Young Israelis: A Turn to the Right?

Israeli children.jpg

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Children at the local school in the village of Ghajar, on Israeli-Lebanese border, which was recaptured during the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, November 10, 2010

Shortly after the democratic uprising began in Egypt, a group of young Israelis led by freelance journalist Dimi Reider launched Kav Hutz (“Outside Line”), a Hebrew-language blog devoted to covering the events across the border. Unable to enter Egypt on short notice with his Israeli passport—a predicament all Israeli correspondents faced—Reider chronicled the insurrection by posting minute-by-minute updates culled from an array of online sources on the ground: Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Egyptian bloggers. The tone of Reider’s blog was reportorial, but hardly detached. “Good luck,” he wrote on the eve of the huge “Day of Departure” rally in Tahrir Square—a sentiment rarely voiced in Israel’s mainstream media, which stressed the danger of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood if the protesters prevailed. By the time Egyptians had succeeded in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, Kav Hutz was getting up to 12,000 visitors a day and had been singled out in Haaretz for leaving the rest of the Israeli press “in the dust.”

As the story suggests, Egypt’s uprising managed to inspire not only countless young Arabs but also some young Israelis. A contributor to +972, an Israel-based online magazine that features commentary and reporting by mostly young progressives—it is named after the area code shared by Israel and the Palestinian territories—Reider was deeply moved by the courage of the protesters in Cairo and dismayed by the patronizing reaction of many Israelis. “The line the establishment took was that it’s all very nice but they’re going to end up like Iran,” he recalls. “I didn’t take that line because I bothered to read stuff by Egyptians and it quickly became apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood was just one player. It also felt distasteful to me to judge the extraordinary risks Egyptians were taking solely by our profit—by how it would affect Israeli security and the policy of a government I don’t support anyway.”

For observers troubled by Israel’s alarming recent shift to the right, the emergence of Internet-savvy liberal voices like Reider’s may seem heartening. But while such bloggers appear more capable of reaching a younger demographic than Haaretz—the venerable leftist newspaper whose aging readership seems likely to shrink in the years to come—it’s not clear how many of their contemporaries are listening to them. One reason is apathy. Increasingly cynical about politics and the prospects of peace, not a few young Israelis I’ve met in recent years have told me they’ve stopped following the news. When they go online, it’s to chat with friends, not to check out sites like +972.

There are also growing numbers of young Israelis who simply don’t share Reider’s views. Against the 12,000 readers of Kav Hutz were countless others who didn’t question the alarmist tone of their country’s mass-circulation tabloids when the revolt in Egypt began, as NPR discovered when it aired a segment on what Israeli youth thought of the uprising. “For us it is better to have Mubarak,” one young Israeli said. “I kind of feel sad for President Mubarak,” said another.

“For the last two or three years, we’ve been seeing a very consistent trend of younger Israelis becoming increasingly right-wing,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst who also contributes to +972, told me. Last year, Scheindlin carried out a survey on behalf of the Kulanana Shared Citizenship Initiative that showed eroding support for democratic values among Israeli youth, at least insofar as the rights of non-Jews go. One question in the survey asked whether there should be “Equal access to state resources, equal opportunities [for] all citizens.” Among Jewish respondents between the ages of 16-29, a mere 43 percent agreed.

Young Israelis also tend to take a hard line on the Palestinian conflict. Having watched their country grow increasingly isolated for prolonging an occupation now in its forty-fourth year, one might expect the younger generation to be pressing for a resolution. But while a small number of young activists have been taking part in regular Friday protests against the expansion of settlements in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and joining groups like Anarchists Against the Wall, which supports unarmed Palestinian resistance to the occupation, many of their peers oppose making concessions to end the conflict. In October, a poll conducted by New Wave Research asked, “If Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement… and the Israeli government brings the agreement to a referendum, would you vote for or against?” Among voters over 55, 61 percent—nearly two out of three—said they would support a deal. Among those younger than 35, it was the opposite: only one in three (37 percent) would vote in favor of an agreement.


Such findings seem directly at odds with political attitudes generally, which tend to be more progressive among young people and to become more conservative with age. In a study last year of Americans who entered their teens around the year 2000, for example, the Pew Research Center found that these twenty-somethings voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and are as a group more liberal, more racially tolerant, less inclined to support aggressive national security policies and more “open to change” than their elders.

