Israelis happy with democracy, but support for democratic rights is low – poll

Pew mega-survey of 34 nations finds backing for freedom of speech, media and internet is significantly lower in Jewish state than in other countries, and lower than in the past

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at the parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)
Illustrative: Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at the parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)

Israelis are satisfied with the way democracy is functioning, but support in the Jewish state is significantly lower than in most countries for freedom of expression, including an uncensored press, internet freedom and freedom for human rights groups to operate freely, according to a Pew Research Center report published Thursday.

Unlike in most nations polled, support for freedom of speech in Israel declined between 2015 and 2019. Only 51 percent say it is very important that people can say what they want without government censorship, compared with 58% of Israelis who said so four years earlier.

Support in Israel also dropped for internet freedom — from 51% who said it is very important in 2015 to 40%.

The level of support in Israel for freedom for human rights groups to operate freely, 37%, was the lowest among all the 34 countries surveyed. Many in Israel, including government officials and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accuse rights groups of unfairly and disproportionately targeting the country for political reasons.

The survey was conducted among 38,426 people in 34 countries from May 13 to October 2, 2019, during a time Israel was experiencing the most severe political crisis in its history, with unprecedented second consecutive elections called and held after the first vote failed to produce a government. The country is still deep in that crisis, with Israelis going to the polls yet again on Monday.

Despite that, Israelis are happier with the state of their democracy than most nations polled, although they tend less to believe the country is run for the benefit of all its people.

The plenum hall of the Knesset during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Discontent with the way democracy is working is common in many nations around the world, but not in the Jewish state, where 55% are satisfied with it and 43% are not. Across all 34 countries surveyed, a median of 52% is dissatisfied with the way their democracy is functioning, compared with 44% who are satisfied.

One way in which people are unhappy with the way democracy works is that they see political elites as out of touch. The view that elected officials don’t care what average citizens think is particularly widespread in Europe – a median of 69% across the 14 European Union countries polled express this view, compared with a median of 63 across all polled countries. And 71% share this view in the US.

Israelis are slightly more optimistic about their elected officials, although a majority, 59%, still say they don’t care about what citizens think.

When asked whether they agree with the statement “the state is run for the benefit of all the people,” global citizenries are divided: a median of 49% across 34 countries agree, while 50% disagree.

In Israel, only 42% say the state is run for the benefit of all, with 56% disagreeing.

Responses to this question vary considerably across Europe. For instance, 88% in Slovakia believe the state is run for the benefit of all, but just 19% hold this view in Greece.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)

The American public is also closely divided on this issue, with 46% believing the state is run for the benefit of all, while 52% disagree with this view. Disagreement is much more common among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (59%) than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (41%). Elsewhere, in most countries supporters of governing parties are more likely to believe the state is run for the benefit of all.

Seventy-one percent of Israelis believe voting gives them a say — slightly above the global median of 67% — while 27% in the Jewish state disagree.

Respondents were asked in the survey about nine democratic rights and institutions, which received widely different levels of support from global citizenries.

The idea of a fair judiciary is widely considered the most vital – a median of 82% across all polled countries said it was very important, and, of the nine items tested, it has the highest percentage of people describing it as very important in 19 countries (it has the second-highest percentage in 10 countries).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as US President Donald Trump speaks during a joint statement in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

A fair judiciary was also listed as the most vital principle in Israel, where there has been much focus on the justice system in recent years, especially in light of the criminal cases against Netanyahu. Eighty-six percent of Israelis say it is very important to have a judicial system that treats everyone the same way.

A fair judiciary is the most important principle for Israelis, followed by freedom of religion with 77% — significantly higher than the median for all polled countries, which is 68% — and holding regular elections with at least two political parties with 70%, a significant increase from 56% who thought so in 2015. Those are also the only three rights supported in Israel more than in most countries polled.

In the other six, support in Israel is lower than the total median. Sixty-four percent think gender equality is very important — 72% of women and just 56% of men, one of the highest gaps among polled countries — compared with a global median of 74%, 51% think so about freedom of speech (compared with 64%) and 50% say so about having freely operating opposition parties (compared with 54%).

Support for the remaining three rights was much lower in Israel than in most other countries. Only 46% think freedom of press is vital (compared with a 64% global median), 40% say so about internet freedom (compared with 59%), and just 37% think it is very important to have a system where civil society organizations such as human rights groups can operate freely — the lowest figure among all nations polled (the global median is 55%).

The largest shares of the public describing all nine rights and institutions tested on the survey as very important are in the United States and Hungary. Still, only a third in these countries (33%) consider all nine very important. In eight nations, the share of the public expressing this view is in the single digits.

In the US, the percentage of people who said that freedom of the press is very important rose by 13 percentage points from 2015 to 2019. However, this increase occurred mostly among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, rising from 64% to 85%. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, it remained largely unchanged (72% to 77%).

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