The Psychology of Israel’s Declining Democracy

A recent Haaretz poll shows profoundly upsetting erosion in Jewish Israelis’ belief in universal human rights. Most Jewish Israelis acquiesce in discrimination against Arabs on the ground of ethnicity and or religion. If true, this points to a moral and political decline of frightening proportions.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The survey published by Haaretz on Tuesday is deeply unsettling. It shows that 69 percent of Jewish Israelis would not want to give 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote if the West Bank is annexed. 59 percent think that Jews should have preference over Arabs in admission to job in ministries.

I have some problems with the use of the term “apartheid” in the poll’s methodology. It is unclear whether most respondents know the exact meaning of the term; and many of the questions do not pertain to essential elements of apartheid as it was practiced in South Africa.

This being said, the poll no doubt shows profoundly upsetting erosion in Jewish Israelis’ belief in universal human rights. Most Jewish Israelis acquiesce in discrimination against Arabs on the ground of ethnicity and or religion. If true, this points to a moral and political decline of frightening proportions.

Beyond outrage and despair, this poll’s results require dispassionate analysis. Human nature is the same everywhere. Israelis are not more racist or xenophobic by their genetic endowment than any other group. Why then this rise in racism and xenophobia and, in particular, a deep hatred and distrust of Arabs?

Psychological research in the last decade shows that most human beings, when under threat, tend to become more conservative. They favor their own group (nation, ethnicity, religion) and develop more negative attitudes towards other groups. Politically this leads to an inevitable move towards the right and erosion in tolerance for difference. In addition it leads towards increased endorsement of violence, particularly in those who were on the right to begin with.

This seems to explain the survey’s results: Israelis have certainly have had their shares of objective threat. They live under the shadow of the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars in which Israel’s survival was threatened. Almost all of them have lived through the second intifada, the shelling of southern Israel and Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel’s north.

But something in this view is misleading: the threat on Israel’s existence has objectively decreased in the last decades. The 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars indeed threatened Israel’s survival. The country’s current situation, while far from comfortable, is quite different: No Arab country can threaten Israel’s existence today, even though particularly Hezbollah has the means to make life here quite impossible for a protracted period of time. Why then has the country moved so enormously to the right when its actual existence is much safer?

One answer, of course, is the possibility of Iran’s acquiring nuclear capability. While nobody in Israel or the West looks at this option calmly, Netanyahu has built his outgoing term as prime minster on the case that this means a potential Holocaust, thus increasing the perception of the threat enormously. He has been doing so against the explicit position of most of Israel’s security establishment, but his technique of fanning existential fears seems to be achieving its purpose: Israelis feel mortally threatened. As psychological research predicts, they become more xenophobic and racist – and are hence more likely move even further to the right.

But I think there is an additional reason for the rise in racism. Israel has been occupying the West Bank for more than two thirds of its history now, and has discriminated against Israeli Arabs all along. All Israelis understand that the country cannot be both Jewish and democratic if Israel continues to hold on to the West Bank. But Israel’s political right, which has largely ruled the country for more than half of its existence, claims that Israel cannot or must not withdraw from the West Bank either on theological grounds or because this would endanger Israel’s security.

Psychological research has shown for many decades that human beings are incapable of seeing themselves as bad in the long run. If a group does something that is immoral under a given value system, it cannot in the long run bear the cognitive dissonance. As a result it will tend to change its value system in order to avoid feeling bad, guilty or ashamed.

The implications for Israel are clear: The longer Israel holds on to the territories, and discriminates against Israeli Arabs the stronger the psychological need to adjust core values, to avoid feeling bad. If Israel has ruled over Palestinians for so long without giving them political rights, the consequence will be to simply say that it is justifiable to discriminate against Arabs.

This week's survey is the result of the decade-long rule of the right in Israel: the combination between fear mongering and the settlement project almost inevitably leads to the rise of racism and xenophobia.

But the result is not completely inevitable. Recent research demonstrates that people with strong universalist-liberal values do not move to the right under threat. They neither endorse more violence, nor do they become more xenophobic. But Universalist-Liberal values are now in a minority position in Israel, as this survey, along with other recent research show consistently.

Israel could therefore avoid an erosion of democratic value through emphasis on universalist-liberal values in education. But Education Minister Gideon Saar has systematically been replacing education towards democracy with chauvinist indoctrination in the secular school system.

This trend is likely to intensify: The current survey shows that the more religious Israelis are, the more they are likely to endorse discrimination. More than half of Israeli Jewish children are today in religious schools that teach children that Jews are the Chosen People and do not teach democratic values – and their proportion in the population is growing.

None of this bodes well for the future of Israel’s democracy.

A right-wing demonstrator holding a sign that reads 'The Land of Israel for the People of Israel' during a protest in 2009.Credit: Emil Salman / Jini

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