave the bonds of national unity. For Jewish youth, "Us against them" seems to be emerging as a convenient source. Hence the notion that Israel must be a "Jewish state" ranks as first priority among Jewish youth - a change from past years, when peace or democracy came first.
Fear, too, is a unifying factor, feeding distrust of others. Sixty percent of young Jews believe the state faces an existential threat. One interviewee said: "I wouldn't trust [Israeli Arabs] for anything. I'll keep my distance on the smallest chance that he'll stick a knife in my back ... " One-quarter think the secular-religious divide is dangerous; one-fifth think the left-right divide endangers Israel.
Belief in coexistence is a casualty of all this. In a battery of questions about coexistence behavior, barely half of young Jews polled would consider things like going to the home of an Arab (37 percent ) or having an Arab friend (52 percent ). Among Arabs, the rates range from 58 percent to 81 percent. When Jews were asked their feelings about Arabs, most say they have none; the second-ranked answer is "hatred" (27 percent ). Perhaps most troubling, democracy itself seems less important than identity. Although the vast majority in our study says democracy is theoretically important, 46 percent of Jews are willing to limit the rights of Arabs to be elected to Knesset and three-quarters say security concerns trump democracy.
It's important to realize that the "youth" are not monolithic. Secular Jews are significantly more supportive of democratic values and coexistence than religious youngsters, reflecting fundamentally different world views. Arab youngsters are the most supportive of democratic principles; it is logical, but ironic, that Arabs could become the strongest advocates for Israeli democracy.
When interviewed, people did not seem aware of the contradictions inherent in, for example, supporting democracy in theory but not in reality, or in feeling disgust for public life, but showing little interest in changing it.
So what will Israel's future look like? Perhaps the data can be a wake-up call to remind us that Israel's diversity demands agreement on principles that are above politics, like democracy. Perhaps the troubling hostility toward the Other can alert us to the urgent need to cultivate empathy and understanding, starting at an early age.
Or the data can recede into a general backdrop of bad news, just one more reason to say "there's nothing to be done."
Dahlia Scheindlin is an independent public opinion analyst and a strategic consultant. She is writing her Ph.D. in political science at Tel Aviv University.