Meet the Generation That Holds the Key to Israel's Future
They grew up in an Israel where, aside from a few isolated years, the right-wing Likud party has always been in power. For most of their lives, Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister. It is unlikely they have any personal recollections of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (if they were even alive at the time). The Oslo Accords – meant to pave the way for a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians, based on a two-state model – derailed long before they started school.
From the time they began taking note of their surroundings, a huge wall has separated Israel from large parts of the West Bank. And unless they happen to live on a settlement, Israeli Jews rarely set foot across the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders). The horrific suicide bombings of the second intifada are a distant memory by now, but rockets and missiles flying across the border from the Gaza Strip have been an almost constant feature of their lives. They came of age as Israel evolved into both the punching bag of the international community for its more-than-half-century-long occupation of Palestinian territories and a widely admired high-tech superpower.
These are the events and circumstances that have played a critical role in shaping the attitudes and priorities of the current generation of young Israelis, and are key to understanding their mind-set.
53.8 percent of young Israelis voted for right-wing parties
Among young Jewish Israelis, 69.9 percent defined themselves as right wing
50 percent of young Israelis support equal rights for same-sex couples
Excluding ultra-Orthodox, 68.5 percent of young Israelis support equal rights for same-sex couples
29.6 percent of young Jewish Israelis support a peace deal based on a two-state solution
40.2 percent of young Jewish Israelis support the annexation of all of the West Bank
Future in Israel
23.5 percent of young Israelis say they would prefer to live in the United States or another Western country
So who are these young Israelis? How do they vote? How do they identify politically and religiously? Where do they stand on hot-button issues like civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat, LGBTQ rights and the treatment of asylum seekers? Are they willing to give up land for peace, or do they support annexation of the occupied territories? Do they believe Israel’s Jewish character takes precedence over its democratic character? What issues concern them most, and do they necessarily see their future in the country?
In this special project, Haaretz profiles 10 young Israelis who represent a large cross-section of society: Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, city kids, settlers and even one kibbutznik. They range in age from 18 to 27. Some have already completed their military service, others have yet to be drafted, and a few have been exempt. They include university students, gap-year program participants and full-time salaried workers.
Itay:Whether we like it or not, security will always be a top issue on the national agenda.
We asked each of them to answer the exact same list of questions in the hope of gaining insight into their politics, their passions, their positions and their plans for the future.
In some ways, their responses surprised us, indicating that the usual right-left dichotomy doesn’t necessarily apply to this generation: On some issues, like security, they tend to be hawkish; while on others, like gay rights, they hold overwhelmingly liberal positions. The conventional wisdom holds that young Israelis are more right wing by far than their peers abroad and than older Israelis, and that they have gravitated to the right increasingly over the years. Yet not a single member of this focus group chose to self-identify as right wing. The most they were willing to say was that they were “center-right.” There seemed to be less hesitation to self-identify exclusively as “left wing.”
Future in Israel
Indeed, among those who agreed to share information about their voting habits, not one had voted Likud in the two elections held last year or planned to vote Likud (Israel’s largest right-wing party) in the upcoming March 2 election. Yet at the same time, not a single member of the group expressed wholehearted support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an option once favored by a majority of Israelis and, even today, a plurality.
Support for a two-state solution is often seen as a classic position of the left in Israel. How blurred those lines have become is perhaps best exemplified by the responses of Alexa, 27, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who grew up in Israel: She defines herself as left-wing but supports the annexation of the main Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Support for annexation was once a position embraced only by the far right in Israel.
Amit:Israel needs to annex the West Bank. The Palestinians are never satisfied.
Yosef:Every time we’ve evacuated an area, radical Islamic groups have moved in.
Yet if their parents were concerned with the morality of the ongoing occupation, or the need to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, these young Israelis seem to have little interest in the question of where the permanent borders of their country should and will be drawn. “I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about annexation so long as human rights are safeguarded,” Alexa says, for example.
Of far greater concern are widening socioeconomic gaps, the country’s high cost of living and the fact that the electoral system – evidenced by events of the past year – doesn’t seem to be working.
Almost all of them support at least a limited form of public transportation on Shabbat and full rights for the LGBTQ community – but not necessarily as a political issue.
