Pluralism Index 2023: Israelis Want a Democratic and Jewish State

Findings from a comprehensive survey on pluralism in Israeli society.

By: Shmuel Rosner, Professor Camil Fuchs, Noah Slepkov.

Pluralism Index 2023: Israelis Want a Democratic and Jewish State

“Jewish and democratic state” has become a catchphrase, but one cannot always discern the objectives of its users. What was meant to be a unifying formula has become, over time, a contentious one. Because it has two components that are not necessarily symmetrical, a kind of competition has emerged that can be seen both in statements by Israeli leaders and in survey questionnaires.

In the words of Prof. Ruth Gavison: “The enshrinement in the 1992 Basic Laws of the explicit term ‘Jewish and democratic,’ and that term’s entrenchment in public discourse, have substantially contributed to the impression of a country oscillating between two competing poles.”1 This being the case, Israeli citizens are often categorized on the basis of one of two questions: Do they support Israel as a Jewish-democratic state (or as a Jewish and democratic state), or do they favor one of the components over the other? In such representations, respondents are required to decide based on a tacit assumption of contradiction or tension between the two components. It is as though in certain, perhaps many, instances, one component must come at the expense of the other.

Without entering into a theoretical discussion on the meaning of “Jewish and democratic,” a construction that remains vague and controversial, we chose this year to pose questions to the Israeli public that do not embody a tacit assumption of contention between the components. Rather, these questions offer the option of expressing a view on each of the components, entirely independent of the other. We asked, separately, about the importance that Israel be a Jewish state, and the importance that Israel be a democratic state.

The results are clear: a large majority of Jews want Israel to be Jewish; a very large majority of them want Israel to be democratic. Only the Arab minority does not agree on a framework encompassing both components; the Arab respondents expressed very broad support that Israel be a democratic state, but also significant reservations that Israel be a Jewish state.

It is worth noting, however, that nearly half of Arab Israelis (44%) support Israel as a Jewish state, or say they “don’t care” if Israel is or is not a Jewish state. The share of Arabs who do not oppose Israel as a Jewish state is essentially the same as the share of Arabs who say they prefer that Israel not be a Jewish state, or who oppose Israel being a Jewish state (46%).

This finding supports other studies that have assessed the extent of Arab-Israeli agreement with Israel being defined as a Jewish state. In one study, for example, most Arabs agreed with the statement “If there were a referendum regarding a constitution that defines Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and guarantees Arabs full civil rights, I would support it.2

A careful examination of the numbers reveals that, contrary to what is often claimed, the more contentious of the two definitional components is the Jewish aspect of the state, not the democratic aspect. Israeli Arabs support democracy but in large measure oppose Israel being a Jewish state, while the share of support for Israel as a democratic state among Jews is significantly higher than the share of support for Israel as a Jewish state. While 88% of Jewish respondents said it was very important to them that Israel be a democratic state, the share of Jews who said this of Israel as a Jewish state was 66% – a significant disparity.

A look at the various subgroups in Israeli Jewish society highlights the reasons behind the gaps in support between the democratic and the Jewish components. In the group with the lowest share of strong support (“very important to me”) for the democratic component, those who identify with the political right, the figure is 73%. By contrast, in the group with the lowest share of strong support for the Jewish component, those who identify with the political left, the figure is only 31%. Although the right-leaning group is much larger than the left-leaning group (30% versus 5%), a comparison based on a different scale –religiosity level – reveals similar gaps.

Among the religious, the group whose support for the Jewish component is the highest, the share of strong support (“very important to me”) is 92%. Among the secular, the largest group in Israel (over 40% of Jews), the share of strong support for the Jewish component is just 45%. In other words, although agreement levels regarding the democratic component are unequal, the gaps between groups are not very large. By contrast, agreement levels regarding the Jewish component exhibit major gaps. Among the secular public, the share for whom the Jewish component is very important drops to a much lower level than in the other segments of the Jewish population.

Of course, we need to speak in precise terms here; the secular group also shows overwhelming support for Israel as a Jewish state, but in half the cases it is “somewhat,” not “very,” important to them that Israel be a Jewish state (45% very important, 42% somewhat important). There are a number of hypotheses that can be offered as to why this is so, not least is the political constellation at the time of the survey, when a fierce battle was underway between the more traditional population groups (who support the coalition) and those with a secular orientation. The partial or full identification of the state’s Jewishness with the government’s agenda could potentially drive the erosion of support among secular Jews for the state’s Jewish component. In this context it is worth noting that a large share of the secular public feel that there is “religious coercion” in Israel (58% rated the religious coercion level an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10), which they associate with the pressure exerted by the sectors that emphasize the state’s Jewishness.

Attitudinal gaps regarding the state’s Jewish component versus the state’s democratic component were also found for the question of how these concepts should be understood. Most Israeli Jews (and Israeli Arabs as well) believe that “Jewish state” means the Jewish nation-state (62%).3

However, many among the religious (about a quarter) and Haredim (44%) understand the concept of a Jewish state as referring to “the state of the Jewish religion.”4

Among all population groups, Jews and Arabs, a majority believe that the state’s democratic component comprises two sub-components. One is that the state “has free elections and voting rights;” the other is that the state is “characterized by values of tolerance and safeguarding human rights.” However, a third of the Jews who self-identify as “religious” or “Haredi” choose only one of the two – “elections and voting” – as the crux of a democratic state, as do 39% of those on the political right (this is, of course, the same population, identified via a different scale of definitions). Here it should be noted that only two possible definitions were presented for the “what is a democratic state” question (as well as an option, which was selected by a large majority: to choose both components).

One may assume that a question offering additional options as answers would have made it possible to identify other diverging interpretations regarding the concept’s applicability to Israel (especially had we included options at the heart of the public discord that prevailed while the survey was being conducted, such as the independence of the judiciary, governmental transparency, separation of powers, and the like).