Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Understanding Israel

I've long held the belief that one can't begin to understand Israel and its politics without understanding its complex demographics and associated mentalities. One could argue that this applies to any country, except, with Israel, I think it is especially pivotal and essential. If one approaches Israel with a simple set of categories taken from the West such as left vs right, liberal vs conservative, or extremist vs moderate, one will find that many things don't make sense regarding Israel's behavior and electorate. On top of demographics, Israel is also in a unique situation relative to other countries, being in constant war and tension on the borders for all of its young life, and its politics will greatly reflect this reality.

I often see many analysts around the world discussing Israel and its presumed intentions and, despite their extensive geopolitical expertise, they make clueless mistakes. I can make this observation without doubt and hesitation simply because their views don't conform to what my Israeli neighbors and co-workers think. As a layman, would you hesitate in correcting an established scientist if he said the sky is never blue? Naturally, there are many reasons for these warped conclusions about Israel, but one of them is this lack of understanding of Israeli thinking and demographics, often projecting Western thought onto a complex, multi-cultural country. That is, if we assume the analyst in question is rational and not letting his bias make his conclusions for him, then this is usually the issue. Included in this general mistake is the often misunderstood Israeli attitude towards the land of Israel and Zionism. 

In addition, demographics are important in order to understand how many Israelis are actually thinking what you think they are thinking, thus avoiding mistaken, sweeping, generalizing remarks about Israel as a whole. Extrapolation is generally not a good idea when it comes to Israelis.

A few examples of problems: Reading the liberally-oriented popular press, one would be hard-pressed to explain why Netanyahu has held on to power for so long and why he is popular amongst much of the electorate. Also, if 10% of the vote chose a far-right extremist, does that mean 10% are extremist? Hardly. But analysts will be at a loss to explain this phenomenon if they don't understand what Israelis are really thinking, and will therefore take the lazy way out in tune with their bias. If Netanyahu forms a coalition with them does that make him an extremist? Why do some seeming leftist leaders oppose a two-state peace plan? How can an aggressive hawk of a leader like Sharon support settlements one day, and then uproot them the next? How can Zionist settlers in the occupied West Bank claim they are peaceful? Why, precisely, aren't most Israelis, even secular leftists, bothered by the occupation of the West Bank? When Netanyahu claims he wants peace with Palestinians but aggressively blocks a two-state solution, isn't that a contradiction? How can you extract any conclusion about what 'Amalek' actually means for Israelis if you don't understand Israelis? Trying to derive its meaning from the words of the bible is hardly going to be indicative of 21st century secular-Israeli thinking. If some religious Zionists express aggressive intentions, does this mean all Zionists think the same way? How does religion affect Israeli political views? And so on...

(A similar, and possibly bigger problem is that the West doesn't understand the Arab/Palestinian mentality which causes most people to vastly underestimate or misunderstand the problems in the Middle-East, but we will stick to Israel in this article.)

I don't think I can do full justice to the task of explaining Israelis and how they think, but I will do my best to present many important ideas and the required background with which one can start to understand the most muddled and problematic areas. Keep in mind this article is going to be densely packed with many details.

How to Slice Israel?

To start with, the popular left/right dichotomy in the West has long become largely meaningless in Israel, and I am not sure that it was ever critical. Not that its use isn't prevalent or that people don't call each other leftist and rightist in Israel, but that this category is usually secondary to other more important issues and categories. In addition, definitions can change over time, and the rightist of yesteryear may now be considered a centrist or leftist, thanks to changing realities on the ground that affect people's viewpoints. Finally, Israeli political parties can combine elements typically associated with both right and left for the same reason: Other categories, specific issues, or even personalities are more important than being right or left. I have yet to hear anyone in Israel define 'left' and 'right' with any precision.

This is why there are political parties in Israel such as Yisrael Beiteinu which is fiercely secularist and anti-tradition, aggressively pushing reforms to reduce religious influence in politics, and yet they are still considered a right-wing party for blurry reasons. Yesh Atid, although arguably extremely leftist in its positions on social egalitarianism and climate change is considered to be a centrist party just because it claims to take a moderate, compromising position on some issues. (If you ask me, this is just a reflection of its populist leader who changes his views every few weeks to maximize votes, but the confusing definition remains.) Israel also has ultra-religious parties which support unusual peace initiatives with Palestinians and more social welfare programs, stances that are typically associated with the left despite these being extremely conservative parties. And finally, rightist leaders and parties have shifted to become centrist a few times in the past. I will try to expand further and clarify why all this happens in Israel.

