The Only Democracy in the Middle East™, right? Wrong. Tel Aviv University’s Steinmetz Center published an important opinion survey about Israeli Jewish attitudes toward free speech and civil liberties when they harm Israel’s reputation or that of the IDF. The poll was taken against the backdrop of the Kamm-Blau case and the smear campaign against the New Israel Fund. Anyone who supports the possibility of democracy in this country must be positively demoralized by the results:
The pollsters surveyed 500 Jewish Israelis who can be considered a representative sample of the adult Jewish population.
They found that 57.6 percent of the respondents agreed that human rights organizations that expose immoral conduct by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely.
Slightly more than half agreed that “there is too much freedom of expression” in Israel.
The poll also found that most of the respondents favor punishing Israeli citizens who support sanctioning or boycotting the country, and support punishing journalists who report news that reflects badly on the actions of the defense establishment.
Another 82 percent of respondents said they back stiff penalties for people who leak illegally obtained information exposing immoral conduct by the defense establishment.
…Virtually all the respondents, 98 percent, said freedom of expression was important, but the picture changed when the questions got into the details.
Regarding human rights groups’ rights to operate freely, responses varied based upon the respondents’ reported political views. Of those who said they were right-wing, 76 percent said human rights groups should not have the right to freely publicize immoral conduct on Israel’s part.
…The poll showed 65 percent of all of those questioned think the Israeli media should be barred from publishing news that defense officials think could endanger state security, even if the news was reported abroad.
Another 43 percent said the media should not report information confirmed by Palestinian sources that could reflect poorly on the Israeli army. Fifty-eight percent of respondents opposed harsh criticism of the country, an increase of 10 percentage points from 2003.
The academic pollster, Daniel Bar-Tal, whose work will be featured at Thursday’s TAU conference on free speech and academic freedom sponsored by the Steinmetz Center, put the results in a political-analytical context:
“Israelis have a distorted perception of democracy,” said Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at the university’s school of education, and one of the conference’s organizers. “The public recognizes the importance of democratic values, but when they need to be applied, it turns out most people are almost anti-democratic.”
Another conference participant, Ben-Gurion University’s David Newman…[noted]: “We say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but in Europe they are beginning to think of us otherwise,” he said.
The standard line of defense against this argument is that Israel is beset on all sides by enemies and therefore cannot afford the luxury of the rights and liberties enjoyed by those Sybarites who enjoy the good life in western democracies. The cynical Israelis resent the hell out of our supposed moral superiority and throw it back in our faces: “I’d like to see how you’d respond if you confronted the threat of terror attacks day in day out as we do here.”
They forget of course that democracy is truly tested not when things go well for a society, but when it davke faces precisely the types of threats faced by Israel now and in the past. While it is true that immediately following 9/11, George Bush and many Americans treated civil liberties as if they were luxuries that could ill be afforded, this country has largely rejected these arguments. Yes, the Obama administration has still retained some of the more unfortunate policies of its predecessor, but America is no longer engaged in a war on terror, thank God.
If Israel wishes to be a democracy, then it cannot pick and choose which rights its honors and which it discards when they become inconvenient. Free speech, free press…these are absolute rights that cannot be abridged as the respondents appear to believe. Doing so, renders it a truncated democracy at best. And I’m not even talking about the even more wretched treatment handed out to Israel’s Palestinian citizens and residents of the Occupied Territories.
So when the Israel lobby attempts to sell the line that Israel “shares our values,” surveys like this will bring them up short. Israel is not like us. Perhaps it would like to be like us. And it would certainly be better off if it could be. But it is not. This explains, at least in part, why Israelis appear unwilling to make the sacrifices and compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians. They simply prefer living in this cocoon of their own making.
And lest those who support Israel think that such attitudes are theoretical and don’t have tangible repercussions for the health and well-being of society, I note another survey of Israel Jews between 20-30 years old. When asked whether they would emigrate to the U.S. if they could do so without excessive visa complications, 60% said they would.
There might be many reasons why this would be so. Not all of them have to do with politics or Israel’s battered democracy. Many would like to emigrate for a better lifestyle, professional opportunities, because they have family there, etc. But the truth of the matter is that living in Israel is a Zionist imperative and for young people to be willing to do and think the unthinkable, there must be compelling reasons. And I maintain that fear of war, bringing up children who may have to fight an unending battle against Israel’s neighbors, living in a country in which democracy and civil liberties are only partially honored–all of these take a heavy toll in the mind of a young person making important life choices. Israeli youth are very aware of the wider world outside Israel. They feel, for whatever reason, that life outside would be better. The nation would do well to grapple with the reasons why this is so and do what it can to align the aspirations of its young people with those of the nation as a whole.