Bar:It’s only because the religious have so much power in this country that [the LGBTQ community is] not accepted.
But when asked whether Israel has a special obligation to take in asylum seekers or whether they support the so-called nation-state law (which many Israelis believe discriminates against the Arab minority because it prioritizes the Jewish over the democratic character of the state), their responses are more nuanced.
Gal, an 18-year-old Tel Avivian with a passion for theater, believes Israel does not have a special obligation to take in asylum seekers. “I’m not even sure we have an obligation at all, but we definitely know what it feels like for these people, because we were also in that position,” she says. “To ignore it is to bury our heads in the sand.” As for the nation-state law, Danielle, who is 19 and grew up in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, explains that “we need a state that will be defined as ours – assuming we want to preserve our heritage and our nation. On the other hand, I understand why non-Jews in this country would feel hurt by this law,” she says.
Alexa:It bothers me there are so many children in this country who don’t have equal opportunities.
Almost without exception, these young Israelis see their future in the country. Fadi, a 25-year-old law student, notes that as a matter of principle, the Druze community from which he originates would never abandon the land it lives on. However, he says, “Living with the new Israeli DNA is very challenging for me. I feel threatened... it all depends on which direction the country takes.”
Very little research has been devoted to the young generation in Israel, and so it is difficult to say how typical this particular focus group is. But data culled from the latest annual survey of the Israel Democracy Institute – being published here for the first time – helps provide some relevant context.
The survey was conducted in late 2019 and included a total of 1,014 Israeli adults, with responses broken down into four age categories: 18-24; 25-44; 45-64; and 65 and over.
This breakdown shows that in the last election, held on September 17, respondents in the youngest age bracket voted in much larger percentages for parties affiliated with the political right than respondents in the oldest age bracket. For example, only 3.1 percent of respondents aged 18-24 voted for Labor, compared with 8.4 percent of over 65s. By contrast, while 23.8 percent of those aged 18-24 voted for Likud, only 13.9 percent of over 65s did.
Yosef:Do I vote like my parents? Not at all – they’re more to the right.
Asked about the option of a two-state solution, only 2.3 percent of respondents in the youngest group said they were sure they would support it, while 27.3 percent said they thought they would. Support was significantly higher in the older age groups: 7.9 percent of respondents in the 45-64 age bracket and 25.9 percent in the 65+ age bracket said they were sure they would, while 36.2 percent in the 45-64 age bracket and 36.6 percent of over 65s said they thought they would.
Itay, 24 and a graduate of a prestigious religious high school in Jerusalem, notes that while he supports peace, he doesn’t believe a two-state solution is the model to deliver it. “Today, there is a Palestinian state in Gaza, and we see that it doesn’t really work,” he says. For Gal, it’s a complicated question. “I don’t think it would be wise to create a Palestinian state that would be our enemy, because then we’d just continue fighting. But I do think it’s something that needs to be considered – and if we can change the rhetoric from who was here first to which of us needs what, that would be a step in the right direction.”
Tali:If we can feel secure with two states, fine. If not, we have to find another solution that allows us Jews to feel safe.
Nour:I support one state for all its citizens, with full rights for everyone.
The data also show that young Israelis tend to be far more conservative on social and religious issues than their parents and grandparents. While more young Israelis support than oppose equal rights for same-sex couples (50 percent, compared with 42.4 percent), support was significantly higher among the older age brackets (63.4 percent in the 45-64 age bracket, and 63.5 percent among the over 65s). Similarly, while more than half (56.7 percent) of young Israelis said they supported public transportation on Shabbat outside of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the percentages were even higher among older respondents (62.7 percent in the 45-64 age bracket; 72.1 percent in the 65+ age bracket).
Itay’s answer to the question of public transportation on Shabbat was reflective of many responses: “I’m for whatever solution will cause the least amount of hatred and division among people. It’s a complicated question, and I think each place in the country requires a separate solution.”
Bar:As a nonobsevant person, I believe I have the right to public transportation on Shabbat.
Gal:I’m really troubled by the fact there’s no functioning government in the country.
