Jewish and/or Democratic in Numbers

What it means for the State of Israel to be defined legally and cognitively as “Jewish and democratic” (in that order) has for years been at the center of public and political debate and will likely remain so in the future. How do Israeli citizens understand this dual definition?

This article is based on the annual Democracy Index findings published by the Israel Democracy Institute. The author is grateful to the Index team: Dr. Or Anabi, Yaron Kaplan, and Inna Orly Sapozhnikova.

What it means for the State of Israel to be defined legally and cognitively as “Jewish and democratic” (in that order) has for years been at the center of public and political debate and will likely remain so in the future. Countless academic and non-academic writings have been devoted to the topic, as well as legal rulings by learned jurists. Politicians from across the spectrum have addressed the issue again and again, taking it in different directions. The “Jewish and democratic” definition is a focal point in Israel’s delicate relationships both with the country’s Arab citizens and with Diaspora Jewry as well. Considering the issue’s centrality, however, there has been surprisingly little study of it at the public-opinion level. How do Israeli citizens understand this dual definition? And what is the “substance” of that definition in the eyes of those who, for instance, feel that its two components are of equal weight, even though “Jewish” precedes “democratic” – or in the eyes of those who attach fateful importance to the order in which the adjectives appear?

Interest in the definition’s public angle led us to investigate the topic in the framework of the Israeli Democracy Index reports published annually by the Israel Democracy Institute since 2003. Due to the limitation of space, only a broad outline of our findings can be provided here, based on data gathered via public opinion polls over a lengthy period, regarding attitudinal differences between different population groups.[1]

What, in fact, is a Jewish state in the eyes of the Israeli public?

In 2017, a year before the Nation-State Law was enacted, we posed two open questions to Democracy Index survey interviewees[2] (questions that the interviewees were asked to answer in their own words, in the absence of any specified response options[3]). These were the questions: “People understand the term “democratic state” in different ways. What does it mean to you, in one or two words?” and “People understand the term “Jewish state” in different ways. What does it mean to you, in one or two words?”

The answers pertaining to the state’s democratic character converged around three main motifs: freedom, in particular freedom of expression (together: 46%), and equality (26%). Other issues, such as separation of powers, processes and institutions, human rights, and majority rule – or, by contrast, minority rights – rank far lower in terms of the share of respondents who viewed them as central to Israel’s democratic character. The share of those who took a negative view of the democratic component of the state’s character was negligible (1%-1.5%). Furthermore, the differences in the answers to this question between Jewish and Arab respondents were relatively small.

The opposite was true of the question regarding Israel’s Jewish character. Here the answers of Jewish and Arab interviewees diverged very widely. The Jewish interviewees’ responses converged primarily around the national dimension (47%), followed by the religious dimension (39%) and, in third place, around the state’s Jewishness as an indicator of democracy and tolerance (9.5%). Four percent of the Jewish interviewees took a negative view of the state’s Jewishness. Among Arab respondents, however, the most common answer was that the state’s Jewishness is an expression of racism (29%). The second-most common response was that the state’s Jewishness reflects the fact that the state belongs solely to the Jews, and not to all of its citizens (26%). Eighteen percent of the Arab respondents said that the state’s Jewishness is antithetical to democracy; only 8% viewed the state’s Jewishness as a positive element.

The current situation: Is there an appropriate balance between the state’s Jewish and democratic components?

Since 2016 we have been posing the following question (a closed question, i.e., with response options): “Israel is defined as a Jewish and democratic state. Do you feel there is an appropriate balance today between the Jewish and the democratic components?”

Figure 1. Israel is defined as a Jewish and democratic state. Do you feel there is a good balance today between the Jewish and the democratic components? (%, entire sample)

We grouped the various populations’ responses to this question by multiyear average for the period 2016-2022. The differences, as expected, are large: among Jews, a little over a third feel that the Jewish component is too dominant. Among Arabs, by contrast, a clear majority of over three-quarters hold this view.

