Israel: Crying or Laughing?

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The general picture produced by the Democracy Index is of a manic-depressive society – is this the beginning of a transition from a turbulent and confused adolescence into a quiet and steady adulthood?

The Israeli discourse is full to the brim with harsh criticism about “the situation.” The background music to our public lives is a depressing dirge, an endless symphony of Israeli sorrow. With this in mind, the findings of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democracy Index 2017, presented to the President of Israel, are astonishing. It turns out that when asked to describe the situation in Israel, only a minority replied that it is “bad” or “very bad.” Around a third responded “so-so.” The largest group, almost half of the citizens, reported that it is “good” or “very good.”

This is not a one-time anomaly, the byproduct of a transient mood or a pollster’s mistake. The same question is asked every year, and the optimistic line has been rising impressively for a long time. In 2003, around two-thirds of Israelis were pessimistic about the state of the country. Five years later the percentage had fallen by half (34%), and this year that same jaded group has been halved again, to a mere 16%. At the other end, the optimistic community has grown from 11% in 2003 to the dominant 49% of society it is today. The Israelis have changed their spots, from black to rose-colored.

The rosy hue is even brighter when the topic turns to respondent’s personal situation. Only a minuscule 5% of Israeli citizens feel they are in a bad way right now; a fifth say they are “so-so,” while the vast majority (73%) say their situation is good or very good. Furthermore, even though around half of all Israelis believe that life in Israel is more difficult than it is in most Western countries, an overwhelming majority (81%) say that even if they acquired American or some other Western citizenship they would not leave Israel. Nasrallah’s spider-web theory? You make us laugh. Sumud (steadfastness) is us.

This optimism is not an expression of a collective denial of reality. International indexes, too, rank Israel as democratically stable compared to the rest of the world and find that it is slowly but steadily improving in certain areas. Within the select group of OECD countries, which we would like to catch up with, our situation is not as good, but neither is it as bad as one might conclude from the constant complaints and whining one hears. If you take into account the unique pressures placed on Israel because of the neighborhood we live in, and the chronic divisions that characterize our society, the Israeli resilience shines in a positive light.

But not all that glitters is gold. The conflict over the country’s appropriate identity is still alive and kicking. Many believe that the relationship between the Jewish and the democratic elements is not balanced. About half of the ultra-Orthodox and National Religious believe that the democratic element is too strong, while the majority of secular Jews (61%) and Arabs (74%) think that the Jewish element is too strong. This conflict has many implications. For example, the vast majority of the secular (79%) believe that the religious are slowly taking over the country and Israeli society; many of them (55%) fear this means that they will not be able to maintain their chosen lifestyle. These numbers and many others show that we are in the throes of a Kulturkampf.

Can the government be trusted to steer our national life through these conflicts and rifts? The answer is a resounding “no.” A majority of the public has no confidence in the Knesset, the Government, or the political parties. The attitude towards other institutions—the courts, higher education, the media, human and civil rights organizations—is influenced by which camp one belongs to, the right (and the religious) or the left. They are not seen as an objective forum for resolving the Kulturkampf.

The general picture produced by the Democracy Index is of a manic-depressive society. Israel is a young country, not yet 70, still suffering through the crisis of adolescence, characterized by volatile moods, internal contradictions, and an uncertain identity. In this context, what stands out is the fact that the overwhelming majority—around three-quarters—of Israelis believes that, despite the unique social and security issues we face, democracy is the appropriate form of government for this country.

Can we see this as a sign of the beginning of a transition from a turbulent and confused adolescence into a quiet and steady adulthood?