Israel is probably the most intense melting-pot of cultures on the planet, with Jews and Arabs from various places living side by side even though they originate from over a hundred different countries. But even this is not of primary concern when it comes to understanding Israelis. With Jews, you can have a Moroccan, Hungarian, American, Russian, Burmese, Iranian and Chinese all not only living in the same building, but also sharing meals together on the Sabbath and praying together. Judaism is their shared core, and this brings radically different cultures and countries together. Accents, food, weddings, holiday and religious practices do differ greatly depending on the country of origin, but this doesn't necessarily change politics, with one exception:

In terms of countries of origin, there is one relatively minor exception in Israel that does define some of the politics: Whether a Jew comes from an Eastern/African country including Spain and Portugal (Mizrahi/Sefardi), or from Europe/US (Ashkenazi). This dichotomy can affect voting patterns, especially with religious Jews, and can cause some elitism or racism when it comes to education and schools, and some jobs such as in the judiciary (a small part of the Judicial Reform controversy of 2023 was due to this issue). More often it is a patronizing, elitist attitude from the Western Jews towards the Eastern Jews, but not vice versa. But this light racism is nothing like, say, the violent racism in the US, as it only affects behavior in specific cases and circumstances, and in the end, most Jews eat, pray and fight together with brotherly love. Jews from either side of this East/West dichotomy can be religious or secular, Zionist or not, left or right. If Jews fight internally, it is almost always over other issues than this one.

So what is of primary importance when it comes to Israeli demographics and politics?

First, here are some links that I used as a reference for the numbers in this article, but keep in mind that polls are extremely limited in their usefulness as I will explain below:

Naturally, and most obviously, we can start with slicing Israel by religion: Jew (74% as of 2022), Muslim (18%), Christian (2%), Druze (2%). Note that this doesn't include Palestinians in occupied territories. This most definitely affects political views and votes. These groups are also generally separated in terms of neighborhoods and mentalities, similar to the US for example, but everyone still works together closely at the workplace, and the neighborhoods can be mere meters apart.

Even within Israeli Arabs there is a wide variety of viewpoints, ranging from Arabs with Jewish friends that want peace with Israel, Christian Arabs, and Arabs that identify as Palestinian despite their citizenship, some wanting the destruction of Israel. 58% want Sharia law to rule in Israel. Some will be religious, others secular, and each may vote for a different Arab or Jewish political party.

One point that many people tend to forget or ignore, however, is that Israeli Arabs constitute a fifth of Israel, have full rights identical to Israeli Jews, and Arabs have their own political parties in the Israeli government. In addition, the Druze are well known to fight proudly with Jews in the army. I say that this is often ignored, because otherwise, these people wouldn't make absurd accusations of Apartheid or Jewish exclusionism in Israel. But this is a topic for another article.

In this article, however, we will be focusing on Jews and the differences amongst Jews that affect politics, mostly because this is the topic I know best. In my opinion, there are two primary axes upon which most Jewish politics revolve: Religion, and what I'll call the 'Aggression' index to do with Zionism and attitudes towards the State of Israel. We will devote a section for each of these axes below.

In addition to these two categories however, keep in mind that there is an additional wildcard factor to which I hinted previously: That some people may vote based on the specific burning issues of the day, and/or based on political personalities, where a politician gathers votes after having done or said the right thing at the right time. Some voters, such as the ultra-orthodox and the ultra-leftists, tend to be very loyal to their parties; but there is plenty of wiggling room in between in terms of demographics, and leaders can shift their stance somewhat to adapt to the current reality in Israel, taking many voters from several camps with them.

This can happen, most often, when there is yet another scary war going on with neighboring Arabs, or when, for example, a religious issue, or the cost of living issue, has become critically important before the next election. Leaders may shift towards a more centrist or more extreme stance in response to these new realities, or splinter away from a party that has recently lost favor with the electorate, gathering many votes from voters that are restlessly looking for something different from their government. Sometimes its just a temporary zeitgeist. For example, if there are many terrorist attacks lately, and an extremist politician like Ben Gvir always appears on the scene and says aggressive things that others are not saying which sound like they could be effective against terrorism, he may ride a wave of angry popularity regardless of his views on settlements that are anathema to the same voters. But then these parties may lose their new voters as quickly as they gain them when the tide turns and/or their promises turn out to be impractical. In a dangerous and young, volatile place like Israel, some people, when pushed hard enough, may compromise on some issues to try to achieve success on more burning issues.

This is why timing, issues and personalities are important wildcard factors in Israel, and this can throw analysts off their game if they are expecting a loyal, stable, bipartisan dichotomy as in the USA or Europe. In other words, dynamic issues are pivotal in Israel, and leaders may sometimes change along with the issues, sometimes disregarding impractical and monolithic political categories. This is mostly a good thing and, in my opinion, demonstrates a healthy democracy, where some leaders and voters try to be creative and attempt different approaches instead of staying fastened to the same broken hinge. Look at US politics to understand what I mean.

Religion is a Spectrum

The first, not-quite-obvious observation on the topic of Jewish religiosity is that, depending on how religious and observant an Israeli Jew is, or depending on how angry a Jew is with religion, this will make them more closely aligned to right-leaning or left-leaning political camps respectively. But remember what I said previously: That being left or right-wing in Israel depends on another, more dominant factor; and I hold that this factor is religion. This is why some political parties can adopt seemingly opposite stances on various issues. Because the axis is not necessarily left/right, but religion. Judaism, as well as anti-religious sentiment, do not conform neatly to these labels and their associated political stances. This does not stop Israelis, including myself, from using left/right as convenient (or accusatory) labels, however, even if they don't match perfectly.

