Poll: Most Israeli Jews Believe Orthodox Jews Are 'Gradually Taking Over the Country'

Nearly half of Israelis fear that their democracy is in 'grave danger,' Israel Democracy Institute's annual report shows

An Israeli Jewish man blows a ram's horn, a traditional Jewish ritual instrument, 2005.
AP

More than half of Jewish Israelis believe that the Orthodox community is taking control of society, according to the latest annual report by the Israel Democracy Institute published Tuesday. Only a minority of Israeli Arabs, however, shared this concern about their own religious establishment.

According to the 2017 Israeli Democracy Index, 53 percent of Israeli Jews and 37 percent of Israeli Arabs agreed with the following statement: “The religious are gradually taking over the country/society.”

Among nonobservant Jews, 79 percent said they believed this to be the case, but even among those who defined themselves as “traditional,” between one-third and one-half (depending on how “traditional” they considered themselves) agreed. Among Israeli Arabs, only about a quarter of those who defined themselves as nonreligious perceived religious Muslims and Christians as a threat to their way of life.

The index, the flagship project of the Israel Democracy Institute, monitors the state of Israeli democracy every year. The findings were based on responses from a representative sample of 1,024 interviewees.

According to the report, almost half of Israelis (45 percent) fear that their democracy is in “grave danger.” Most concerned were Jewish left-wing voters (72 percent) and Arabs (65 percent). Less than a quarter of Jewish right-wing and religious voters harbored such concerns.

The report shows that almost two out of every three Israelis are dissatisfied with the performance of their elected leaders. Some 80 percent said they believed Israeli politicians were more concerned with their personal interests than the good of their constituents.

The level of public trust in almost all state institutions was very low, with only 29 percent saying they had faith in the government, 26 percent in the Knesset, 15 percent in the political parties and 28 percent in the media. As in previous years, the most trusted institutions were the army, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

Although most Israelis do not put much faith in their democratic institutions, they are largely upbeat about the country and would not leave if given the opportunity, the report shows.

Although nearly half the respondents said they believed life in Israel was more difficult than in other Western countries, nearly 70 percent said they were optimistic about the country’s future (though among Jews on the left and Arabs it was closer to half), and more than 80 percent said they would not emigrate even if they received citizenship in another Western country. Even a majority of Israelis on the left – and by definition critical of the government – said they would not leave.

This paradox indicates that “Israeli society is much stronger than the political system,” said Prof. Tamar Hermann, who heads the Democracy Index project. She said the gap between how Israelis perceived the political system and how they perceived their lots in life and the country’s future grew even wider this past year.

Two months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked outrage when he described his detractors as “sourpusses.” “I hate to say it, but he was right in a way,” Hermann said. “As this report shows, people are satisfied with their lot in life but don’t want to give the government any credit. They are simply disgusted by it.”

The report found that among Jewish Israelis, almost 60 percent believed that human rights organizations harm Israel. That percentage, however, is lower than it was last year.

For the first time, the report compares Israel with other OECD countries on issues pertaining to the strength of democracy. Israel ranks relatively low when it comes to supporting human rights and liberal values, but high when it comes to political participation.