One reason tolerance may be less widespread among young Israelis is that they rarely interact with Palestinians or Arab-Israelis. “You don’t see Palestinians on the streets of Israel,” notes Yehuda Shaul, a twenty-eight year-old activist who co-directs the organization Breaking the Silence. “You just don’t see them.” For many young Israelis, their first sustained, daily contact with Palestinians happens during their army service—which, as Breaking the Silence has documented, often exacerbates mutual fear and suspicion. The combat units patrolling the territories are increasingly filled with religious soldiers who share the messianic views of the settlement movement.

The fact that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip chose in 2006 to elect Hamas, whose Charter cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and foresees Israel’s eventual destruction, hasn’t helped matters. Neither has the collapse of the peace process. Israelis in their late teens and twenties barely remember the hope that greeted the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. They do have strong memories of the Second Intifada (2000-2005), when a wave of suicide bombings “managed to obliterate any trust the Israelis had in a political settlement,” as the public opinion analysts Jacob Shamir and Khalil Shikaki observe in their recent study of the violence’s impact. That was followed by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which the Israeli right warned would make the country vulnerable and which indeed brought a barrage of Qassam missiles to the border town of Sderot; and the Israeli war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, in which more than one hundred Israeli soldiers—many of them young—were killed and hundreds more wounded. Throughout this period of escalating bloodshed (much of it at the expense of Gazans and Lebanese, whose perspectives were rarely presented), the popular tabloids and Israel’s leaders converged around the theme of blaming the unraveling of the peace process on Palestinian intransigence. ‘We tried peace and got suicide bombings,’ ‘We left Gaza and got rockets’: these are the slogans young Israelis imbibed as children and teenagers, leading many to view negotiations as dangerous and naïve.

More recently, following the 2008-2009 Gaza War and the deadly raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in May, 2010, actions roundly condemned abroad, Israelis have increasingly emphasized the outside world’s knee-jerk criticism of their government’s conduct. “Young people have been hearing for the last three, four, five years: ‘Everybody hates Israel!'” says Dahlia Scheindlin. “Older people remember the years when people actually liked Israel. They’re more likely to view criticism from the outside as a possibly legitimate critique of Israel’s policies. Young people are basically being told, over and over again, that criticism of Israel is de-legitimization of Israel, because they’re anti-Semites.”

For years Israelis have complained, not without reason, that textbooks used in Palestinian schools have failed to recognize Israel’s existence or to inculcate open-minded attitudes toward Jews among Arab youth. After the terrorist attack earlier this month on a settler family in the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to “stop the incitement in schools, textbooks and mosques, and … educate your children for peace, as we are doing.” To judge by the petition signed by 472 high school teachers and sent to the Ministry of Education in December, however, some civics instructors are having trouble instilling the values of peace and tolerance in Israeli children. The subject of the petition was the growing prevalence of bigotry among students, such as an incident where a teenager announced in class that his dream was “to spray Arabs to death,” eliciting applause from his friends. “When we have a discussion in class about equal rights, the class immediately gets out of control,” a civics instructor told the Internet news site Ynet. “The students attack us, the teachers, for being leftist and anti-Semitic, and say that all the Arab citizens who want to destroy Israel should be transferred.”

What the instructor has been hearing from his pupils is, of course, something young Israelis have been hearing more and more from their leaders in places like the floor of the Knesset. Last October, Israel’s Cabinet approved, by a vote of 22 to 8, an amendment that would require non-Jews wishing to become citizens to pledge an oath of loyalty to the country as a Jewish State, much to the delight of ultranationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has long advocated this step. Two months later, dozens of municipal rabbis signed a letter forbidding Jews from leasing or selling apartments to Arabs, a declaration that was widely condemned but that subsequent surveys showed enjoyed a disturbing level of backing.


A striking irony apparent in the survey commissioned by the Kulanana Shared Citizenship Initiative is that young Arabs, who are often portrayed in the Israeli press as implacably hostile to the country’s ideals, support principles such as “mutual respect between all sectors” in higher proportions than their Jewish counterparts (84 versus 75 percent). Significantly more (58 versus 25 percent) also “strongly agree” with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states: “All citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, will participate in the life of the state, based on the principle of full, equal citizenship, and appropriate representation in all state institutions.” The country’s founders hoped this language would serve as a set of guiding principles for the state.

“Maybe it’s not a surprise that the minority in any country is very supportive of democratic rights,” says Dahlia Scheindlin. “But it does seem ironic that in the Jewish State, which insists on defining itself as the Jewish democratic state and the only democracy in the Middle East, the Arabs are our most democratic citizens.”

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