Haaretz changes tack on major story that alleged widespread ‘apartheid’ attitudes in Israel

Newspaper publishes small ‘clarification’ of widely quoted article, changes headlines online; top Israeli pollster calls key question ‘skewed’; critic says vital question omitted from poll

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs ride the Jerusalem light train on March 15, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs ride the Jerusalem light train on March 15, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s Haaretz daily changed tack on a widely discussed story published last week, in which it reported on a survey that ostensibly showed that Jewish-Israelis already consider Israel an apartheid state and/or would support it becoming one.

The paper changed its headline on the story in both its Hebrew and English online versions, and published a small “clarification.”

The poll’s purported findings served as Haaretz’s lead article on October 23, headlined in the newspaper’s Hebrew print edition: “Most Israelis support an apartheid regime in the country.” The claim went viral online, with the toxic word “apartheid” quickly working its way through both Western and Middle Eastern media.

“Israeli poll finds majority in favour of ‘apartheid’ policies,” stated a headline in the Guardian that same day, for example, while an Al-Jazeera op-ed declared that “Israel is an apartheid state (no poll required).” A headline in Canada’s The Globe and Mail read, “Many Israeli Jews support apartheid-style state, poll suggests.”

Several Israeli politicians weighed in quickly too. “It is not surprising that following four years of Netanyahu’s government, most Israeli citizens support apartheid,” declared left-wing Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, on her party’s website that same day.

“The Israeli regime is not a copy of the South African regime, but it certainly belongs to the same family,” said Jamal Zahalqa, leader of the Arab Balad faction. MK Ahmad Tibi of Raam-Taal added that “racism has long become mainstream in Israeli society,” Haaretz itself reported in a follow-up news item a day later.

However several questions in the original poll — commissioned by the Israela Goldblum Fund, conducted by pollsters Dialogue under the supervision of Dr. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, and made available to The Times of Israel — point to different conclusions from those headlined and reported by Haaretz. Rather than backing an apartheid regime, one critic intimated, they seem to indicate that most Israeli Jews want to keep the Israeli government from becoming such a regime. This mindset emerges even though aspects of the poll itself appear to be problematic, and one key question, according to a leading Israeli pollster, is skewed.

Despite a Haaretz claim, in a highlighted front-page box of its Hebrew edition, that “58% believe that an apartheid rule already exists in Israel today,” reference to the original poll shows that respondents were not actually asked whether they believed apartheid rule exists here. Rather, they were asked a complex, problematically formulated question which, in turn, was not published in full by the newspaper, and which has been critiqued by leading Israeli pollster Mina Zemach. The original question asked whether respondents agree with the opinion of a hypothetical American author who claims that “there is apartheid in Israel.” To this question, 39% answered that apartheid exists in a few issues, 19% said apartheid exists in many issues, and 31% said that apartheid does not exist at all in Israel.

Another finding was somewhat misrepresented in the Haaretz coverage, a comparison with the original poll shows. The survey’s final question (Question 17) asked respondents their views about separate highways for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Fifty percent answered that such a situation “is not good, but there’s nothing to do about it,” 24% said that “it is a good situation,” and 17% said the situation was “not good, and should be stopped.” In a Haaretz’s pie chart, however, 50% are said to regard separate roads as “necessary” rather than “not good, but there’s nothing to do about it.” And the 50% and 24% findings are bracketed together, and misleadingly summarized as showing 74% “supporting” separate roads.

In answer to other questions, meanwhile, a majority of Israeli Jews took tolerant positions. Most said they would not mind living next to an Arab family, and more respondents said they would not mind sending their children to school with Arabs than said they would mind. Most Israeli Jews also opposed denying voting rights to Israeli Arabs (by 59% to 33% in answer to the poll’s Question 6). And more respondents (Question 13) opposed (48%) than favored (38%) the annexation of even those parts of the West Bank with Jewish settlements in them.