Segmentation of the multiyear averages by political camp (Jews) shows that the Jewish left, which has the highest share of secular voters, greatly resembles the Arab population in its assessment – three-quarters of these respondents feel that Israel’s Jewish component is too dominant (76.5%). The political center is divided on this question: 51% think the Jewish component is too dominant, 24% that there is a good balance between the two components, and 13% that the democratic component is too dominant. The right, which has a high share of Haredim and National Religious, is more balanced: although the highest percentage of these respondents feel that the democratic component is too dominant (36%), the share of those who maintain that there is a good balance between the components is nearly as high (32%).

Per segmentation by self-placement on the Haredi-secular continuum, two-thirds (65%) of Haredim feel that Israel’s democratic component is too dominant. This is the overall direction for National Religious Jews as well, though to a more moderate degree: 45% feel that the democratic component is too dominant, but 35% say that there is a good balance between the components. The Masorti-religious are split, but the highest share among this group feel that there is currently a good balance between these two components in Israel. The Masorti-not-religious are split as well, but with a somewhat greater tendency to consider the Jewish component too dominant. Among the secular, a large majority (60%) feel that the Jewish component is too dominant.

Which component should be the dominant one – the Jewish or the democratic?

After assessing the current situation, we went on to examine public preferences. In light of the Arab respondents’ clear, and expected, preference for a weakening, if not for the elimination, of the Jewish component of the state’s character, we asked only Jewish interviewees which component they would wish to be dominant. As the following graph shows, the shares of those who prefer an equal balance or for the democratic component to be dominant have clearly declined over the years. At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in the share of those who would prefer the Jewish component to dominate.

Figure 2. And which component should be the dominant one, in your opinion? )%, Jews)

Segmentation of the responses to this question in the 2017, 2018, and 2022 studies by self-placement on the Haredi-secular spectrum shows, first of all, a decline in the 2022 Index for all of these groups in the shares of those who want the two components to be equally dominant. There was a particularly striking drop in support for equal dominance among the National Religious group – from half in 2017 to just a fifth in 2022. Secondly, and as expected, the Haredim (average: 82%) and the National Religious (average: 59%, with a steep rise from 43% in 2017 to 77% in 2022) always prefer the Jewish component, while the secular prioritize the democratic component (average: 56%). The two Masorti groups formerly preferred the two components to the same degree, but in the 2022 study they switched their preference to the Jewish component. Thirdly, only in the secular group is there a consistent majority who prioritize the democratic component, which among the Haredim and the National Religious enjoys only a few percentage points of support. Among the Masorti groups, a small and diminishing minority prefer the democratic component.

Segmentation of the responses to this question by political camp (Jews) also shows a decline in 2022 for all three political camps in the share of those who want the two components to be equally dominant. On the right there has been a sharp rise in the percentage of those who prefer the Jewish component (from 40% in 2017 and 2018 to 60% in 2022). In the center we found a moderate increase in this direction (2017 – 6%, 2018 – 11%, 2022 – 19%), stability in the share of those preferring the democratic component (around 47%), and a decline in the share of those who prioritize both to the same degree (2017 – 46%, 2018 – 40%, 2022 – 34%). On the left, the longtime majority preference for the democratic component grew larger (2017 – 64%, 2018 – 70%, 2022 – 71%), while there was a slight but consistent decline in the share of those who want the two components to be equally dominant (2017 – 31%, 2018 – 26%, 2022 – 24%). This segmentation attests to a widening gap within the Jewish public between those more oriented toward the Jewish side and those more oriented toward the democratic side; there also seems to be a decline in confidence among this public that integrating the two components is practicable. Moreover, the findings indicate that a large majority (71%) of those who want a more dominant Jewish component agree that Israeli Jews should be privileged, versus a minority (39%) among those who want the two components to be equally dominant and only 24% among those who want the democratic component to be dominant.

And when the two components clash?

Because there is an obvious lack of broad public consensus regarding the current situation, and even less agreement regarding the desired situation, we wanted to find out what should be done in cases where a conflict arises between democratic principles and Jewish law: Should the principles of democracy always prevail, or should halachic imperatives win out, or should there be flexibility depending on the circumstances of each situation? We posed this question seven times over the years.