If young Israelis tend to lean more to the right than their parents and grandparents, defying trends elsewhere in the world, it is because a larger percentage of this age cohort is religious, says Prof. Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is definitely a factor,” she says. And the reason there is such a large concentration of religious Israelis in the youngest age bracket is that religious people tend have more children.
Danielle, who identifies as religious and has four siblings, says: “I do support the annexation of Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank. “I was born and grew up in [the settlement of] Efrat. These lands are an inseparable part of the Land of Israel. Their location also protects Jerusalem. In my opinion, there must be Jewish settlement here. But it doesn’t have to be exclusively Jewish. We live in close proximity to Palestinians. That’s the reality. We are actually neighbors, but for the most part we don’t have neighborly relations.”
Fadi:I have a harder and harder time explaining how Israel is different from other regimes in the area.
Roby Nathanson, CEO of the Tel Aviv-based Macro Center for Political Economics, also holds the Israeli educational system responsible for these generational discrepancies.
“It is a system that in recent years has not encouraged critical thinking – the type of thinking that might cause young people to change their views,” he says. “And we shouldn’t forget that the Israeli public in general has been moving to the right as hopes for peace have dissipated, so what we’re seeing with young Israelis is also part of a larger trend.”
Every six years, together with the Israel office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Macro Center publishes a survey of attitudes among young Israelis. These surveys, Nathanson says, show clearly that young Israelis have gravitated to the right since the beginning of the millennium. Among Jewish respondents, the percentage that identified as right wing rose from 56 percent in 2004 to 67 percent in 2016, whereas the percentage that identified as left wing dropped from 25 percent to 16 percent.
Among Arab respondents, the percentage that identified as right wing fell only slightly, from 11 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2016, whereas the percentage that identified as left wing during this period dropped significantly – from 50 percent to 10 percent – with a growing share of young Israeli Arabs identifying as either centrist or “undefined.”
Danielle:It’s more complicated than right, left and center. I don’t think it’s possible to really define these terms.
“Right now, we’re seeing this primarily among young Arabs. But it could indicate the start of a new trend altogether of young Israelis who don’t identify as either right or left,” Nathanson says. “Today, there are different issues they feel passionate about – the environment, for example – and these are issues that cut across the usual right-left divide.”
The cost of war
At the forefront of the Israeli peace movement, or what remains of it, it is hard to find any young faces today. But that was not always the case. In fact, as Nathanson notes, Peace Now – Israel’s best-known peace movement – was spearheaded by a group of young Israelis in the late 1970s, most of them veterans of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was a generation, he says, that felt the cost of war in a much more personal and profound way.
Tali:I don’t like protests, especially when it involves blocking roads.
“The young generation today,” he says, “haven’t experienced any big wars like the Yom Kippur War or the Lebanon War, with large numbers of casualties. Many of them don’t know what it’s like to lose friends and family members in war, and that maybe explains why the pursuit of peace is not something very high on their agendas.” If there are forces that can turn the tide in Israel today, Nathanson says, “it won’t come from this generation.”
A study published a year ago by Israeli social scientists Noa Lavie and Irit Adler shows how young Israelis compare with their peers abroad when it comes to political and religious self-identification. Asked to grade themselves politically on a scale of zero to 10 (with 10 being the most right wing), Israelis scored on average 6.46 – which was the highest of any of the 23 countries included in the survey. (Germany scored the lowest.) Asked to grade themselves religiously on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being the most devout, Israelis scored on average 5.4 – second only to Poland.
“To me, these results were not surprising,” says Lavie, an associate professor at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. “For the past 20 years, and especially the past 10, young Israelis live in a society where religion is becoming more apparent and more important – and even the educational system is run by people who see religion as an important part of life and identity. This is a huge contrast to what is happening in the United States and Europe,” she says.
