‘Apartheid polls’: When some opinions just matter less

Preventing non-Jews from expressing their political beliefs on a range of issues is more than just a slippery slope — it’s another step toward an apartheid regime.

By Oren Persico

In a famous 1972 speech, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu dedicated a moment to public opinion polls. Bourdieu didn’t focus on the issues most people associate with polls, such as what is the proper sample size or whether there is a possibility that a bias in the question itself will affect the answers. Instead, he spoke about the inherent problem of polling, raising a rather revolutionary point: there is no such thing as “public opinion.” Among other things, Bourdieu emphasized the importance of distinguishing between those who have opinions – those who respond to the pollsters’ questions – and those who declare that they have no opinion. How many of them are women and how many are men? How many of them are educated and how many are not? Who, in any given society, can allow him or herself to have and express an opinion?

Israeli politician voting in the 2013 Knesset Elections (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)
‘Zionist Camp’ leader Tzipi Livni votes in the 2013 Knesset elections. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)

These questions are relevant for Israeli public opinion polls, and especially those that are conducted in the run-up to the elections. However, in Israel there is an additional phenomenon that must be taken into account when analyzing “public opinion” vis-à-vis different issues: polling companies often do not ask a representative sample of the population questions on the future of the country.

Yes, it sounds strange, almost illogical, but this is the reality we live in. Media outlets regularly publish results of public opinion polls that only include Jewish participants. In other words: these polls ignore nearly a fifth of Israel’s citizens. Instead of their habitus, to borrow a phrase coined by Bourdieu, leading Israelis to tell the pollster that they either have or don’t have political opinions, polling companies and media outlets make the decision for us. Those companies and media outlets are ones that remind 20 percent of the population that they have no opinion – that their public opinion doesn’t matter.

For example, take a look at a poll published last week by Walla! [Hebrew], one of the largest and most popular sites in the country. The poll begins with the results of an obvious question asked by nearly everyone in the run-up to the elections: “Which party would you vote for if the elections were to take place today?” According to Walla! this poll was conducted, “on the basis of telephone interviews with 500 people over the age of 18, which constitutes a representative sample of adults in Israel.”

The Walla! article includes statistics for other questions as well. “Who do you think is better fit for the role of prime minister? – Benjamin Netanyahu, Isaac Herzog, don’t know/neither.” Or: “Do you want Netanyahu to continue serving as prime minister? – very interested, fairly interested, not so interested, not interested at all, don’t know/refuse to answer.” One can look at the results to these two questions and learn about the popularity of the leaders of the two biggest parties.

One can also read on and learn that the answers to these two questions, as opposed to the question about voting, were asked through “interviews with 425 people, which constitute a random, representative sample and represent the adult, Jewish population in Israel.” So while the pollsters and Walla! granted Israel’s non-Jewish population the right to respond to the question of voting, they forbade them from expressing their opinions on two other political questions. This despite the fact that the identity of the next prime minister will surely have a tangible influence on the lives of both Jews and non-Jews alike.

In addition to technical considerations (did the pollsters ask the respondents all the questions, and only afterward ignore the answers given by non-Jews? How did they know who was Jewish and who wasn’t? Did they ask directly or did they wait until they received a response to the first question in order to move on to the following questions?). The situation brings up a troubling question: why do Israeli media outlets have such awful journalistic practices? Why not allow non-Jewish citizens to express their opinions like any other citizen?

Because the pollsters already conducted the poll among a “representative sample” of all citizens, and because they already contacted a representative number of respondents from the non-Jewish population, it seems that rejecting the opinions of non-Jews is the result of an editorial decision to publish the results of an apartheid poll, rather than a poll based on equality.

Unfortunately, the case of the Walla! article is not unique. Israel Hayom targets the Jewish population with its public opinion polls every day of the year. Over the past few weeks, Saloona [Hebrew] and Onlife [Hebrew], two websites that cater to women in Israel, published polls conducted solely with women in the run-up to the elections. Sorry, with Jewish women.

The term “apartheid poll” may sound unnecessarily charged, but it perfectly sums up the situation. First of all, because pollsters and media outlets differentiate between those who have a right to an opinion (Jews), and those who do not have that right (non-Jews). Second, because in the apartheid regime in South Africa, only whites were given the right to vote in elections and affect the future of the country. True, in Israel non-Jewish citizens are given the right to vote, and can even express their opinions in public opinion polls that seek to predict election outcomes. However, preventing non-Jews the opportunity from expressing their political beliefs on a range of issues is more than just a slippery slope.

In contrast to regular polls, apartheid polls have an exceptional effect. They don’t only tell the public what it thinks, they also tells it who is eligible to voice an opinion. Thus, they are preparing the public for an especially important poll that may take place in the future – a national referendum in which the Israeli public will have to decide whether to retreat from the occupied territories. Will the State of Israel allow its non-Jewish citizens to express their opinion then? Will the Jewish public allow it to happen?

This article first appeared in Hebrew on The Seventh Eye.

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