Israelis deeply split on courts and rights, but united in gloom, distrust — poll

Annual Israel Democracy Index shows profound rifts between ethnic, political groups on hot-button issues, while hopes for future and faith in institutions are falling society-wide

Protesters gather to rally against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Protesters gather to rally against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Nearly half of Jewish Israelis feel that they should have greater rights than other groups of citizens, an annual survey published Sunday found, while just over half of the country backs the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws that it says undermine democracy,

The yearly Israeli Democracy Index by the Israel Democracy Institute underlined deep — and, in many cases, growing — fissures in Israeli society, finding evidence of dropping levels of trust in public institutions, unhappiness with the current state of affairs, and pessimism about the future.

Receiving the report Sunday, President Isaac Herzog said he was “deeply worried” by some of its assessments, including sagging levels of identification and solidarity with the state and its institutions.

“These are unpleasant figures, coming on top of other sections of the report that reflect the internal tensions within us,” he said. “In other words, our cohesion is being weakened, and we must do everything to rebuild it.”

With Israel’s new right-wing government and its judiciary locking horns over a controversial plan to diminish the court’s ability to act as a check on the legislature, IDI reported steady levels of support for the Supreme Court’s authority to strike down laws passed by the Knesset “if they are found to be contrary to the principles of democracy.”

The survey found that 57 percent of Israelis backed the court wielding such powers, up slightly from 56% a year ago and 53% in 2010, the only other times IDI has included the question in its poll.

Supreme Court justices arrive for a hearing over the legality of Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s appointment as a minister, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The change appeared to be largely the result of rising Arab support: The survey found Jewish backing for the court’s authority to strike down laws has remained stable since 2010 at 51%-53%. Among Arabs, however, it shot up from 61% in 2010 to 74% in 2021 and then 87% in 2022.

The poll also found growing support among those identifying as politically left or center, while those on the right were slightly less likely to want the court to have such powers.

“The data… is clear: there is no majority for initiatives that seek to weaken the Supreme Court and diminish the judiciary,” said IDI President Yohanan Plesner, who has voiced opposition to the judicial overhaul plan being pushed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

Levin’s plan, which has sparked widespread opposition, will seek legislation reducing the courts’ ability to strike down laws, while also giving politicians control over who is picked to sit on the bench.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The legislative package advanced by the justice minister will lead to a judiciary controlled by the executive branch, decimate the separation of powers in our democracy, and prevent the Supreme Court from defending the rights of individual citizens,” Plesner said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the report found that levels of trust in the Supreme Court have continued to drop among nearly every group except left-wing Jews. Among all Jewish Israelis, only 41% responded that they trust the court, along with 40% of Arabs. Both figures are down from an average of 59.5% and 55.9%, respectively, over the years 2003-2022.

Trust was similarly seen as falling for other institutions, with current levels of support significantly below multi-year averages.

Among the Arab community, which has struggled with a year-long crime wave, trust in police fell to 13%, down from some 60% a decade ago.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The poll found that no single state institution was trusted by a majority of Arabs in 2022. Among Jews, only the Israel Defense Forces (85%) and president (58%) continued to enjoy majority support, while political parties (9%) and the Knesset (15%) were the least trusted.

The study — which surveyed 1,092 Jewish Israelis, mostly online, and 219 Arab Israelis by telephone, in May and June (with some elements also collected in October) — showed that 49% of Jewish Israelis agree with the notion that Jews should have more rights in Israel than non-Jews do.

The figure ties with the record 49% who expressed the same sentiment in 2013, and continues a steady rise in the percentage of Jewish Israelis agreeing with the suggestion — after it fell to 27% in 2018. High levels of support were seen among right-wingers and the ultra-Orthodox, while the lowest levels were among the left-wing and secular.

A man shops for disposable plastic tableware in Osher Ad supermarket in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, October 27, 2021, shortly after new taxes on disposables went into effect in Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The percentage of Jewish Israelis who said a Jewish majority should be needed to make “fateful decisions” on foreign and domestic affairs remained mostly steady at 80% and 60%, respectively.

“It is apparent from the 2022 Index that the increased fragmentation of the public’s positions on policy has reached a point where it is no longer clear whether there remains a shared Israeli base on questions of principle, or even on practical questions regarding the country’s day-to-day conduct,” said Tamar Herman, director of the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Over the past two decades, there has also been an erosion of public attitudes regarding basic principles of democracy, especially among Jewish Israelis, regarding civil equality.”

Compared with results from 2019 (28%), fewer Jewish Israelis (18%) last year believed that there is a good balance between the Jewish and democratic elements of the state.

Israelis protest against the Israeli government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to IDI, “38% think that the Jewish element is too strong (down from 47% in 2019) and 25% (up from 18% in 2019) say that the democratic elements are too strong. Almost one-fifth (19%) say they don’t know.”

The poll also found pessimism about the present and future on the rise. The percentage of Jews who thought of their place in society as “good” or “very good” fell to 27%, the lowest level seen since 2008, while for Arabs it dropped to 18%, the lowest figure in nearly two decades.

Across society, the number rating their situation as “bad” or “very bad” rose to 37%, up from 26% in 2019, but IDI appeared to revise that number back down to 30% following an October follow-up survey.

The percentage of Israelis optimistic about the future slumped to 49%, down from 63% a year earlier and the lowest figure recorded in the five times IDI polled the questions since 2012.

Yohanan Plesner, chairman of the Israel Democracy Institute, at a conference in Jerusalem on December 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)/File

The study marked the 20th anniversary of the yearly IDI polls, meant to give policymakers a wide-angle view of Israeli positions and how they shifted since the survey began in 2003.

In the two decades since it launched the Voice Index, IDI has surveyed 23,356 respondents.

The survey released Sunday had a margin of error of ± 2.76%. Among Jews, the margin was ± 3.02% and among Arabs ±6.75%.

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