Note that the Pew Research poll I linked to above is quite accurate when it comes to this issue, demonstrating that religiosity is closely linked to, but not consistent with, left/right ideologies.

Another point to keep in mind is that religiosity is a spectrum. It's not just secularism vs ultra-orthodox, and everything in between, with people that defy categories leading very mixed lifestyles, but also a negative side of the spectrum, where a large anti-religious group of people in Israel often stage their battles and political stances based on this emotion. Once again, this explains some contradictions if you keep this in mind.

I will not go into the psychology of religion or anti-religion, but I will describe some common examples of Israelis briefly:

  • One mostly-secularist traditionalist may see Judaism as a 'culture' worth preserving, to be compared with Western cultural traditions, but may see Orthodox Jews as a backwards people, and will vote according to a party's attitude towards conservative modernity, and will shun anything more extreme on either side.

  • Another traditionalist will be completely different, and may practice minimal religiosity, but only because he doesn't feel ready for more, and will still value and respect ultra-orthodox Jews and their parties.

  • Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews tend to vote for their religious party, and Sephardi Orthodox Jews vote for theirs, but they still work closely together on practically all issues, and the voting difference is only due to tribal associative feelings, not politics.

  • Anti-religious Jews, however, will feel very strongly about allowing an Orthodox party to have any influence on the government, and will vote accordingly. Of course, even within the limitations of this goal they still have a choice of parties depending on other factors such as social or Palestinian issues. This concern over Orthodox influence is often due to a fear of religious coercion, and this is an issue we must expand on next since it strongly affects politics. Just look at the 2023 Judiciary Reform controversy as an example.

The 'anti' crowd has strong emotions against religion and religious people in Israel, and, unfortunately, often perceive the Orthodox Jews as wanting to coerce them into religion like some Iranian Ayatollah regime. This is a large crowd, and much of the popular media is aligned with this cause and this will color their profiles on politicians. This perception is tragically wrong, as I will explain. But I mention it because it affects politics to a great extent: Many decisions are made based on this fear and hate. And this hate can reach extreme proportions that remind one, ironically and tragically, of European antisemitism.

As someone who knows Orthodox Jews personally very well for decades, I can say with absolute certainty that Orthodox Jews do not want to coerce secular Jews. It is against Judaism. Historically, religious courts only functioned with a religious society and these courts have actually abdicated when society could no longer maintain their standards. At worst/best, religious people will try to persuade or inspire secular Jews. But, some actions of Orthodox Jews may appear at first glance to be the same as coercion, which explains this mistaken conclusion and perception of the 'anti' crowd. Let me explain using some specific examples:

  • The definition of who is a Jew and who isn't (traditionally only the biological mother determines who is Jewish), as well as what constitutes a valid conversion to Judaism, are both highly contentious issues. But it's much more critical than most people realize and goes way beyond the issue of who makes this decision: If Orthodox standards for the definition of a Jew aren't met, this means that Orthodox Jews would have to split from the rest of the crowd. Since religious Jews only marry other Jews, this issue would not only define who is a Jew, but who they can marry. Orthodox Jews would have to maintain their own registry and methods for determining Jewish ancestry and status, rabbis would quit the state's conversion rabbinate, there would be two courts and marriage/divorce proceedings that directly conflict with each other, and the more time passes, the worse this split will become to the point of possible violence. Israel would essentially become a state of two peoples (three, including Arabs).

  • If this happens, having a country defined as a 'State for Jews', where half of its citizens think the other half aren't even Jews, is unthinkable and absurd. This is why the definitions had and have to be agreed upon by all sides, and the secular founders of Israel had to agree with the Orthodox definitions. If this didn't happen, Orthodox Jews would have no problem with splitting off from the rest of Israel to meet their own standards. But this would be unacceptable for an Israel that is supposed to be a home for Jews. In other words, once you understand this and see it for the practical issue that it is, the coercion came from, ironically, secular Jews that founded the State. But it can easily be wrongfully perceived as being imposed by the Orthodox Jews just because they refuse to compromise on their 3000-year-old standards. In other words, Orthodox Jews are only defining standards for themselves, not for others, but in order to have a unified country, the country had to go along with these standards.

  • Another issue is that Orthodox Jews can never agree to actively partake in an activity that goes against their religion. I.e. they have to limit what they can do in government, due to personal restrictions they place on themselves. So, for example, they would normally not sign a paper that allows state facilities to be used for something that would cause people to sin who would not sin otherwise. Similarly, they can't actively participate in a committee that is funding and building public transportation on the Sabbath. Note, once again, that this is not because they want to coerce the secular public not to travel on the Sabbath, but because they can't actively participate or encourage this themselves on a personal level. So, once again, this looks like coercion but isn't. To make it clear why this is so, Orthodox Jews in the government could and have turned a blind eye when a private company establishes public transportation for the Sabbath, but they wouldn't be caught dead participating or encouraging it. So there is no cooperation by religious government officials, but neither is there coercion. Same goes for allowing alternate kosher certification for restaurants, and any other issue that conflicts with Orthodox Judaism. This is a subtle distinction that is lost on many angry people.

