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Do Israelis really want to live in an Apartheid State?

Alan Johnson

BICOM Senior Research Fellow, Editor of Fathom

Haaretz website led today with this headline: ‘Survey: Most Israeli Jews would support apartheid regime in Israel’. Once again the real issues, and real challenges, get lost in the scramble to make the facts meet the political agendas of the writers.

The article was written by Gideon Levy and was based on poll of 503 people. According to Levy the poll showed that ‘Most of the Jewish public in Israel supports the establishment of an apartheid regime in Israel if it formally annexes the West Bank.’  One finding of note was that 69 percent objected to giving 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexed the West Bank. Levy editorialised that the results proved Israelis were now ‘openly, shamelessly, and guiltlessly defining themselves as nationalistic racists’. ‘“We’re racists, the Israelis are saying, we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state. Yes, this is Israel.”’

The Haaretz story was quickly followed up by a post from Harriet Sherwood at The Guardian website. She suggested that Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, ‘recently argued for the annexation of land.’

There are two kinds of problem with these reports.

First, the editorial framing of the poll by Levy and Sherwood was faulty.

Yes, racism and discrimination exist in Israel. But Gideon Levy and Harriet Sherwood have exaggerated and distorted the picture. It is not true that most Israelis want to live in an apartheid state. Most Israelis do not want to annex the West Bank, precisely because they don’t want to live with the consequences of ruling over 2.5 million Arabs. That is why most Israelis support a 2 state solution. Given that, the condition, ‘what if’ question is pretty meaningless.

It is not true that three-quarters favour separate roads in the West Bank. If you look at the numbers, only a quarter think that’s a good thing, whilst half think it’s necessary (i.e. justified on security grounds, as opposed to desirable –a point Adrian Blomfield at the telegraph picked up on.)

Unlike what Gideon Levy seems to think (he doesn’t seem to know much about the rest of the world), Israel is not the only country with racism and discrimination. These problems also exist in most European countries, even where they don’t have the Arab-Israeli conflict to contend with. See for example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/feb/27/support-poll-support-far-right. In a survey in 2011 just over half of respondents – 52% – agreed with the proposition that “Muslims create problems in the UK”.

Levy’s Israeli exceptionalism is, as ever, ridiculous. Just as its meaningless to say Israel is the most moral country in the world, it is equally meaningless to claim that Israel  has a unique problem with issues of racial discrimination among democracies.

Harriet’s invoking of the Ehud Barak proposals is twisted. Barak is actually advocating leaving (not annexing) most of the West Bank precisely to avoid a bi-national state or apartheid state becoming a reality, something he has consistently warned against.

Second, as a piece of social science, this poll was poor. The questions were poorly worded; the concepts were mixed in (“transfer” provocatively used with questions of border adjustments), and the choices were incoherent (a vehement opponent of the occupation because of the threat of apartheid and a radical Arab-hating settler would give the same answer to a few of the questions based on the options given).  There are category errors in its terms — I don’t know how a serious polling organisation does this.  Little surprise then, the New Israel Fund which was reported in Haaretz as having commissioned the poll, have dissociated the organisation from the poll. According to Honest Reporting, ‘New Israel Fund has issued a clarification (in Hebrew) that it does not stand behind the survey and is not related to it in any way.’

A longer critique of the poll is forthcoming.

Follow Alan Johnson @Shachtman