Opinion |

Don’t Blame Netanyahu. Blame the Israeli Electorate

An 'out-of-touch' rightist Israeli government further embedding the settlements and disdaining non-Orthodox Judaism? According to Pew, they faithfully reflect the will of the people.

Steven M. Cohen
Steven M. Cohen
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Israeli right-wing activists shout slogans during a rally against supporters of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike, in Ashkelon, Aug. 16, 2015.
Israeli right-wing activists shout slogans during a rally against supporters of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike, in Ashkelon, Aug. 16, 2015. Credit: AP
Steven M. Cohen
Steven M. Cohen

Undoubtedly, the United States is enduring the most polarizing political contest in recent history. Supporters of both parties differ not only over political principles. Rather, race, religion, class, geography and gender all sharply divide the American public.

And like Americans, Israelis display the same types of deep rifts over people and politics. According to a Pew Research Center survey of Israelis, their country’s two major political camps reflect deep divisions on many levels.

Conducted in late 2014 and early 2015, and released in March 2016, Pew’s landmark survey of over 5,000 Israeli adults – both Jews and non-Jews – has just been released for analysis by independent researchers. As I learned, the survey provides new insights into Israel’s divided electorate.

Relying upon their party identification, I assigned respondents to two political camps, labeling one “the Government” and the other “the Opposition.” The Government camp includes Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and United Torah Judaism. The Opposition: those identifying in 2014-15 with Labor and Hatnuah (which combined to form Zionist Union), Yesh Atid and Meretz, as well as four parties that would eventually comprise the Joint List.

Fifty-eight percent of Pew’s respondents identify with the Government and 42 percent with the Opposition. And these two camps markedly differ. To illustrate: Of Government supporters, 2 percent are non-Jews, as contrasted with 43 percent of Opposition supporters. Government voters are mono-ethnic; the Opposition is multi-ethnic.

In another contrast, the Government camp’s Jews differ from those in the Opposition. Of Government Jews, almost as many are religious (i.e., included religious (dati) and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi) as are secular (hiloni): 32 percent vs. 36 percent. Among Opposition Jews, just 2 percent (!) are religious, with 80 percent secular.

In terms of political identities as signified by a left-right scale, the Government camp is entirely lopsided, with 75 percent on the right versus 1 percent on the left. For the Opposition: 22 percent identify with the right and 35 percent with the left.

We find equally dramatic gaps between Government and Opposition sympathizers with respect to views on Palestinians and on religious life in Israel. An astounding 89 percent of Government camp Jewish supporters believe that “Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel,” as compared with 57 percent of Opposition respondents. The gap is even more pronounced over whether “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Among Government Jews, 61 percent favor expulsion or transfer, as compared with 20 percent in the Opposition.

The gaps extend to the peace process. Only 30 percent of Government supporters believe that “A way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully with each other.” But, among Opposition sympathizers, twice as many (65 percent) concur with that statement.

The Government camp is almost three times as likely as Opposition sympathizers to say that settlements help the security of Israel (54 percent vs. 20 percent). A large majority (69 percent) of Government supporters believe that “The current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians.” In contrast, only 29 percent of Opposition respondents are so inclined.

Sizable differences also emerge when it comes to religious policies. Four times as many Government as Opposition supporters think that “Government policies should promote religious values and beliefs in our country” (48 percent versus 12 percent). Over a third (34 percent) of the Government camp believe that, “If there is a contradiction between halakha [traditional religious law] and democratic principles the State of Israel” should give preference to halakha. Hardly anybody (5 percent) in the Opposition camp agrees.

Of special interest to Conservative and Reform leaders: Only a minority of Government supporters agree that women should be allowed to pray at the Kotel (36 percent), or that someone can be Jewish if converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi (27 percent), or that Conservative and Reform rabbis should be allowed to conduct marriages in Israel (27 percent). On all three issue, the Opposition camp provides solid supporting majorities (66 percent, 63 percent and 68 percent, respectively).

Outsiders may wonder why Israel seems so obdurate about stopping settlements or seeking a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But, with the voters for the Government parties even more decidedly in favor of settlements and even of transferring Arabs from Israel, the Government’s leaders’ policies seem quite aligned with the will of the public who voted for them. While Conservative and Reform leaders may wonder why Jewish women still can’t freely pray at the Kotel, or why non-Orthodox rabbis get no recognition in Israel, they need look no further than one simple fact: A third of the Government camp’s voters are haredi or dati.

The bottom line is this: Changing Israeli policies – with respect to God or country – demands changing the views of the voting public, rather than changing the views of the leaders whom the nationalist and religious publics send to the Knesset and government.

Steven M. Cohen is research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University.

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