Remarkably, the poll did not ask respondents whether they favored annexing the entire West Bank, yet it did ask a key question — Question 16 in the poll — about denying votes to 2.5 million Palestinians after such annexation.

That question, apparently central to Haaretz’s original apartheid claim, asked: “If Israel annexes the territories of Judea and Samaria, should it grant 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote for the Knesset?” To this, 69% of respondents said no and 19% said yes.

This response would appear to highlight a contradiction with the answer to Question 6, in which 59% said they opposed denying Arab citizens voting rights. One potential explanation is that most Israelis do not foresee the political possibility of annexing the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, as the question goes), and thus of a consequent dilemma about Israeli citizenship and voting rights for its Palestinian inhabitants. But one can only speculate on this, since, in the poll, respondents were not asked a direct question on the matter, such as: “Do you support the annexation of the West Bank to Israel?”

That the poll asked respondents for a position on Palestinian rights after annexation, and that Haaretz drew dramatic conclusions from the response without first asking about attitudes to annexation, immediately drew criticism of the poll and its presentation.

“The poll actually shows that Israelis want to separate themselves from the West Bank, not even annexing the major settlement blocs,” Noam Shelef, deputy communication director for the dovish New Israel Fund (whose involvement in the poll was first claimed and later retracted by Haaretz), wrote in the Daily Beast. “Only in a hypothetical situation — whereby their preference that Israel not annex the West Bank is ruled out by the pollster — do most Israeli Jews show a willingness to rule over non-voting Palestinians and thus tolerate apartheid.”

Shelef continued: “So claiming the poll demonstrates support for ‘apartheid’ is spin at its worst. It’s a bit like talking to a terminal cancer patient who stops treatment to begin hospice care and then announcing that he or she wants to die. A more likely interpretation would be that the cancer patient wants to live, but would be willing to accept death if that were the only option.”

Asked by email why Gideon Levy, better-known to the public for his scathingly critical opinion pieces than for news reporting, was assigned to write the news report on the poll, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn responded, “Gideon Levy regularly writes news.”

Levy presented the data in the paper’s lead “news” story, and also penned an accompanying op-ed on page 3 of the Hebrew paper that same day, entitled “Apartheid, with no shame and no guilt.” In this piece, Levy argued that Israelis are not only overtly racist; they are unabashed about it. “It is no longer Israel’s critics… now it’s the Israelis themselves who are defining themselves; and in this poll, they define themselves as nationalists and racists…”

“We’re racists, the Israelis are saying,” Halevy wrote. “we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state. Yes, this is Israel.”

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy (photo credit: Flash90)
Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy (photo credit: Flash90)

The problems with the poll were partially acknowledged in a press release sent to The Times of Israel by Amiram Goldblum, who commissioned it. “A large part of the Jewish population (58%) accepts the application of the term ‘apartheid’ to the current state of affairs in Israel,” said the press statement, which was itself a somewhat problematic summary of the poll’s findings, as noted above. “It is, however, not clear what these respondents understand by the term as this question did not require clarification.”

But Levy, in the news piece, apparently responding to this partial acknowledgement of the poll’s difficulties, countered: “The very use of the term [apartheid] as defining the character of their state even today, without annexing the territories, does not prompt harsh objections on the part” of respondents.

The poll invoked its anonymous American author — possibly a reference to Alice Walker — in two questions linked to apartheid. Question 10 asked: “A well known American author is boycotting Israel, claiming it has apartheid. Which of the following opinions is closer to yours: she should be boycotted; there should be no reaction; she should be invited to visit Israel?” Forty-eight percent of respondents believed that the theoretical author should be invited to Israel, 28% said Israel should not respond, and 15% said she should herself be boycotted. Levy referred to these apparently tolerant statistics toward the end of his news report as “a little surprising.”