Unfortunately, the 'anti' crowd stubbornly hold fast to their perceptions, paranoia and phobias about religious Jews due to a combination of the above easily misunderstood behavior, as well as their own personal hangups, whatever they may be. They fear an 'Ayatollah regime' in Israel due to this fear and misunderstanding of Judaism. This causes endless friction between two massive and fundamental demographic sections of Israel even though there shouldn't be any. Practical compromises could be found if this were understood and accepted. It's tragic.

There is a concept of the 'Status Quo' in Israel which means that, in the past, Israel found a way to compromise and make it work, where secular people learned to live with these quirks and impositions due to the aforementioned practical reasons. It was an unwritten law in Israel that you don't upset this Status Quo, and you do this in order to achieve the noble goal of living together as a unified nation. Unfortunately, attitudes have changed, emotions have soared, and the Status Quo is no longer the sacred law it once was, with politicians purposely breaking this delicate balance and causing much friction. Much of this is thanks to leftist views becoming more extreme, intolerant and militant in the past two decades.

The demographic numbers for this important Religion axis are as follows (from several polls in the past five years, Jews only, excluding Israeli Arabs): Secular Jews (Hiloni) are at 44-49%, Traditional Jews (Masorti) 28-33%, Religious Jews (Dati) 11-12%, Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) 10-11%.

Notes: 'Traditional' generally means they maintain observance of some Jewish traditions and customs to a varying extent, and for different reasons, but don't identify as religious. The above numbers of roughly 30% traditionalists can be split to 17% and 13% percent depending on their religiosity, but it is a spectrum. 'Religious/Dati', similarly, is a somewhat ambiguous catch-all term. Individuals can wander from one of these camps to another over the years.

It is also very important to note that the ultra-orthodox and religious are the fastest growing groups in Israel, and many studies project that they will be the majority in a few decades. This, of course, adds to the fears of the anti-religious crowds and escalates their aggression in politics.

I have not yet seen a poll that counts anti-religious Israelis. Also, the numbers on this single axis are not enough as far this article is concerned, as they don't differentiate between, for example, religious Zionist settlers who may or may not be also ultra-orthodox in terms of religiosity. Attitudes towards Palestinians as well as to the State of Israel and its policies vary widely in each of these categories. Which brings us to a second index I'll call the 'Aggression' axis:

Aggression and the Land of Israel

This section, and the next one, will cover Zionism and how to understand it specifically in terms of Israeli viewpoints and politics. As opposed to critics around the world, Zionism and aggression are not correlated, as I will shortly argue. And yes, there are actually many anti-Zionists in Israel. But Israeli anti-Zionists and pro-Palestinian anti-Zionists are very different beasts.

Disclaimer: I realize that most of what I say in this section will be obvious to the average Israeli but will sound like ridiculous lies and fantasies to many outsider critics of Israel. But I can only explain and argue the truth that I see with my own eyes the best I can, and hope that cognitive dissonance will not get in the way.

Many people know that, historically, there have been several types of Zionism. They tended to differ in their vision of Israel, and around which ism Israel would form as a nation, and what Israeli society should look like when it did. But all of them had in common the dream of a return of a Jewish nation and homeland, wherever that may be and whatever it may look like, and the vast majority envisioned this happening in Israel. These many types of Zionism, whether liberal, socialist, cultural, practical, political, revisionist, or religious and messianic, all have this very simple core in common.

One must also take into account that Zionism arose amidst a wave of nationalistic movements around the world in the 19th century. Since the French Revolution, people around the world were rising to the idea that it is the people that self-determine and form independent nations which revolve around their common culture. Zionists, amidst this furor and trend, were merely saying that they wanted a nation too. At the core, Zionism is merely another nationalistic movement. Except that, since Jews were without a nation for so long, the movement revolved around Jews as a religion or culture rather than around national expatriates or as a splintering faction of an existing nation. It was not as if Jews had papers they could use to prove their nationality. After 1900 years, they only had their religion. Pay close attention to this point as it resolves many difficulties and criticisms.

Finally, another important point is that Zionism did not initiate the dream of Jews returning to Israel, nor was it the start of waves of immigration to Israel. Not by a long shot. Not only have Jews retained a presence in Israel as best they could throughout 1900 years of refugee hell, there have been 1900 years of daily prayers and aspirations for a return to Israel, many waves of immigrants, many of them initiated by religious Jews centuries before Zionism was invented as a political entity. But we will deal with Orthodox Jews and the land of Israel later.

