Who needs a Nation-State Law? What Israelis really think

Several polls show that a surprising coalition of Israelis oppose the Jewish Nation-State Law, or at least think it is unnecessary and harmful.

A giant portrait of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel-Aviv on July 30, 2018. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A giant portrait of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel-Aviv on July 30, 2018. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Those of us who are committed to equality of all citizens in Israel feel, once again, like specks drowning in a sea of chest-beating nationalists.

The passage of the Jewish Nation-State Law looks like another example of ethno-nationalist populism sweeping Israeli society. “Massive support from the right for Nation-State Law,” read a headline reporting on a survey from Walla! News this week; Haaretz commentator Yossi Verter declared:

“Public support for it extends beyond the borders of the right-wing camp… It sharpens the debate between right and left, and redraws the ‘us’ and the ‘them,’ the former being those who love the country and the latter, its denigrators.”

But a close reading of public opinion this week shows a more complex picture. From the government’s perspective, the best news is the Walla! News survey, conducted by Panels Politics, showing 58 percent support for the bill. That does look like a strong majority, and would justify Verter’s claim, since the self-identified right is only about 45 percent of Israeli society.

But the ideological breakdown also shows the opposite side of the coin: there is near-consensus on the right and the left in support or opposition, respectively, while center-identified respondents were split clear through – about half for (49 percent) and just under half against (45 percent). Of Joint List voters in the poll, 100 percent opposed the law.

With nearly half of the mainstream Israeli center camp against the bill, the opposition is not just a matter of isolated dissidents. The center is a key constituency and currently holds a combined total of 21 out of 120 seats in the Knesset – in other words, about 10 centrist seats oppose the law. Together with almost the whole left and Arab respondents, this is a substantial portion of society.

Does it re-define the left and right, as Verter claims? Yes, but not in the way he thinks. The ‘against’ camp can’t be smeared as a bunch of radical leftists as Netanyahu tried hard to do, rather, the center is legitimizing opposition to the bill.

But another survey exposes more serious doubts. The monthly Peace Index, conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Democracy Institute, characteristically asked more nuanced and detailed questions and showed a different social breakdown.

The question in that poll asked whether Israel actually needs the law:

The Nation-State Law…declares… that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and only of the Jewish people. Opponents…claim that it prevents non-Jewish citizens of Israel from feeling that it is their country as well. In your opinion, was there or was there not a need for the law to make this declaration at this time?”

In that poll, only a minority of the total Israeli public said there was a need for the law, 45 percent (“I am sure” and “I think” there is a need). Forty-seven percent said there was no need (also combining two responses reflecting intensity).

It’s understandable to wonder what only Jewish respondents thought, but also abhorrent and ironic given the issue at hand. After all, it is this Jewish-only thinking about Israeli society that gives rise to such policies in the first place. Still, there is often a methodological justification for showing Jewish and Arab data separately: the populations hold such different views that a simple average is not an accurate picture. Among Arab respondents, 84 percent thought there was no need for the law. Among Jews, a majority said there was a need — but just a small one (52 percent). Forty percent thought there was no need.

“In other words, write the authors, “there is no sweeping support for the new Nation-State Law.” Even on the right, the authors report that 69 percent said the law was needed, meaning that over 30 percent did not choose this response (some may have declined to take a position). On the center just 36 percent thought the law is needed.

Thousands of Israelis gather for what was billed as 'the world's largest Arabic lesson' in protest of the Jewish Nation-State Law, Tel Aviv's HaBima Square, July 30, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Thousands of Israelis gather for what was billed as ‘the world’s largest Arabic lesson’ in protest of the Jewish Nation-State Law, Tel Aviv’s HaBima Square, July 30, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This week, I ran four focus groups among self-defined “moderate-right” Israeli Jews, and those who called themselves “center-leaning right.” Most had voted for Likud, Kachlon or Lapid in 2015. I was struck – and frankly surprised – to find that hardly anyone had a good word to say about the law. In one group of religiously traditional (Masorti) participants, the first three responses when we mentioned the law were: “Druze,” “Discrimination,” and “Inequality.”

This is a stunning top-of-mind response given the prevailing image about Jewish Israeli society. To be sure, one or two people pointed out that the law made sense — and not in all four groups. The far more common response was that it was reckless, rushed, politicized, and unnecessary.

We asked if the law would change anything for them. “Nothing,” said most. “It’s about something everyone already knew – that we’re a Jewish state. A law that it’s the nation state of the Jewish people, just creates a provocation,” said another.

“Won’t there be any consequences?” asked the moderator.

“Yes of course,” said one man. “From abroad they’ll look at us as racists.”

Across eight hours of conversation and over 30 people in total, participants raised the idea that the law was just a political ploy for Bibi. One man ironically called it “an election law.”

One woman said: “It’s all spin, it’s Bibi’s spin to get himself out of [corruption investigations] 1000, 2000, 4000 — those things they don’t want you to talk about. They get us all wrapped up in other stuff so we forget.”

“I agree,” another woman responded. “Mostly it’s a PR trick for Bibi.”

To reiterate, these are center-leaning right and moderate right-wingers.

In all of the groups, people worried about the consequences for the Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious minority that, unlike other Arab citizens of Israel, is subject to mandatory military conscription. On this issue, one person said Israel had “shot itself in the foot,” with the law.

On the question of demoting Arabic from its status as an official language, 51 percent of Jews supported this in the Peace Index and 40 percent opposed; 88 percent of Arabs opposed it.

In the focus groups, a Masorti man raised this as his first response when asked about law: “Suddenly taking Arabic down as an official language, when you have 20 percent Arab speakers and even more with Jews from the Middle East? Will they stop speaking Arabic now? Every sign is in Hebrew, Arabic, English, why change it?”

But the most important finding from the Peace Index was that 61 percent of Israelis believe the law should have addressed equality, in line with Israel’s Declaration of Independence. On this, a clear majority of Jews and Arabs agree: 72 percent of Arab respondents chose this response, alongside a majority of 60 percent among Jews.

If I were advising Netanyahu and the Likud, I would say this: your voters are onto you, fools. They know you slashed any residual threads of social cohesion in Israel for a pittance of political gain. And with cutthroat competition for center voters, leaders would be well-advised to study the multiple layers of discomfort with the law among those citizens.

For anyone who believes Israel can be a fairer, stronger, democracy worth its name, know that a majority of Jews and Arabs alike still believe in the battered principle of equality. If all else is destroyed, perhaps that is a seed for rebuilding in the future.