The next question, number 11, was phrased as a follow-up: “Based on the American author’s allegations that apartheid exists in Israel, which of the following opinions is closer to yours: there is no apartheid in Israel; there is apartheid in some issues; there is apartheid in many issues?” As noted above, 39% answered that apartheid exists in a few issues, 19% said apartheid exists in many issues, and 31% said that apartheid does not exist at all in Israel.

“This question is skewed,” said veteran Israeli pollster Zemach, director of the Dahaf polling institute. Zemach said that introductions that lead respondents to choose a certain answer distort the data presented in a poll.

“I don’t like this type of question,” Zemach added. “Questions should present a statement and then ask ‘do you agree or disagree with this statement’ or ‘to what extent do you agree with this statement.'”

She noted that most questions sent to her institute for putting to the public are skewed in similar ways, and require adjustment before they can be asked in a legitimate poll.

Not only did the “American author” introduction allegedly skew the answer to the question that followed it, however, but it was also omitted from the report in Haaretz, which presented the question as if respondents were asked, simply, “Is there apartheid in Israel?”

Levy said last week that he represented the poll’s results “literally and according to its spirit.”

Still, on October 28, five days after publishing the story at the top of its front page, Haaretz ran a small “clarification” — on the bottom of Page 5 of its Hebrew print version — which said (in its entirety), “The wording of the main headline, ‘Most Israelis support an apartheid regime in the country’ (Haaretz, 23.10), did not accurately reflect the findings of the Dialogue poll. The question to which most respondents answered in the negative did not relate to the current situation, but rather to a hypothetical future situation: ‘If Israel annexes the territories of Judea and Samaria, should it grant 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote for the Knesset?'”

This clarification did not appear on the online Hebrew version of the article, whose headline was changed, however, to “A majority of the Jewish population supports apartheid if Israel annexes the territories.”

A similar clarification did appear on the English version of the article online, and the headline of the article’s English version was also changed online, from “Survey: Most Israeli Jews would support apartheid regime in Israel” to “Survey: Most Israeli Jews wouldn’t give Palestinians vote if West Bank was annexed,” dropping the word “apartheid” altogether.

On October 29, Levy published an op-ed titled “We erred, but.” Here, he claimed that his news story on the poll “included no errors,” and “accurately and precisely described the poll’s results.” However, he rescinded a part of his original op-ed, where he had claimed erroneously that “the majority [of Israeli Jews] does not want Arab voters for Knesset, Arab neighbors, or Arab students,” when in fact the poll showed that 59% do want Arabs to vote for the Knesset, 53% do not object to Arab neighbors, and 49% would not object to Arab pupils in their children’s classrooms.

In a video accompanying his October 29 op-ed, Levy added, “My mistake was completely marginal, and changed nothing in the greater picture.”

The poll was commissioned by the Israela Goldblum Fund, a family fund set-up in 2007 by Amiram Goldblum, a chemistry professor at Hebrew University, in memory of his late wife.

Goldblum, who joined Israel’s Peace Now movement a year after its creation in 1978 and served as its spokesman for over 15 years, told The Times of Israel that the poll was prompted by his deep concern over what he dubbed trends of “anti-Arab racism” in Israel.

Hebrew University professor Amiram Goldblum (photo credit: courtesy/Amiram Goldblum)
Hebrew University professor Amiram Goldblum (photo credit: courtesy/Amiram Goldblum)

Goldblum is a member of the New Israel Fund’s international council, watchdog NGO Monitor reported.

Goldblum said he assembled a group of colleagues, including former director general of the Foreign Ministry Alon Liel, former ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch, former chief of education in the IDF Mordechai Bar-On, and human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, to devise the questions.

The men phrased the questions for the poll, Goldblum said, and hired Dialog to carry out the survey. The questions were put to a sample group of 503 Israeli Jews in a telephone survey overseen by Fuchs. This sample size was standard, Fuchs told The Times of Israel, with a sampling error of 4.2%. The poll was conducted in early September.

Fuchs told The Times of Israel that the questions in the poll were legitimate, requiring no amendment by the Dialog team.

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