One reality people may not know, is that, over time, many of these Zionist strains have dropped their distinctive isms and merged together around their common, basic goal of Israel as a Jewish state. Today, many Zionists simply identify as Zionists in the sense that they are patriots and nationalists that are proud of their Jewish state and/or happy to live in their own country. These modern, simpler Zionists, idealistically speaking, are equivalent to an American saying they are proud to be an American. It has nothing to do with expansionism.

On the other hand, some Israelis, mostly in the leftist camp, feeling uncomfortable over how Zionism is perceived around the world, have argued that Zionism has completed its job of establishing a state, and we are now in the era of Post-Zionism. Some have taken this too far and become 'self-hating Jews', or  leftist anti-Zionists, supporting anti-Semites around the world in the futile hopes of becoming more loved. But, as I have shown, this is not necessary even from this point of view. Zionism can be, and has been, distilled to its basic, innocuous nationalistic essence by many secular or traditional Israelis.

Orthodox Jews are also generally anti-Zionists, but for very different reasons. And I will deal with them in the next section.

Another point that many people don't take into account is that, even within these types of Zionists, individual Jews have differed in their level of aggression. This is a very critical point that is lost on critics of Zionism and Israel that tend to extrapolate from a few bad eggs and extremists to Zionists as a whole.

Despite what I said about a modern, simpler Zionism, religious Zionists are an exception in that they generally maintain their original Zionist ideals and ambitions. This is because their Zionism is linked to their variation of religion and to their view that this is a messianic age. But this does not mean they are aggressive and violent either. Just because they see settlement of the land as a religious prescript, that doesn't mean that religion and rabbis demand war and violence to achieve this goal. A parable might clarify this further:

Imagine a family that owns some property for a century, and this family is then driven forcibly from its land due to conquering invaders, and kept away from this land for many decades. In the meantime, the country and estate changes hands many times, the current owners being all but oblivious to the history of the estate itself, having bought it from the current controlling government or previous owners, and these people have raised a family and established some roots in this home. Now, the descendants of the original family come back after a hundred years of longing to come back to their ancestral home of which they learned and heard so much. They may have even linked their religion to this homecoming event. They find the current owners, recognize the new reality on the ground, but still know that this estate belongs to them. They decide to compromise and share, given the understandable claim of the new owners and their investment, take over some areas, but mostly just move into the rooms and land that this new family doesn't occupy. They still talk about the whole estate being legally theirs and history being unfair, but recognize the new reality, and implement a compromise.

What I am trying to demonstrate with this story, is that just because people declare full ownership, tell tales of sovereignty and nostalgia for days gone by, along with aspirations and dreams for the estate, that does not mean they are automatically aggressive. Some may be talking about their very valid historical claim as owners, but will still be willing to compromise and be as fair as one can be given current circumstances. Others may be a bit more aggressive and decide to persuade the current owners to leave using different tactics. And yet others may be willing to fight and kill for their estate. But all will talk the same way about the land belonging to them whether they are aggressive or not.

What I am saying concerning Zionists, based on my personal experience, is that most of them talk about the whole land of Israel belonging to Jews, and their grand dream of settling Israel, but most do this without intentions of forcibly displacing or fighting Arabs. Others are more aggressive. The question is how much more aggressive, and how many of them are willing to fight for it. Some may compromise and try to reach a political agreement where land is exchanged and delineated, and people are displaced as a result of this agreement, with as much land as possible reverting back to its original owners, as long as it does not involve violence. Some will choose to fight and kill. Most, however, will simply accept the current reality and only do what they can to implement their dream within current restraints and without violence. Expressing their dreams and views on legal ownership does not prove anything on its own. It's the end-result and final actions that count.

This is why, settlers can establish settlements in occupied but empty territory, and still think of themselves as being peaceful, because most of them truly want peace with their close neighbors while implementing their dream to the extent that is possible. The fact that these settlements upset their neighbors is a different issue. But they don't see this as aggression given that they are moving into unsettled land, and because they see the land as historically theirs, and only intend to be friendly with their neighbors with whom they are compromising in a friendly manner.

Unfortunately I cannot provide numbers as to how many Jews are aggressive and to what extent they are aggressive, or even how they define their Zionism, because polls do not take these nuances into account. But, from my experience, Jews that take their aggression to violent levels are a very tiny minority, and many of these Jews become violent only as retaliation for aggression from the other side. You may argue that their settlements are a different form of aggression, but now you hopefully understand their mentality and possibly the justification for thinking this way.

Religion is not an indicator of aggression in Israel. I have described religious settlers above, which are typically more aggressive than the average Israeli in terms of taking over more land, but typically without violence, as I have argued above. As contrast, compare the political party Yisrael Beiteinu which is extremely secular, yet align themselves often with relatively more aggressive religious Zionist policies and attitudes towards Palestinians.

Some relevant numbers: Amongst all Jews, 73% have no problem with identifying at least partially or fully as Zionist. This number may seem low to some and high to others. But there are two points to keep in mind given what I have said: First is that this number rises to 84% if we include only Traditional and 'Religious' Jews, and goes down to 33% for Orthodox Jews. In other words, Orthodox Jews are by far the largest group of anti-Zionists with a majority being anti-Zionist. (This number increases by around 3% if we remove the religious Zionists that identify as ultra-orthodox.) The second point is that Zionism means different things to different Jews, and probably most Jews simply identify as Zionist for basic patriotic reasons, and this has nothing to do with aggression or settlements, as I explained.

For some additional numbers and proofs to do with Israeli aggression, see the 'Observations on Polls' section below.

Now that we have two independent axes, note that these two combine to form a variety of Jews: From religious non-aggressive Jews, to secular very aggressive Zionists, to a spectrum of religious aggressive Jews, and obviously to the many non-aggressive Jews in between.

Finally, but most importantly, keep in mind that the vast majority of Israelis understandably prioritize security and self-preservation over expansionism, and eschew violence. This is why the occupation of Palestinian territories is accepted as a necessity even by leftists. Not because all Israelis want to expand the land of Israel or because they are ideologically aggressive, but because this is the only way to stop terrorist attacks under which Israelis suffer every other day. They may not agree with settlements in these lands, but occupation and settlements are two separate issues. 

This is why somebody secular like Netanyahu, who until recently was 'Mr. Security', is/was a favorite of Israelis from many camps. Despite peaceful intentions, the average Israeli, Netanyahu included, says no to plans that will expose Israel to more terrorist attacks. Peace plans have repeatedly only brought on more attacks in the past. Security has nothing to do with Zionist expansionist goals, and most aggression from Israelis has to be placed within this context of Israel requiring defense and security. Aggression and desiring peace do not contradict each other; not when the aggression is self-defense. It's just that Israelis disagree on how aggressive they need to be to respond to Palestinian violence proportionally and effectively.

Orthodoxy and the State of Israel

Our discussion of Zionism and Israeli attitudes towards aggression leads us to Orthodox Jews and their relationship to the State of Israel. This is usually the least recognized and understood subject of all. Yet it is very important to understand this unique mentality, especially given most studies predict that  religious people will eventually become the majority in Israel.

As I mentioned previously, immigration to Israel was continuous long before Zionism was a thing. This had nothing to do with nationalism since Jews were not a nation for 1900 years and immigrants did not have this ambition. In fact, Zionists renamed the previous immigration movements and settlements as the Old Yishuv. The primary reason for these older immigrations is religious, because Judaism holds Israel to be a special holy place with infinite spiritual benefits. Living in Israel is an important mitzvah (precept). but, it does not override life: One is not supposed to kill or risk death in order to implement this. There are also other religious considerations to do with settling Israel which I will list below.

While some immigrants in centuries past did risk their life to travel to Israel (due to travel risks or  violent attacks by Arabs in the Ottoman Empire or during Crusades), one must take into account that Jews at the time were suffering from pogroms in their current countries, therefore traveling to Israel would not be more dangerous, and could even be less dangerous than staying at home. Indeed, several immigration waves were triggered by pogroms. Today, however, there is no such excuse to risk life in order to settle land. But there is the excuse of self-defense when keeping land. Pay attention to this distinction.

The most recent wave before Zionism was in the early 19th century, when Jews were immigrating and expanding, establishing new neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside its walls, and even establishing new cities such as Petah Tikva. Since the task was primarily religious and not nationalist, their first and primary goals were to establish places of Torah study, schools, synagogues, and so on. Of course they were limited by Ottoman laws and restrictions which changed over time.

Some Zionists re-appropriate these immigration waves and settlements as proto-Zionist, but this is incorrect as they were very different in their goals and intentions. Similarly, religious writings to do with messianic times, especially from mystical sources such as the Vilna Gaon, were interpreted and possibly even altered (in the controversial book Kol Hator) to adapt them to religious Zionistic goals. But what exactly is the difference between these two movements to the point that Orthodox Jews, who previously settled Israel, would oppose Zionism aggressively?

  • I already mentioned one important issue: The duty to live in and settle the land of Israel most definitely does not justify risking lives or killing. Of course, self-defense is a different matter entirely, and waging war to protect Jewish lives is a duty regardless of the State of Israel and how it was established. But waging war to settle additional land is not a religious Orthodox thing in current times of exile. In addition, Orthodox Jews are willing to give up land to save lives because Jewish lives are more important than land. The problem is that Palestinians have made it abundantly clear that giving up land will not only not save lives, but will cause more Jewish deaths. Therefore, nowadays, given the current situation, giving up land is forbidden even for anti-Zionists since it is classified under self-defense.

  • In other words, Orthodox Jews may oppose the way the State of Israel was established, but now that it has been done this way, and Jews must survive somewhere, they must make the best of it and deal with the situation at hand. Since dissolving the State of Israel would cause many Jews to die, it is no longer possible to oppose it. Again, note this subtle distinction.

  • Another basic difference and issue is that Orthodox Jews wanted to settle the land but not establish a state. Orthodox Jews were not only restricting their goals to living and settling Israel under the auspices of the current conquerors and occupation, they were emphatically opposed to the idea of establishing a state. Which brings us to the next issue:

  • The Three Oaths: This is an agreement between God and the Jews, that while Jews are in exile, divine processes that progress the world towards an ultimate fix must continue their course and reach their completion properly without Jews attempting to force a premature ending. This premature ending of the exile would include forcefully 'ascending the wall' i.e. returning to Israel en masse and with force, and a warning not to rebel against the nations.

  • Questions arise as to how these oaths are to be interpreted, and whether they are still binding, and so on. The majority of Orthodox Jews, as exemplified by the decision of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, take these oaths very seriously but allow for limited exceptions to these oaths. Namely, that if the UN agrees to a partition plan of Israel, and Jews immigrate in waves, this no longer qualifies as force or rebelling against the nations for obvious reasons. Just because local Arabs reject the plan, that does not qualify as 'rebelling against the nations' since the majority of them agreed.

  • But this still means that some things are not allowed. For example, settling or annexing the West Bank in opposition to UN laws would be strictly forbidden. Same goes for fighting all Arabs with the goal of expanding Israel.

  • Some branches of Jewish Orthodoxy have interpreted these oaths in more extreme ways. In order of extremism: The Satmar Hasidim,  the Neturei Karta sect, and some truly lunatic individuals in the Neturei Karta, all are aggressively opposed to the State of Israel, forbidding praying at the Wall, doing anything that confirms the rule of the Israeli government, or participating in Israeli politics, some even to the point of forbidding Jews to live there. The lunatic fringe even cooperate with Jew killers. But, as I said, the majority don't hold any of these views.

  • Also concerning the Three Oaths, I'll repeat the previous point about the difference between opposing the State of Israel during its establishment, and dealing with the current reality. Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky for example, who was the leader of the Orthodox world, explicitly opposes Satmar and prioritizes what needs to be done to save Jewish lives and souls, regardless of the past.

  • Other relevant religious concepts are called 'Darkei Shalom' (Ways of Peace) which is a precept to pursue peace and not do things that cause hate (within reason obviously, as long as the hater is not insane), as well as the precept to follow the laws of the land where Jews are currently living. But there are many limitations here and we won't go into this in detail.

  • In terms of the Zionistic viewpoint that these are "messianic times", rabbis disagree with Zionists in that, even if these are indeed messianic times, they are the end stages of exile, not necessarily the start of redemption. Therefore aggression is not justified. When the Messiah arrives and starts changing the world, the world and its viewpoints will change drastically, and we will know it. This is not it.

  • Finally, Orthodox Jews have an ongoing big problem with the fact that most Zionist Jews wanted to establish a secular state with laws that conflict with Judaism, and even actively perform actions and pass laws to reduce the level of religiosity in Israel until today (see my discussion of anti-religion in the previous section).

To strongly fortify and illustrate this description of the conflict between Orthodox Jews and Zionists, I will refer you to the forgotten assassination of Jacob Israƫl de Haan. He was a Dutch Jew who changed his stance and aligned himself with Orthodox Jews in the early days of the British Mandate in Palestine. Orthodox Jews at the time were willing to forgo the Balfour Declaration and he was sent on a mission to discuss an agreement with Arabs in which they would maintain control but allow unrestricted Jewish immigration. He was killed by extreme Zionists. This tragic story demonstrates several things that I described above, especially the clear differentiation between the religious drive to settle Israel, and the Zionist goal to establish a state.

Despite everything I just said, here we are, one hundred years later, and Orthodox Jews are working together with Zionists as best they can, mostly because everyone is a fellow Jew, but also because the current reality and dangers on the ground demand it. There are and will be internal fights and clashes of ideologies, but there is nothing like a threat of another Holocaust to bring everyone to the same page.

Observations on Polls

Now that we have described the foundations, complexity and nuance of Israeli demographics and mentalities, you should understand why extracting useful information from polls on Israelis is often an impossible task. Questions are worded poorly and/or ignore nuances and reasons behind viewpoints, thus not differentiating between the truly important political viewpoints, making it difficult to reach useful conclusions.

One obvious problem with many of the questions in polls is that they ask about people's predictions and optimism, not about their goals. For example: "Do you think a two-state solution is possible/likely?" is not at all the same as: "Do you want to see a two-state solution implemented?".

But a subtler and bigger problem is that many of the questions on peace ask Jews what they think the government should do, ignoring the fact that this is based on current circumstances and realities, not on ideal goals or possible alternate plans. For example, imagine if they asked the following carefully worded question: "If Palestinians renounced terrorism, put down their weapons, and agreed to a demilitarized state, would you agree to pursue a two-state peace plan?". Compare this with the commonly asked: "Do you think the current government should pursue a two-state solution?". Given the violence that Israelis have seen for decades in response to such plans, obviously the answer to this latter question will be mostly negative. Not only that, but we see the polls changing drastically depending on whether they were asked right after an attack by Palestinians. For example, support for a peace plan dropped from 60% to 25% depending on the year. But with my wording, I bet the answer would be mostly and consistently positive, and it would also help us determine what Israelis truly think and want in the long term, not how they feel at the moment. In other words, opposition to a two-state solution is typically due to current Palestinian attitudes and behavior, not due to ideology, and polls don't try to differentiate between the two.

