An Israeli protester chats to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near tents pitched on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard as part of a demonstration (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Separate but comfortable: How Israelis want to live


There is no better illustration of the data presented earlier today by The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) than the decision made yesterday by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court, in a decision too complicated to explain in detail in this article, ruled that the city of Tel Aviv can permit mini-markets to operate on Shabbat. And while the decision was not aimed at changing Israel’s status quo, and was mainly a response to the government’s failure to make its own decisions, it still highlights how Israel is gradually becoming a country of communities that live by their own rules. Put simplistically: Tel Aviv – more open on Shabbat. Jerusalem – more closed.

Is this a situation that Israelis see with trepidation or with approval?

The Jewish People Policy Institute, in which I am a senior fellow, provided a possible answer to this question today when it issued a new study – its annual Pluralism Index. One of its more significant findings is that Israelis, while feeling “comfortable” about living in Israel “the way they are” – that is, they don’t feel a pressure to pretend to be something they are not – don’t necessarily want to mix with people different from themselves. They are comfortable to be who they are within their communities of similar people.

What do I mean by that? One of the things JPPI examined in this wide survey is whether Israelis support the separation of groups or communities, or whether they think that Israelis of all types should live together. For example, we asked: “In your opinion, should Jews and Arabs live in mixed neighborhoods in Israel?” A significant majority say no. 68% of Jews, 73% of Arabs. We also asked Jews and Arabs if they want their children to study together with students from the other group. Here there is a split in the way Jews and Arabs respond: A slight majority of Jews (51%) do not want their children to have Arab children studying together with them, while Arabs, by and large (76%), do want their children to study together with Jewish children.

We asked Jews in Israel if they think it is advisable for secular and religious Jews to live in mixed neighborhoods. Here things get a little more complicated, so bear with me. There are two groups of secular Jews in JPPI’s survey: those who define themselves as “totally secular” and those who define themselves as “somewhat traditional secular.” Among the totally secular, 50% do not want to live in mixed neighborhoods with religious Israelis. They are even less enthusiastic about secular-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods (53% are against it).

Among “somewhat traditional secular” Israelis – 22% of the Jewish population (totally secular are 35%) – the answer is different. 69% believe that mixed neighborhoods of secular and religious Jews would be a blessing. Religious Israelis – “Dati” (but not Haredi) – agree with them. 81% of them support mixed neighborhoods of secular and religious Jews.

But even the “somewhat traditional secular” Jews in Israel have their limit. Yes, a majority of them do believe in mixed neighborhoods of secular and religious Jews, but this does not extend to the ultra-religious Haredi community. When it comes to mixing secular and Haredi Jews, the majority in both groups of secular Israelis – “totally secular” and “somewhat traditional secular” – are in the opposition. 78% of the totally secular don’t think living together with the ultra-Orthodox is a good idea. 70% of the somewhat traditional secular don’t think it’s a good idea.

And what do Haredis think? This might surprise you, but 49% of them told our pollster (Panels Politics, a survey of more than 1300 Israelis, margin of error 3.1% for Jews, 5.6% for Arabs) that they do believe in mixed secular-Haredi neighborhoods. That’s a plurality of our Haredi respondents. In the discussion we had today with experts hosted by JPPI, the common view was that this result reflects the fact that secular Israelis are more worried about Haredis interfering with their lives than Haredis are worried about secular Israelis disrupting their way of life.

The bottom line, though, is clear: there are things that make Israelis want to separate. Religious affiliation is one of them (Muslim and Christian Arabs in Israel also don’t think it advisable for them to live in mixed neighborhoods). Nationality is also one of them. But this does not mean that all differences make Israelis want to separate. In fact, there are some findings in the Index that point to areas in which differences play less of a role in making Israelis want to distance from one another.

Jewish ethnic origin is one such area. A vast majority of Jewish Israelis (89%) see no reason why Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews can’t live in mixed neighborhoods. This finding extends to almost all Jewish groups, except for one: recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are the only group of people that is more reluctant to mix people of different ethnic origin. Close to a third of recent Jewish immigrants from the former USSR countries oppose such mixing.

Another thing that is not viewed as cause for separation is the political view of Israelis. 75% agree that leftist and rightist Israelis should live in mixed neighborhoods. And, by the way, on this question the group most tolerant of others – that is, the group whose members want mixed neighborhoods for rightists and leftists – is the one of “moderate left” (9% of Jews, 10% overall). The least tolerant group is the “right” (22%). Maybe, as someone suggested in our discussion, this is the result of the harsh view that Israelis in general have of what they call “Smolanim” – people of the hard left. Our survey shows that when asked about the contribution of different groups to the success of Israel, the groups of “leftists” is ranked near the bottom, next to Haredis, Arab Muslims, and Bedouins.

What can we make of all this? There is good news here, and disturbing news. Israel, in some ways, is a polarized country of groups willing to live together comfortably yet separately. In a way, this could make life easier for everybody. In Tel Aviv, as the court decided, more stores will be open on Shabbat. In cities with a religious or traditional majority, more stores, maybe all stores, will be closed on Shabbat. Live and let live.

But, of course, this has its down side. It will further accelerate the tendency of Israelis to live among like-minded people. It will further alienate the communities. It will necessarily erode the ability of people to coexist by making compromise and not by moving apart. It could weaken Israel’s sense of a shared destiny.

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