Do Israeli Jews really want to expel Arabs? The (huge) holes in the Pew survey

By Nathan Jeffay, March 9, 2016
Jerusalem

Jerusalem

Every opinion pollster hopes that their survey will generate a strong headline, and when Pew released its magnum opus on Israel this week, it certainly got its wish. One in two Israeli Jews want to see Arabs chased out of their country, it seems from the figures.

There is a worrying strain in Israeli society that believes in forcing Arabs to leave, but one in two Jewish citizens — seriously? This is off the chart compared to past surveys on similar topics. What, exactly, were people asked?

At first glance, the question seemed straightforward. People were asked if “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” But this actually left a lot for the respondents to define for themselves.

Did they respond in relation to all Arabs, as one would gather from the way results have been presented? Or were they thinking about specific cases, such as Arabs who sympathise with terror or — as-per the policy that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently having checked by state lawyers — to move the families of terrorists who carry out attacks out of Israel?

Every respondent will have interpreted the question in their own way, which is bad planning by Pew because it needed just one more letter to make this aspect of the question clearer. The definite article is extremely important in Hebrew, and if Pew was interested in what Israeli Jews think about the presence of Arabs, it should have asked about “the Arabs” not “Arabs” — which would have required one extra letter, a hey.

The Israel Prize-winning sociologist Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, who compiles a regular survey on Jewish attitudes towards Israel’s Arab minority and vice-versa, has called the question “misleading and vague”.

But beyond a general fluffiness with the question, there was a deeper problem with the concepts that it probed. The meaning of “expulsion” was clear, but what was meant by “transfer”? The leading Israeli pollster Camil Fuchs, who was not involved in the Pew research, said he understood the word haavara — transfer — to refer to a process by which nobody leaves their homes.

He said that while it would be subject to respondents’ own interpretation, it mostly signals the proposal to redraw borders in order to place some Israeli Arabs under Palestinian jurisdiction. Also known as “land swaps”, this is a mainstream Israeli doctrine, based on the premise that if a peace deal ever happens, Israel will give up parts of Israel to the Palestinians in return for holding on to some settlements. US President Barack Obama has advocated land swaps as a way to make a peace deal realistic.

And so, a question that will have been for some — and we cannot ignore this — expelling all Arabs, for others will have been about expelling or physically transferring some individuals. Meanwhile, there will have been respondents who were just embracing land swaps. Dr Fuchs says that Pew’s sky-high figure resulted from that no-no of polling known as “double barrelling.”

This is where a question touches on two issues but allows just one answer — and often creates a single impression about people who respond positively. “You don’t ask a question about two things together,” said Dr Fuchs, suggesting that “expelled” and “transferred” are politically-speaking the “opposites” of each other but were squeezed together by “double barrelling”.

Dr Fuchs, a frequent pollster for Ha’aretz whose polls often tell hard truths about Israeli society, said: “I don't presume that all or a great many of the people who answered ‘yes’ want to move all the Arabs.”

In other results from the Pew survey, in which the question about transferring Arabs was just one of many, 76 per cent of the Israeli Jews surveyed said they saw a Jewish state as compatible with democracy, but in cases where democratic principles and Jewish law clash, with 62 per cent said the former should take priority over the latter, while 24 per cent thought Hebrew law should take precedence.

There were also strong indications that with Israel’s religious population growing fast, the weighting of opinion on this issue will change. Some 86 per cent of Charedim and 69 per cent of religious-Zionists would like to see Jewish law binding on Jewish citizens as the law of the state.

Last updated: 5:30pm, March 9 2016