(I did find a couple of questions in polls that come close to my question. But one made it a package deal with other Palestinian demands like splitting Jerusalem, and the other allowed for a 'security force' in the Palestinian state, thus undermining its own proposal for a demilitarized state.)

Similarly, in line with what I argued about Israelis and security: When a poll asks the provocative question "Should Arabs be expelled from Israel?", it leaves open the question of why and under what circumstances they should be expelled. Since Israelis are constantly attacked by Arabs, and the  majority of Arab citizens want to see the destruction of Israel, it is natural and sensible to want them out for self-preservation. But the poll leaves it open to wild interpretation. What if things changed? Is it about racism, ideology, or fearing for their lives? Same goes for the people that said Israel should annex the West Bank. Is this due to ideology or security? Questions such as these should not leave this crucial distinction open without clarification.

Here is some strong proof that I am right about most Israelis' long-term goals: Included in one of the polls is a much more useful and revealing question. They asked what are the obstacles to achieving a two-state solution with the Palestinians: 70% stated that the primary obstacles are either Palestinians not really wanting peace, or security-related obstacles, not trusting that Palestinians would not use this state to kill more Jews. In addition, 9% stated other practical reasons. But only 8% opposed the idea of a two-state solution based on ideological reasons. Which means that, if you remove the above obstacles, the two-state solution should become viable and desirable again for between 70-90% of Jews. Contrast this with the generally low support in polls for a two-state solution (sometimes 30%) and this will confirm my argument: That it is not about expansionism and aggression, but security. If you do not accept my arguments, you will be at a loss to explain this seeming contradiction.

Here is a similar puzzle with the same resolution: In the same poll, only 35% of Jews supported a two-state solution, but 60% said that Israel should seek help from Arab states to promote peace. 

Note that, over several years of polling, 70-90% of Israelis consistently do not support annexing all of the West Bank, negating accusations of expansionist aggression. (And some of the rest may want it merely for security reasons.) We also got the same response (75%) when the question was about re-taking Gaza.

Religious questions, similarly, aren't always careful with their wording. For example, when Israelis are asked whether "they would support shutting down public transportation on the Sabbath", they don't ask whether they will allow other transportation methods and coerce the public, and whether it is merely an ideal situation that they aspire to, but without actual coercion. What does 'support' actually mean? Obviously, religious Jews would be happier with less sin in the world. But what are they willing to do to get there? The polls failed to answer this, but I hope I have answered this question.


As I warned in the introduction, this covered a lot of ground with many, many details and even this won't help you understand Israelis as people unless you live in Israel for a while. But, politically, I hope this presents a clear picture of the variety in Israel and the kinds of groupings you are likely to find. Think of this as a high-level description of the 'scatter chart' of Israeli politics, with two primary axes, plenty of random scattered points, but also some concentrated groupings. I hope I have also helped explain some of the most misunderstood mentalities of these groups.

The two axes according to my interpretation are: 1. The religiosity index, ranging from anti-religious to ultra-orthodox, which only sometimes corresponds to the left/right political dichotomy. 2. What I called the  'Aggression' axis, with a very weak correlation to Zionism at best. I argued that security concerns and anger triggered by violence cause more aggressive policies than Zionism. But, otherwise, Israelis are very low on aggression, and if Palestinians would renounce violence this would become very clear. I found one interesting polling question that proves this to be true.

The primary groupings are: 1. Secular Jews, with sub-groupings of anti-religious and anti-Zionist leftists as well as the sometimes-aggressive secular Zionists. 2. Religious Zionists that are the most problematic group in Israel politically, morally and even religiously speaking. But I hope I have explained why even this group is mostly peaceful despite their misguided ambitions and actions, thanks to the differentiation between aspirations and violence. 3. Orthodox Jews, most of whom are anti-Zionist and extremely low on aggression if not for security concerns. 4. Everyone in between: there are no gaps in this scatter chart, just sparse areas.

I also dived in depth into how internal Israeli political issues and clashing mentalities are often derived from the religiosity spectrum, even if some Israelis don't admit it.

People around the world that read news about Israel or that attempt an analysis of Israelis and their politics will not reach truthful or realistic conclusions unless they take all of this into account, for starters. Groups like the religious Zionists often give Israel a bad name, and people tend to extrapolate from their behavior even though they are a minority. Misunderstanding religion and how religious people think will also warp political conclusions regarding both religious Zionists and Orthodox Jews, and this problem of understanding also exists amongst secular Jews. Another common mistake is in understanding what Zionism means to Jews today. But the most prominent and common mistake I have seen is the conflation of nationalistic or religious love for the land of Israel, with aggression triggered by Palestinian violence. Aggressive acts of self-defense do not denote a conquering mindset. I hope I have clearly separated and defined these issues.

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