Poll shows Israelis have conflicted views on immigrants

By Nathan Jeffay, January 28, 2010
Immigrants call for renewed Ethiopian aliyah, suspended in 2008. Last week, 81 Ethiopian olim arrived in Israel

Immigrants call for renewed Ethiopian aliyah, suspended in 2008. Last week, 81 Ethiopian olim arrived in Israel

A new poll shows that Israelis hold deeply conflicted views on immigration, considering new immigrants vital for the state, but also worrying they make Israel crime-ridden and boozy.

Some 73 per cent of Israeli Jews deem immigration important for Israel, the Geocartography Knowledge Group, a research company, found in a survey commissioned by the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

“They think that it’s very important for Israel to see continued aliyah — everyone knows about the demographic problem,” said the poll director, Rita Posner, referring to predictions that Jews will eventually become a minority west of the Jordan due to a higher Arab birth rate.

But while immigrants are favoured for ensuring the state’s Jewish character, they are seen as putting other attributes in jeopardy.

Some 62 per cent of the same sample said that immigrants are having a negative effect on alcoholism among the young and 52 per cent said that they are having a similar impact on crime.

Questioning whether immigration is good 'is taboo'

Respondents also voiced concerns that finding jobs and housing was becoming more difficult, with 30 per cent saying migrants make job hunting harder and 35 per cent saying they make it tougher to find accommodation.

The results show that Israelis are not xenophobic but are “prejudiced”, said the Immigration Ministry’s chief researcher Zeev Khanin. He reasoned that people are prepared to accept foreign immigrants, but hold stereotyped ideas about their effect on society.

Tel Aviv University sociologist Noah Lewin-Epstein, an expert on how the Israeli mainstream views immigrants, said that the contradiction highlighted in the poll stems from a conflict at the heart of Israeli identity.

There is a certain taboo, he said, in questioning the desirability of immigration. This is especially true when the standard Hebrew terms “aliyah” and “olim”, words imbued with Zionist ideals, are used to refer to immigration and immigrants respectively, as they were in the poll.

“The terms have very strong meaning and these ideas are widely seen as the rationale for Israel’s existence so not a high proportion of people would say ‘we don’t want this’. But when you take apart what this actually means for society, there is less readiness,” he said.

In short, said Dr Lewin-Epstein, the poll underscores the tension between the “abstract concepts” and long-term demographic considerations on one hand, and the day-to-day concerns of modern life on the other.
And there was evidence that the taboo against questioning the desirability of immigration is starting to weaken. While overall 73 per cent of respondents thought that immigration is important for Israel, this was true for just 61 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds.
“I think that we are undergoing a broad change among the Israeli population. In terms of attitudes to aliyah they are shifting,” said Dr Lewin-Epstein.
Western immigrants turn out, in the poll, to be more marginal in society than many presume. Some 42 per cent of respondents never come in to contact with a Western immigrant. But they admire them from a distance.
While, predictably, people were most enthusiastic about their children marrying native-born Israelis, Americans and French came in next most popular. Some 68 per cent of respondents were happy at the prospect of their child marrying an American, and 59 per cent liked the idea of them marrying a French native (they were not asked about British immigrants). Only nine per cent were opposed to American children-in-law and 15 per cent opposed to French children-in-law. By contrast, 37 per cent of respondents were against their children marrying Ethiopians.
Police said on Monday that Russian and Ethiopian immigrants were responsible for 15 per cent of criminal cases in 2009, similar to their share of the population.

Last updated: 4:40pm, January 28 2010