Poll: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State

israeli-democracy-indexIn November 2010, the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center came out with its annual Israeli Democracy Index report, titled Auditing Israeli Democracy: Democratic Values in Practice. The index is a “report card” of sorts of Israeli democracy, measuring Israeli attitudes toward democratic values compared to international indicators and previous years’ reports.

Of particular interest to me are attitudes on Israel as a Jewish and/or Democratic state. These perspectives shape not only Israeli attitudes toward domestic governance, tolerance of minorities, and the relationship between religious and political institutions, but may also have a critical impact on how Israelis approach the question of territorial compromise. A frequently cited argument is that unless Israel withdraws from the West Bank, it will be forced to formally absorb its Arab population.

Faced with a 33% to 50% non-Jewish population, proponents of the demographic argument believe that Israel will be forced to choose between being a Jewish and democratic state in some of the land, or a Jewish but non-democratic or democratic but non-Jewish state in the whole of the land. This perspective is contested by reports like the Million Person Gap and the recently updated Demographic Trends in the Land of Israel by Yaakov Faitelson. Unsurprisingly, these competing empirical analyses support competing political perspectives on territorial compromise: for and against withdrawal respectively.

The 2010 report offers the following basic statistics:

43% of the general population feels that it is equally important for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic country, while 31% regards the Jewish component as being more important, and only 20% defines the democratic element as being more important.

The report (pgs 117-122) offers more detailed analysis:


Among Arab respondents, the preferred choice was a democratic state at 38%, however the second ranked choice was the “Jewish component” at 25%. The implication here is unclear. About one fifth at 19% stated that “neither” was important to them.  This, the authors argue, indicates that these respondents either prefer a definition which is not Jewish and democratic, not Jewish, and not democratic, suggesting support for an “Islamic theocracy or another model of government.” Only 15% prefer the option of “both.”

Among the Jewish population, “both are equally important” is the strongly preferred response at 49% followed by Jewish at 32% and democratic at 17%. Of those who did express a preference for one over the other, the Jewish preference received a response about twice that of democracy. The authors believe this indicates that, if Israel was forced to choose, the “nationalist” element would win out over the “political” one.

Broken down further, it is apparent that preference for the Jewish aspect is greater among more rightist and religious respondents while democracy is more greatly preferred the more leftist or secular the respondent. Among the latter populations, however, democratic is preferred over Jewish by only 12% and 6% respectively. Both still strongly prefer the option of “both” at 49% and 54%! In short, even among those who are leftist or secular, the Jewish element of their national identity seems to exercise significant force in their political preferences.

The question for me is if this also affects their territorial preferences. In previous publications of the Democracy Index, respondents were asked to prioritize four possibly competing values: a Jewish majority, the Greater Land of Israel (ארץ ישראל השלמה), Peace, and Democracy. In the 2005 report (pg 94), a graph is included of responses where each value was given the highest ranking. Between 1988 and 2006, peace and a Jewish majority competed for the most consistently highest rank priority, followed by democracy with the “greater land” almost always trailing behind.


The consistently low prioritization of the Greater Land of Israel may, in fact, tell us the least of all the preference points. It does indicate a broad disinterest in a territorially expansive state versus other more pressing policy considerations. However, it does not tell us anything about which spaces Israelis are likely to value over others; it only suggests that Israelis do not see themselves as expansionist.

That maintaining a Jewish majority receives such consistently high marks, particularly versus democracy, however, does suggest that the evaluation of the authors of the report in 2010 is an accurate one. The national agenda of a Jewish majority seems to take precedence over the political one of preserving the democratic character of the state. Of course, preserving a Jewish majority is neither necessarily consistent nor inconsistent with democratic values.

The transfer of sovereignty of Arab villages inside of Israel to a future Palestinian state might be seen as an “anti-democratic” step which would also preserve the “democratic” status quo of the Jewish majority. So too, the inclusion of heavily Jewish areas beyond the Green Line, whether in Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, Ariel, or Maale Adumim (just as an Israeli withdrawal from heavily Arab areas in the West Bank) could be seen as bolstering Israel’s Jewish majority even while it may conform to an agenda of “greater Israel.” An agenda to preserve the Jewish majority clearly does not dictate a particular political alignment or territorial policy.

So too, the high prioritization of “peace” does not dictate that the state must follow any particular territorial policy. Peace, as measured by a signed agreement on the current model of two states for two peoples, would most certainly entail significant territorial withdraws. However, peace as measured by quiet or the absence of war might dictate a continued Israeli security presence in the West Bank, a freezing of the status quo whereby no settlements are added or removed, or the provision of greater political autonomy for the PA in the place of formal statehood. So too, peace might be measured by an absence of civil conflict between Israelis which some fear another massive settlement withdrawal might spark.

The question is where the border line would be drawn to ensure that majority or ensure that peace. Even if Israelis reject expansionism with all of the negative political, historical, and moral baggage it entails, that does not mean that Israelis would view control of an undivided Jerusalem, for instance, as expansionism. Nor does it necessarily mean that Israelis would be in internal conflict with their two most-preferred political values. If the Jewish identity of the State of Israel is a high priority across the political spectrum, it will have an effect on territorial policy. The challenge is to gage where this effect will manifest and how it will interact with other pressing policy preferences.

3 Responses to Poll: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State

  1. […] When Palestinian Authority officials really want to scare the Israeli public, they threaten to dissolve the PA and seek a “one state solution.” Similarly, when left-leaning parties today want to highlight their opposition to continued settlement construction in the West Bank, they raise the issue of a looming “demographic threat.” So too, has it become a significant trope within the major Israeli political parties, Kadima, Likud, and Labor alike to varying degrees, that territorial withdrawal is necessary to preserve Israel’s status as a “Jewish and Democratic state.” […]

  2. […] (including Gaza and the West Bank) is perhaps 1 to 1.25 million less than is often claimed and that Palestinian population growth is on the decline while Israeli growth is on the rise. These factors are important policy considerations, but they are hardly the sole basis on which to […]

  3. […] argues, would be the basic recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Not only is this identity strongly valued by Israelis, but recognition by the Palestinians might indicate that they are ready to resolve the conflict on […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: