Israel's Rightward Shift

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Jon Alterman: Dr. Tamar Hermann is a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel. Dr. Hermann, welcome to Babel.

Tamar Hermann: How are you?

Jon Alterman: You've been analyzing Israeli polling data for decades. I'm struck that in contrast to other liberal democracies, an increasing percentage of Israeli Jewish youth describe themselves as right-wing. In one poll of Israeli Jews from last year, right-wingers outnumbered left wingers more than five to one. When people say they're right-wing in Israel, what are they talking about?

Tamar Hermann: Was I being asked this question in the 1990s, I would have that understanding the Israeli left and right was very simple. On the left were those ready to make total concessions vis-a-vis the Palestinian conflict, and on the right were those who, because of religious convictions or security arguments, were less willing to make territorial compromises and would like to keep the occupied territories occupied.” This is not the case anymore. What we have now in Israel is quite similar to what you see in the United States, with the difference between Democrats and Republicans. It has to do with a much wider and richer list of issues that the two camps differ on, and it has to do with LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, faith and religion, and on top of all of that, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with a special emphasis on the domestic relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel—within the Green Line denoting the border between Israel and the West Bank. In the past, the primary issue was Israel and Palestinians in the occupied territories. Now—particularly after what happened with the clashes in mixed Israeli cities in May 2021, the issue is: who is the actual owner of this country?

Jon Alterman: What you're describing—and what the polls describe—is that the overwhelming number of Israeli Jews have exclusivist attitudes toward a lot of these issues, that the legislation in Israel that says Israel has to be a Jewish state, that that is increasingly important to young Israelis, and I presume that calls into question what the future role of Arab Israelis is inside of a Jewish state. do young people talk about that? Or is it pushed off? Because surely, they'll have to live with the consequences of it.

Tamar Hermann: It was only first put that black and white in 1992—that this state is Jewish and democratic as the formal definition of the state. In the nation state law of 2018, actually, it was stated quite clearly that this is the nation state of the Jewish people and the Jewish people only. This in a way undermined the second part of the hyphenated definition of the state as a democratic state. Some of the leaders of the Arab minority said that it was good that for the first time it is written in black and white, so people from outside of Israel can really understand the situation. For, Israeli Jews and young people, in particular, you have to take two points into consideration. First, because of the different birth rate of the ultra-Orthodox, the Orthodox, and what we call the traditional religious, they have many more children, so technically, you have more young people among these three groups. Those groups are mostly almost totally located on the political right. In other words, it is not that the people from the left changed their views and became right-wingers, but there are new voters and new people who take part in political discourse. And those new voters are from right-wing families and right-wing communities. I’ll give you the numbers. Among the ultra-Orthodox, the average number of kids per family is 6.8. Amongst the Orthodox or national Orthodox, as we call them, it’s 5.7 kids per family. For the secular family, it’s 2.9. So, in a few years you have larger communities that are all on the right. This is one of the explanations for why you have many young people put themself on the right. The other point is that whereas the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox schooling systems do deal with politics in a way, the state schooling system was totally neutralized from politics. So secular young people who go through the state education system lack any understanding of the political system. They were not directed to any direction—left or right. Many of the families of secular people are more interested in other issues, so they don’t give their children any political education. So, when these young people are exposed, for example, to the army and the reality in the occupied territories, they're fascinated by this kind of affinity and sense of belonging to nationalistic religious community. When they come back from their journey or after they serve in the army, they meet people on the right, and they start thinking that they missed something. They think something is missing in the secular way of life, and that is the absence of religion. So young people are looking for something that is more tangible in the sense of belonging rather than living some kind of an acclimatized existence. And some of them are fascinated by that, and even if they do not fully convert into a right-wing agenda, they find it easier to swallow its softer versions.

Jon Alterman: But it's interesting that when you talk about this sense of belonging, Israel's founding myth is all about the kibbutzim, collective living, group ownership—a sort of utopian Marxism. As Israel moved away from that, the left didn't seem to replace it with anything. And the right did have something. What did the right have, and when did the right start to fill that space? What did they fill that space with?

Tamar Hermann: Since 19977—when Likud took over—we saw the replacement of political elites, but we didn’t see the replacement of academic elites or business elites. You still have the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the people who established the kibbutzim and left the kibbutzim. Here, we should touch on an issue that we haven’t touched on thus far, and that’s the Ashkenazi/non-Ashkenazi split in Israel. When I was young, talking about your ethnic origin or someone else's ethnic origin was not common because we thought of ourselves as being Israelis—quote, unquote—without this ethnic aspect to it. But that ethnic aspect was just below the surface. Under the influence of identity politics—of American identity politics—the non-Ashkenazi parts of Israeli Jewish society started to develop a sense of identity and deprivation—a demand to be compensated for being pushed outside or having their identity erased by the old Zionist Ashkenazi establishment. They couldn't find themselves in parties that belonged to these old elites—like Labor or Meretz—and we hardly had any center parties until very recently. So, their only option was to find themselves in Likud, which is the main right-wing party. Today, it seems more moderate. But in the past, it was not considered moderate. It was considered as the bastion of those who would've liked to see the old elites toppled from their positions of power within Israeli society. So younger people of non-Ashkenazi origin are actually more at ease on the right because of the legacy of deprivation their parents’ generation or their grandparents’ generations have suffered. So even people with some very leftish social beliefs and sentiments find themselves on the right, even though content-wise they should have found themselves on the right. But they can’t find themselves there because they feel that is wrong for them because of the historical suffering that was done to them.

Jon Alterman: What you’re describing is a politics of grievance that has taken root, not only among people who suffered direct discrimination, but even the children and grandchildren of people who suffered discrimination. And now that grievance seems to be a principal driver of where they fit onto the Israeli political spectrum.

Tamar Hermann: You are absolutely right.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you another question of grievance because, as I recall the peace process period of the 1990s, there was a strong sense that if Israelis felt more security, then Israelis would be willing to take risks for peace. They believed that peace was actually an alternative. The kids now who are increasingly right-wing did not grow up in the First Intifada or the Second Intifada. They were born after these events. They have significantly more security. They live in significantly less fear of bombings in public areas and things like that. How should we understand the impact of that on young Israelis’ interest and willingness to pursue a negotiated peace with Palestinians?

Tamar Hermann: First, these young people have not gone through some of those very devastating experiences, like the Second Intifada, but they do serve in the occupied territories. Many of them live in settlements beyond the Green Line, and those living beyond the Green Line certainly do have some kind of interaction with Palestinians—for better and for worse. When you do interviews with young people who grew up in the settlements, they say, "We know Palestinians." They are neighbors, but they don't trust them. They see Palestinians as a type of neighbor that you cannot really rely on because you don't know when they might turn against you. It’s a very complicated situation, and the second or third generation of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, actually see themselves as natives of the West Bank. They see themself as equivalent, in this respect, to young Palestinians. They say, "Why do they have rights over this part of the land? We live here. We were born here. Even our parents were born here." That’s very different than the first generation of settlers, who went there in order to—in a way— “conquer” or take over the land. Second, young people are incapable of drawing the Green Line. They have no idea where the Green Line is because in maps in textbooks and maps in Israeli classrooms, the Green Line doesn’t appear. They don’t know where the West Bank starts, and Israel ends—and vice-versa. We once did a kind of a quiz, and we gave people a list of names of towns, cities, and villages. And we asked them to say which one is in the territories, and which one is in Israel. They couldn't say. Secular people never go there. They don't see Palestinians. They never meet Palestinians. And the overall perception from these elections emphasizes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn't exist now in the Israeli political discourse. Not even one party mentioned the conflict as one of the issues that it would deal with if they were elected. No party put any blueprint of a future peace negotiation. You can see this when we ask people, "What are the issues that the new government should deal with?" If I give them four options, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the fourth. If I give them five options, it will be the fifth. If I give them six, it will be the sixth.

Jon Alterman: To connect that to what we were talking about at the beginning, you said that when Israelis define themselves as right-wing, it has to do with the Jewish nature of the state, and the role of Palestinians—that is Arab-Israelis—in the Jewish state. And it seems to me that what you're describing is that, for most Israelis, the problem of Palestinians in the occupied territories is not an issue of any concern. And the Arabs that they're concerned with are the Arabs who live amongst them inside of Israel proper. And yet, we also see this tremendous interest in normalization with the UAE and with other Arab countries. You were just in Dubai. How do we begin to reconcile all of that?

Tamar Hermann: It is complicated. I would say the Palestinians of the territories—Palestinian-Palestinians—are out of sight to most Israeli Jews. They don't see them. They don't sympathize them. Very few media outlets report about what's happening there. They do not have any image of a Palestinian. You may live your entire life here and never have even the slightest or the shortest conversation with a Palestinian-Palestinian. The Israeli Arabs were very careful not to openly identify with the Palestinian-Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership was very careful to keep them far from things like the Second Intifada. This changed in recent years as there is a sense among Arab Israelis that they are being deprived of civil rights within Israel, which pushed them into associating themselves with the national struggle of the Palestinian people. That makes the situation even more complicated because we cannot anymore say, "These are the Palestinian-Palestinians. These are the Israeli Arabs." Then, you come to the new agreement with the UAE, and that confused Israelis even more because okay, we know the Palestinians are enemies. Then, you go to Dubai, or to other places like Bahrain or Qatar—for the World Cup, there were ten thousand Israelis there—and then you realize that you can have very good time with Arabs who cannot care less about what's happening with the Palestinians. In the beginning, people were hesitant. Because if you go to Egypt, the feeling is not very nice because people do treat you as, at least partially, an enemy. That’s not the case in Dubai. You can have good time there without feeling that the Palestinian issue is there at all. If you talk to citizens of Dubai, they are interested much more in the high-tech opportunities in Israel, with commerce and other issues. You don’t feel threatened. So, what do you do with Arabs that are friendly to you? Psychologically, it's very problematic because we know that we should feel on our tiptoes when you meet Arabs, because who knows what would happen? But then, you go and have a wonderful vacation in Dubai. So, the situation is absolutely crazy, in terms of the ability to create a coherent attitude. So, people are saying, “We live in a bad neighborhood, and we should, in Rome, behave like the Romans do. We should adopt the code of behavior of the Middle East.” On the right, you have people who are saying that openly.