Danielle was born and raised in Efrat, a settlement in the West Bank (which she prefers to call Judea and Samaria). Living there, she says, is very important to her. This year, for the first time in her life, she is living away from home, on Moshav Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert, where she is participating in a pre-military leadership training program. Fenner already knows she will be serving in the Intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Forces when she completes the program. She and her twin sister are the youngest of five children. Their dad is originally from New York and their mom from Panama. Fenner loves running and playing guitar and ukulele.Read Danielle's answers to our questionnaire
Fadi was born and raised in Daliat al-Carmel, the largest Druze town in Israel. A first year law student at the University of Haifa, he served in Israeli intelligence, reaching the rank of captain. During his military service, he spent two years living in a hip neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Maklada is the youngest of three children and lives on his own today in Daliat al-Carmel, in a separate housing unit that belongs to the family.Read Fadi's answers to our questionnaire
Amit works as a makeup artist by day and a cocktail waitress at night, while taking courses in informal education. A former commander in Caracal (the first mixed-sex battalion in the IDF), “Shiri” – as she is better known among her friends – is the younger of two sisters. Both her parents, who are of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern or North African) origin, were born in Israel as well. Shiri currently lives with her boyfriend in the Negev capital of Be’er Sheva, where she was born and raised.Read Shiri's answers to our questionnaire
Bar has lived his entire life on Kibbutz Hahotrim in northern Israel, with no plans to ever leave. Aside from his job as a personal trainer, he supervises exercise classes at a nearby boarding school and occasionally models for sporting attire companies. His parents are both Israeli-born – his dad from the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona and his mom from tony Ramat Hasharon. Elmakias, the middle child of three, heads a special committee on his kibbutz that represents young members. He lives in his own apartment on the kibbutz and is currently enrolled in a course that provides training in running small communities. In his spare time, he plays guitar and surfs. Elmakias is a veteran of the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade’s special forces unit.Read Bar's answers to our questionnaire
Itay was born and raised in Jerusalem, where he studied at a prestigious religious high school. After spending a year in the Greater Washington area, serving as a shaliach for an organization affiliated with the religious Mizrahi movement, he is studying his first semester in law at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. He shares an apartment with friends near the campus. A former madrich (counselor) in the religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, Elbaum is the oldest of four children. His dad is originally from France, and his mom is Israeli-born. To earn money on the side, he leads Segway tours in Jerusalem.Read Itay's answers to our questionnaire
Gal is a third-generation Tel Avivian on her mom’s side. A graduate of Ironi Alef, a high school that specializes in the arts, she participated in numerous theater programs while growing up. This year, before joining the army, Raveh is enrolled in a voluntary service program that focuses on spoken word poetry. The program is based in the southern port city of Ashdod, where she lives in an urban commune. The elder of two daughters, Raveh is slated to spend her military service in the IDF spokesperson’s unit.Read Gal's answers to our questionnaire
Yosef was born and raised in Haifa, where he works today as a security guard at a telecom company. His parents immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, and he is the middle child of three. Getaon served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade and plans to begin studying for his bachelor’s degree in biology next year. He currently lives at home with his parents.Read Yosef's answers to our questionnaire
Tali was born and raised in Modi’in Ilit, an ultra-Orthodox community located just over the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border). This year, she began her studies at a post-high school seminary for women in Jerusalem. She also works as a makeup artist at a cosmetics store. The oldest of four children, Hayoun commutes to Jerusalem every day from her home in Modi’in Ilit. She is exempt from serving in the army because she is ultra-Orthodox.Read Tali's answers to our questionnaire
Alexa was born in Russia in the town of Khabarovsk, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of the Chinese border. She immigrated with her family to Israel 20 years ago and grew up in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. A proud member of what is known as “Generation 1.5” – Russian speakers who immigrated when they were young and grew up in Israel – she graduated last year from the Hebrew University, where she studied history and sociology. The elder of two children, she currently lives in Jerusalem with her boyfriend.d.Read Alexa's answers to our questionnaire
Nour was born and raised in Kafr Manda, an Arab town in the Lower Galilee. The fourth of five children, she began studying economics and accounting at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev this year. She shares an apartment with several other students in Be’er Sheva, not far from the campus, but says she finds the Negev city quite boring. Before attending university, she was active in Ajiyal, an Arab youth movement that works closely with Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist-socialist youth movement. Since she began her university studies, Khlaily, a Muslim Arab, has little time for much else. But when she has a few hours to spare, she says she loves spending them at the movie theater with friends. (Haaretz agreed to Nour's request that her image not be published alongside this interview.)Read Nour's answers to our questionnaire