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Is Israel becoming more liberal? Yes, but ...

Headlines in the press of late have shown a depressing shortage of social harmony and cohesion, from the fierce protests by Ethiopian-Israelis against police violence, claims that the Afula municipal authority tried to prevent Arab-Israelis using its park, and most recently, comments by Education Minister Rafi Peretz that he believes gay conversion therapy is effective.

Indeed, alarms are increasingly sounded in particular about the lack of tolerance, growing religious coercion, and a decrease in attachment to liberal values. But in spite of all the negativity, is it possible that on issues relating to pluralism, tolerance and religious freedom, Israel is actually becoming more liberal?

A look at some of the data would imply that in some respects, Jewish-Israelis are becoming more tolerant on issues such as LGBT rights, continue to value religious freedom, and in general are still supportive of equal rights for minorities. According to polling by the Hiddush organization, a religious pluralism advocacy organization, support for gay marriage has been steadily rising, with 78% of the Jewish public today supporting it.

In addition, support for freedom of religion and conscience is also consistently high. Hiddush’s annual religion and state index showed in 2018 that 84% of the Jewish public agreed that there should be “freedom of religion and conscience in the State of Israel,” about the same percentage over the last decade, according to the organization.

And despite the ongoing control of the Orthodox establishment and political parties over Jewish life in Israel – or perhaps because of it – support for the separation of religion and state is growing, and has been the majority opinion for well over a decade. According to Hiddush’s poll, support for this position stood at 55% in 2010 and is currently supported by 66% of Jewish-Israelis, while support for recognition of progressive Jewish marriage rose from 53% in 2019 to 70% in 2018.

HIDDUSH DIRECTOR Rabbi Uri Regev said what was apparent from these figures is that public support for religious freedom and social issues, such as gay marriage, cuts across political lines. “In Israel you can be right-wing and liberal, you can have conservative, hawkish views on the Palestinians, on economics and other issues, but it does not indicate where you will be on religion and state matters,” he said.

Regev said that progressive opinions were still more prevalent on the political Left, but that a significant majority of the political Right, nevertheless, stills supports such ideas and policies. This is also shown by Hiddush’s poll when it focused on correlating specific issues by party. For example, some 72% of Likud voters said they supported same-sex marriage in 2019’s poll. The large, although not overwhelming, majority of the Jewish-Israeli public also says it continues to believe in equal rights for all citizens.

Polling by the Israel Democracy Institute has shown that opposition to greater rights for Jewish citizens – and giving other groups lesser rights – has persisted and grown, somewhat erratically, over the last decade. In 2009, 62% of Jewish-Israelis disagreed with the statement that Jewish citizens should have more rights than Arab citizens, a figure which rose to 72% in 2018. There are, however, groups among Israel’s Jewish population which show significantly lower support for liberal opinions and positions: the ultra-Orthodox and parts of the religious Zionist communities.

IDI’s polling found that only 44% of the ultra-Orthodox disagreed with the statement that Jewish citizens should have greater rights, along with 56% of the religious Zionist community. “In an analysis by religiosity, it emerged that only haredim [ultra-Orthodox] support granting greater rights to Jewish citizens,” the IDI’s annual 2018 index found, but that in all other subgroups, a majority disagreed. “However, it is clear that the higher the level of religiosity, the greater the share of those who agree with the notion of granting greater rights to Jews,” the report stated.

Regev was of a similar opinion. He noted that although there is greater support for religious freedoms, this does not translate into increasing liberal democratic views in all realms. “We are moving closer to a real land mine,” he said. “Yes, people have become more supportive of religious freedom, more resentful of religious coercion, and more appreciative of religious pluralism. But we shouldn’t think this is an indicator of liberal opinions in general.”

Jeremy Sharon