Jon Alterman: One of the things I found striking is changing Israeli attitudes toward the importance of democracy in Israel. Especially when compared to other priorities that Israelis are trying to hold. Can you describe what's happening on the issue of how Israelis think about the priority of democracy among other priorities?

Tamar Hermann: On the theoretical, you can ask Israelis, "What's the best regime style for Israel?” 98 percent will say democracy, and the other 2 percent would say a theocracy. Most Israelis would say they are for freedom of speech, freedom of association, religious freedoms—you name it. But then you translate these values into concrete questions, like, “Do you think that Jews and non-Jews should have equal rights in the State of Israel?” When you ask that question, we see a tremendous increase in the number of those saying, "No, Jews have to have more rights than non-Jewish people." We intentionally did not put “Arabs” in the question. We just said non-Jewish, and still, in our latest poll, we got 49 percent—half of our respondents—who said Jews should have more rights than non-Jews in Israel. Those respondents don’t see any contradiction between that statement and the value of equality in a democracy, as a democracy. I'll go back to what I said earlier—that nobody in the state schooling system is actually scratching the theoretical, external layer of that away in order to explain what this entails for a state that pretends to be democratic. Nobody is explaining that you cannot have it both ways and say, “We want extra rights for Jews, and we would like to stay a democracy.” So, these contradictions are not being dealt with, and this is why younger people simply give up on the practical level on issues that contradict with what they agree to on the theoretical level.

Jon Alterman: So, among young Israelis who think about Israel's place in the world, is there any sense that countries in Western Europe and countries in North America don’t do that? To have what you've described as sort of almost two permanent underclasses—one being Arab citizens of Israel and then a class below that, meaning Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Is there any sense that you can't span gap of being in the community of Western-style democracies and having three tiers of rights? Do people talk about that or is that not part of the public discussion?

Tamar Hermann: There is a song being sang in kindergartens in Israel—and the song says, "The entire world is against us. Never mind, we shall overcome." You ask Israelis, "What do you think these developments in Israeli politics will have on our standing in the international community? They’ll say, "Well, tough. We have experienced the Holocaust and the international community didn't do much for us. They've lost the moral right to criticize us. What did they do in Syria, when President Assad slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens? We didn't see that being denounced by the entire world. What do they do about things that happen here and there? They are using a different yardstick to measure Israel compared to what they do other countries that are not acting fully by democratic values." That’s one answer, and this has been developed quite successfully by Netanyahu and his disciples throughout the years. People have heard it again and again and again. That’s the easy way out. “We’ve been persecuted. They are against us from day one—from Biblical times—and we shouldn’t take it too seriously.” Then comes what the Western world is doing. It’s criticizing Israel, but it doesn’t actually do anything to prevent those anti-democratic tendencies from developing. The criticism stays in the air. People do not feel any inconvenience because of Israeli policy. We go everywhere. You can find Israeli tourists everywhere. We don’t feel like we are being ostracized—unlike, for example South Africa during Apartheid. South Africans who travelled places were treated badly because of the regime in their homeland. That’s not the case with Israelis. If they are being treated badly, it’s because of their bad manners, not because of what is happening in the West Bank.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask a final question. We started off talking about young people, and young people in the United States are drifting steadily leftward. In fact, many are voting pretty left wing, and then we have this group of very left-leaning members of Congress—the Squad—who are very critical of Israel. Israel, meanwhile, we see drifting rightward. In your view, does that reach an inflection point? Does that create a break, or do you think, as somebody who's been looking at polling for a long time and understands both societies, that these trends move back and forth and while they're currently moving in opposite directions, that there are many opportunities for them to sort of reconvene in the center?

Tamar Hermann: I usually don't make prophecies about the future because we don't know whether these trajectories will last to the point where the break is unavoidable. We don't know who's going to take the elections in the United States in 2024, and you still have 82 million evangelical Americans that lend their support heavily to Israel and to the West Bank Israelis. So, it depends on who is in control of decisions because although I love surveys and I do surveys, I am skeptical about the extent to which public opinion is actually the reason why a state behaves this way or that way. We saw that in the United States when it was the Obama administration and then the Trump administration and the situation totally changed. So, I'm not sure that this is moving in the direction of a total divorce. And who knows what will happen in the region? Regional developments may also influence U.S. policy in the Middle East. For years, Israel was an ally of the United States. Vis-à-vis Iran, who knows what will happen? So, I would take a very cautious position. It's all about leadership. I think that will give us the answer about where we are heading on this issue.

Jon Alterman: Tamar Hermann, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Tamar Hermann: Thank you for having me.