What makes an Israeli a “real Israeli”? What influences how they act? What do they think of other citizens of the state? These are the questions JPPI sought to answer this year in its annual Pluralism Survey. The results create a clear, yet sometimes paradoxical portrait of Israeli society. Israel’s two main minorities, Haredim and non-Jews, each share a common perception of themselves and how they fit into Israeli society, which in many cases is in contradiction with how they are viewed by other groups in the society. Israelis, both Jews and non-Jews, are overwhelmingly comfortable being themselves in Israel (Figure 1).
About one in ten Israeli Jews is Haredi. The Haredim believe they make a very positive contribution to the state, that not serving in the IDF makes them no less Israeli than those who do serve; they are very comfortable being themselves in Israel. Most Israeli Muslims, roughly 80 percent of Israel’s non-Jewish population, believe they make a positive contribution to Israeli society, that they can be a real Israelis without being Jewish, and one need not serve in the IDF or speak Hebrew (the vast majority do speak Hebrew) to be a real Israeli; they are very comfortable being themselves in Israel. The rest of Israeli society perceives these groups in opposing ways to how they view themselves, but this does not seem to have any bearing on Haredi or Muslim self-assessment or comfort levels. Haredim are as comfortable being themselves in Israel as the average Israeli. Moreover, based on three consecutive years of JPPI survey data, there is an apparent trend that comfort levels of non-Jews are increasing and approaching parity with those of Jews.
The data shows just how severe the perception gap is. As illustrated in Figure 2, most Israeli Jews agree with the statement: “To be a real Israeli, you must be Jewish,” with only 23 percent disagreeing. Conversely, an overwhelming 91 percent of Israel’s non-Jews disagree that one need be Jewish to be a real Israeli. Figure 3 shows a similar divide over the need to serve in the IDF to be a real Israeli. For non-Haredi Israeli Jews, the importance of military service as a societal rite of passage is clear with 75 percent in agreement. Among Haredim and non-Jews, the two main groups that do not serve in the IDF (the Druze are an exception), only 23 percent agree. Speaking Hebrew as a requirement to be a real Israeli is a dividing line between the Jewish majority and the non-Jewish minority. Although it should be noted that a significant group of non-Jews also see Hebrew fluency as a characteristic of real Israeliness.
The significance of these gaps should not be overlooked. A shared national collective identity helps define the boundaries of a society, and without a consensus on what it means to be an Israeli, the social challenge is clear. At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that Israel’s non-Jewish citizens are overwhelmingly comfortable being themselves in Israel. There are several possible explanations for the significance and rationale of this conceptual gap.
Why do Jews view Jewishness as a condition for Israeliness? This is, of course, the most complex and troubling finding in the survey. It implies that full membership in Israeli society is impossible for non-Jews. However, it is possible that this finding – or at least the fundamental motivation behind it – can be explained by how Jews define Israeliness. One of the main findings of JPPI’s comprehensive study on Israeli Judaism (Rosner & Fuchs, 2018; see summary elsewhere in this report) concerns the national interpretation Israeli Jews give to their Jewishness. In fact, according to the study, many Jews in Israel draw no clear distinction between “Israeliness” and “Jewishness.” This stems from the assertion that “real” Israeliness requires Jewishness (and similarly, that IDF service is a component of both Jewishness and a genuine Israeliness). As noted, this has problematic and disturbing aspects, but understanding the source of this conception is essential for those advocating social change in this regard.
How can non-Jews feel comfortable living in Israel as they are? As citizens in an open and politically dynamic society, Israel’s non-Jewish minorities cannot be totally oblivious to how they are viewed by the Jewish majority. That is to say, their sense of comfort exists despite their understanding that other groups in society do not fully regard them as Israelis. The reasons for their comfort are complex and numerous. Clearly, their high quality of life (especially compared to other Arab groups in the Middle East) contributes to this. Furthermore, the daily realities of coexistence outweigh the impact of any exoteric formulation of identity. Indeed, the perception of what it means to be a true Israeli does not have any serious consequence on one’s ability to live freely in Israel.
What do the sectors have in common? Israel’s Jews and non-Jews agree that the most essential elements to being a real Israeli are Israeli citizenship and love for Israel. A majority of non-Jews totally agree that you must be a citizen to be a real a real Israeli, and 45 percent totally agree that you must love Israel to be a real Israeli. Clearly, these two claims are not ideologically loaded, and therefore allow minority groups to find common ground with the majority group.