When we compute the multiyear average for the three options we find that, so far, democracy has had the advantage: “Upholding democratic principles should be given priority in all instances” – 43.4%; “It depends on the circumstances” – 28.9%; “Upholding the precepts of Jewish law should be given priority in all instances” – 25%. However, while from 2003 to 2013, on average, nearly half of the interviewees (45%) responded that upholding democratic principles should be given priority in all instances, only a third of the interviewees chose this option in the present study (2022). By contrast, between 2003 and 2013 only 27.5% preferred flexibility and chose the “It depends on the circumstances” option, while in the present (2022) study this was the most prevalent response (37%). The share of those who would give priority to halachic precepts in the event of a conflict changed slightly over the years, but not consistently.

Figure 3. In the event of a conflict between democratic principles and Halacha (Jewish religious law), should priority be given to upholding democratic principles or to upholding the precepts of Jewish law? (%, Jews)

We segmented the responses to this question by self-placement on the Haredi-secular spectrum. Per the multiyear average, nearly all Haredim (88.8%) want halachic precepts to be prioritized in the event of a conflict, with only a very small minority choosing the flexible “It depends” option (8.3%). Among the National Religious there is also a majority, though a smaller one (56.9%), that would always give priority to halacha, while a much higher share of this public than of the Haredi public choose the flexible option (31.1%). The Masortim tend more toward flexibility in accordance with circumstances (42%), while a large majority of secular respondents (65.5%) would prioritize the principles of democracy in the event of a conflict.

Segmentation by political camp revealed that, on the left, an even larger majority (70.1%) than among the secular population would prioritize democratic principles in the event of a conflict. The same was true of the political center, though here the majority was smaller (53.5%). The right has been split over the years more or less equally between the three options.

We analyzed the responses to the question of priority in the event of a conflict by interviewee preference for a dominant Jewish or democratic component. The findings show a more unequivocal stance among those who would prefer the democratic component to dominate: three-quarters of these respondents feel that democratic principles should be prioritized in the event of a conflict, a fifth say it should depend on the circumstances, while only 1% think that halachic precepts should take precedence.

The picture, by contrast, is more diverse among those who want the Jewish component to be dominant: half would prioritize halacha in the event of a conflict, a third think it should depend on the circumstances, and 9% would prioritize democratic principles.

 

In a nutshell – what do the numbers tell us?

First, in light of the above, it appears that not only are the two sides of the equation not perceived by the public as well-balanced, but that the scale is tipping more and more toward a future preference (among Jews) for the Jewish component over the democratic component. The number of those who want a balance between the two components is dwindling.

Second, the differences of opinion on this question run exceedingly deep. Israel’s Arab citizens view the Jewish component as an expression of fundamental civil inequality, and even as proof of racism on the part of the Jewish majority. The Jewish majority itself is deeply divided as well. The Haredim choose the Jewish component in all scenarios; the National Religious give precedence to the Jewish component, though in the event of conflict they are more willing to display flexibility and consider the circumstances; the Masortim are divided, with a greater tendency to prefer the Jewish component; while the secular are the inverse of the Haredim, with a clear preference for the democratic component.

Broken down by political camp: the left, and to a lesser degree the center, prefer the democratic component unequivocally and in all circumstances, and would like to see the Jewish component weakened. The right exhibits a broader range of opinions on this issue.

A widening of the gaps in our current situation assessment and in future preferences can already be seen on the political plane, as indicated by the results of Israel’s most recent elections (2022) and will presumably have an impact for years to come.

 

Professor Tamar Hermann is a Full Professor in the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University of Israel and Editor-in-Chief of the academic publishing house Lamda Iyun. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and the Academic Director of the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research.

 

[1] All of the data may be retrieved from the DatשIsrael database on the Israel Democracy Institute website.

[2] 1,024 interviewees participated in the survey, constituting a representative sample of Israeli society age 18 and above.

[3] After the answers to such questions are collected, the research team divides them into categories based on their content.