The Israeli Exception
May 1, 2018 | Evelyn Gordon
In Jan. 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.'” Out of 23 countries surveyed – 13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies – only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.
Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed with another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50% in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.
Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments – some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.
And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.
A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions – international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70% did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.
Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32% of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31% and 32%, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).
The same thing happened on questions about immigration, which Israeli respondents almost certainly interpreted as referring to non-Jewish immigrants (the ostensibly neutral Hebrew word for immigration, hagira, is actually used only for non-Jews; Jewish immigration, for which Israeli support has traditionally been high, is called aliyah). Israel was among the six most immigrant-averse countries in all four categories: belief that employers should prioritise hiring locals over immigrants, concern about immigrants’ impact on social/public services, concern about their impact on jobs and opposition to uncontrolled immigration.
Yet when it came to the question about feeling like a stranger in your own country, Israel again suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with just 20% of Israelis agreeing. Only Japan, at 14%, was lower.
Two factors help explain Israel’s exceptionalism in this poll. One is simply that complaining is Israel’s national sport; Israelis routinely gripe about every aspect of their country. Many of those grievances relate to real problems. Nevertheless, the reality is rarely anywhere near as bad as their complaints make it sound.
Indeed, Israel’s flourishing economy, high standard of living, and high levels of both personal security and personal freedom are all testaments to the fact that its institutions aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as Israelis deemed them in this poll. Countries with truly dysfunctional institutions rarely score well on any of these fronts.
And despite their complaints, Israelis actually do know this. That’s why Israel consistently ranks as the 11th happiest country in the UN’s annual “World Happiness Report,” and why on overall assessments of the country – like whether society is broken or whether people feel like strangers in their own land – Israelis were far more upbeat than respondents in most other countries Ipsos Mori surveyed.
But there’s also a deeper reason. Israelis understand that there is only one Jewish state, and for all its flaws, its very existence is something precious and worth preserving. That’s why 90% of Jewish Israelis define themselves as Zionist. For Zionism, at bottom, is simply the belief that the Jewish people has a right to its own state, and that a Jewish state therefore ought to exist.
This has enabled Israel to escape one of the modern West’s besetting ills. In a world where elite opinion scorns both religion and the nation-state as anachronistic, but has failed to provide any compelling source of identity to replace them, many Westerners have grown increasingly unsure of their identities. Hence, it’s no surprise that they feel like strangers in their own land – or as if their societies were broken.
Israelis, in contrast, are very confident of their identity: They are Jews living in the world’s only Jewish state. Thus, it’s impossible for most Israeli Jews to feel like strangers in their own country; this is the state created precisely so that all Jews, anywhere, will always have a home.
Similarly, it’s difficult for most to feel that their society is broken when, against all odds, it has not only successfully maintained the first Jewish state in two millennia, but also turned it, in 70 short years, into one of the world’s most thriving countries. Israel has successfully absorbed Jewish refugees from all over the world and continues to provide an insurance policy for Diaspora Jews nervous about their own countries’ future. It has built one of the world’s 20 wealthiest economies per capita. It has maintained a robust democracy despite being at war since its inception. And its growing economic, military and diplomatic clout led American analysts Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keeley to rank it last year as one of the world’s eight great powers.
Thus, despite arguing bitterly over what policies their country should pursue and complaining endlessly about its many shortcomings, Israelis are overwhelmingly glad that a Jewish state exists, and committed to both preserving and improving it. And that’s why most were celebrating on Israeli Independence Day on April 19. Because the very existence of a Jewish state, whatever its flaws, is grounds for rejoicing – and all the more so when that state has so many real achievements to celebrate.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel. Reprinted from the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS.org). © JNS, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.