Pew Israel study prompts mixed reactions locally

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A controversial finding from a major pollster that shows nearly half of Jewish Israelis want Arabs removed from Israel has stirred mixed emotions among American Jews. Locally, St. Louis Jews have responded with concern and feelings ranging from disbelief to a resigned acceptance.

“I didn’t think that big of a percentage is for transferring Arabs from Israel,” said Tali Stadler, a native Israeli who has lived in the Gateway City for 22 years. “It’s outrageous.”

Stadler’s reaction was a common one but only a single part in a range of responses by locals informed about the survey conducted through the Pew Research Center. Headquartered in the United States, Pew released findings this month from a 2014-2015 survey of attitudes in the Middle Eastern nation relating to everything from religious observance to views on keeping kosher. But the question which turned most heads was the survey’s revelation that 48 percent of those queried agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Forty-six percent of respondents disagreed.

Stadler, who still visits Israel twice a year for several weeks at a time, said she found the figure difficult to accept and thinks most people still favor a two-state solution.

“It’s hard for me to believe that 48 percent want a transfer,” she said.


But she feels Israel seems to be gravitating toward a more pessimistic stance given the lack of progress on the peace process.

“I think people are more right-wing and less optimistic,” she said. “I really see that.”

Mor Angel, a native Israeli who has been living in St. Louis for the past two years, also said he felt the figure was high. He estimated it at closer to 30 percent. He believes that timing may be part of the issue.

“Right now, there are a lot of terror attacks against Israeli citizens in Jerusalem and all over Israel so maybe people might think it is the only solution,” he said. “But I think the majority of Israelis would like the two-state solution.”

However, like Stadler, he noted the same drift in Israeli politics toward a more hawkish view.

“You can mark the starting point in 1995 after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin,” he said. “Over 20 years, it has been shifting slowly to the right.”

He said that since Rabin’s death, no major leader has arisen on the left wing of Israeli politics.

“The other thing is the failure of the Palestinians to take responsibility for their people and the continuing of their propaganda against Israel and the Jewish people,” he said pointing to opportunities for workable Palestinian states in 2001 under Ehud Barak at Camp David and a few years later under Ehud Olmert.

“But it still wasn’t enough for [the Palestinians],” he said. “A lot of Israelis now feel there is no real partner for peace.”

Ron Golan of Chesterfield professed himself “a little bit shocked” at the 48 percent number.

“I’m of the opinion that there should be a two-state solution and there is no way we can expel Arabs,” said Golan who noted that he believes that is the majority view in Israel. “I think there are a lot of Israelis who think like me.”

Golan grew up on a kibbutz not far from the Gaza Strip before coming to the United States 19 years ago. He sounded dubious about the survey’s results and suggested that the sample may not have been diverse enough.

“I think it is also how you exactly ask the question and in what connotation you can get this answer,” he said. “It sounds a little over-the-top.”

But he also mentioned the rightward shift in Israeli politics in the wake of Rabin’s assassination. He said that hardening of Israeli public opinion was likely reinforced by Hamas’s takeover of Gaza after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the area and the shower of rockets which followed.

“When you have extremist groups doing violence, it causes a reaction on the other side,” he said.

Like the others, Ronan Lev opposes the idea of expulsion but unlike them, he was not surprised by the survey’s results.

“There’s been a radicalization over the years,” said Lev, who was born in New York but moved to Israel before graduating from high school. Now he lives in St. Louis but spent two decades in Israel.

“Just like the United States has been polarized here, they’ve been polarized also,” he added.

He also said the seemingly endless grind of the Israeli-Palistenian conflict is altering the public’s outlook.

“I think the change that’s occurred over the years is that people are getting tired,” he said. “Years and years go by and nothing happens.”

He also faulted intransigence by some radical elements on the other side of the violence.

“I think it is true, right or left, that everyone in Israel has always wanted peace. There was just a difference in the pathway,” he said. “If you talk about the radicalization on the Islamic side, they are not even looking for peace as an option.”


Other community opinions

Lev isn’t the only one who isn’t surprised by the Pew finding.

“It has gotten to the point where people say ‘dayenu’ we’ve had enough,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion who feels the survey could very easily be an accurate measure of Israeli anger over ongoing provocations.

Smason pointed to incendiary language from Arab nations, propaganda impacting Muslim youth and lack of international support for Israel as sources of frustration for Israelis and also cited the ‘knififada,’ a recent wave of stabbings by Palestinians aimed at Israeli civilians.

“People are desperate,” he said. “People are desperate to protect themselves and to protect their children.”

Smason himself has five children living in Israel with one serving in the military there. He said civilians now sometimes carry pepper spray or umbrellas to ward off possible knife attack while going about their daily routine.

“It means constantly looking over your shoulder in fear,” he said. “I can tell you that’s been the experience of my children. It is not surprising at all that people don’t want to live like that.”

Smason said that, while he understood the opinion, he favored searching for other solutions such as security walls and did not personally support transfer of Arabs at this time.

“The question is a bit simplistic perhaps because there might be other measures that could be taken to adequately provide security,” he said. “But where that answer is coming from is the frustration that at this point, we no longer want to be sitting ducks. We will no longer allow ourselves and our children to be moving targets for anyone at any time who might come and attack us.”

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon of Traditional Congregation said he couldn’t comment on the poll’s accuracy but was “deeply disappointed” by the results.

“The lack of a mainstream commitment to our Jewish religious heritage which teaches us equally that we should treat the stranger as we do ourselves and that we need to defend ourselves in our homeland, I think, has been eroded by both extremists on the left and right.”

Gordon said that public opinion might be souring in the face of both extremist Palestinian elements who continue to teach hatred of Jews and increasingly jaded sections of the Israeli citizenry who don’t recognize their obligations to treat their Arab neighbors with dignity.

“If one looks, one can find both stories and they are both true,” he said.

Still, Gordon said that even the Pew poll numbers cited remain less harsh than similar figures on Arab attitudes toward Israelis. Moreover, he could understand the frustration of Israelis who are alienated by frequently hostile world opinion while facing nearly continuous violence from an intractable enemy.

“At some point, I can see [it leading] subsequent generations into a hardening of positions and taking positions that I just think go too far,” he said.

Nancy Lisker, St. Louis regional director of AJC, cited experts who believed the survey was problematic calling the question vague and misleading. Critics have noted that the imprecision of the language involved might not have made it clear that the question pertained to all Arabs and not specific Arabs, such as the families of terrorists. They also worry that the inclusion of the word “transferred” might have inflated the response.

“There have been questions raised about this question and how it was posed, let alone why it was included at this time,” Lisker said.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona also said that the number seemed too big. He said that he hopes the poll is “overstated.”