The 2013 Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” touched off discussions, head-scratching and soul searching about where American Jewry was headed. Even those who saw no revelations in the findings attested to the report as a particularly clear snapshot of Jewish reality. Pew’s serious reputation as a research center, plus its status as an observer rather than a participant of Jewish America lent the report authority. Two and a half years later, people still say, “According to the Pew report …” when discussing some aspect of American Jewish life.
It’s too early to tell if last week’s Pew report on Israel, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” will have that kind of lasting authority. But its findings occasioned shocked headlines and disbelief: Almost half of Israeli Jews said they favored Arabs being “expelled or transferred from Israel.” Among self-described right-wing Jews, 72 percent agreed with that statement, along with 71 percent of religious Zionists. Four out of five Israeli Jews said Jews should get preferential treatment in Israel.
No political party in the Knesset calls in its platform for the expulsion of Arabs. So, where did this sentiment come from? The survey was taken between October 2014 and May 2015, following the war with Hamas in Gaza and before the recent lone wolf attacks began. Did Pew capture the cry of Jewish Israelis who are tired of a decades-long struggle with the Arabs? Is this how one people desires to deal with a dehumanized other?
Whatever the explanation — and we should point out that some Israeli pollsters have analyzed the original Hebrew question as being prone to misunderstanding — the implications are chilling. President Reuven Rivlin, acting as the moral voice of the state, did not waste time before he termed “unconscionable” the idea that Israel “could be a democracy for only its Jewish citizens.” Like an ancient king calling for a public fast, Rivlin called on the public to engage in “soul searching and moral reflection.”
Some have inquired whether the question that drew the “expulsion” response was faulty. Even if the percentage of Israelis agreeing with the statement is lower than Pew claims, most likely it is still higher than we should be comfortable with. The shock caused by the study has, for the moment at least, focused attention on the issue. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen called it a “warning sign” for Israeli and American leaders.
We agree. Although Israelis and American Jews see the world differently, those differences are often healthy and constructive. But were Israel to retreat from being either a Jewish state or a democracy, it would severely fray our common connections. That said, as much as we in America would like to castigate Israelis for their views, we don’t live there. We are not targeted or subjected to daily threats, and we are not raising future soldiers.
Perhaps it’s best to not draw too many conclusions from this latest Pew report. Instead, let’s value the report as a sober look at a complex society.