September 28, 2011
Longing for Normality in an insecure region
Youth study reveals
challenges ahead for Israeli society
The following article describes the results of an academic study jointly conducted by the German Freidich Ebert foundation and the University of Tel Aviv on Israeli youth and how they perceive the present time and the political situation in the Middle East (prior to the revolutions seen in recent months in the Arab world), as well as their perspectives on issues like the past, the Holocaust, and present-day attitudes towards Germany.
by Toby Axelrod
What are Israeli youth thinking about today? How do they see the future, what is their relationship to the past?
A new study suggests that today’s youth in Israel – both Jewish and Arab – have a very different modus for dealing with the uncertainty and insecurity of life in the region than did previous generations.
“Longing for Normality in an insecure region: conflicting identities of young Israelis,” the study is based on a survey conducted in the summer of 2010 in Israel by the Freidrich-Ebert-Foundation of Germany in cooperation with Tel Aviv University. It was released earlier this year.
The study found that fewer young Israelis see their role as finding solutions for the regional conflict; rather, they express frustration over the political status quo and their apparent inability to affect change. They prefer, in general, to focus on building their own lives and seeking happiness through family.
In short, political insecurity has been accepted as the norm.
This is the third study in a series; the first was conducted in 1998, marking Israel’s 50th anniversary of independence, and the second was conducted during the so-called second Intifada. The overall aim of the series is to strengthen democracy and encourage active participation by citizens in shaping their society.
For most recent study, 1,600 young people aged 15-18 and 21-24 from all sections of the heterogeneous Israeli population, including Arabs and Jews, were asked 50 questions on eight themes. These themes included general attitudes to life, Israel and Jewishness, democracy and state institutions, the Middle East conflict as well as attitudes towards Germany and the Holocaust. Youths serving in the army are not permitted to be interviewed, thus the age gap between the two groups of subjects.
Their answers revealed patterns and changes in attitudes that observers have found challenging and to some extent troubling.
Among the findings:
- Young Jews and Arabs in Israel are less hopeful that there will be a solution to the Mideast conflict in their lifetime.
- They are more optimistic today about their personal future, in terms of family and profession, than in 2004, but still have not reached the level of optimism found in the 1998 study.
- While most young people long for a solution to the Mideast crisis, they are unwilling to make compromises to achieve peace. Young Jews tend to believe that Arabs would prefer to destroy the Jewish state than to make peace.
- Among young Jews there is a clear tendency to lean toward the political right wing. They also tend to question the efficacy of democracy in solving the conflict, and they long for a strong leader.
They are bitterly disappointed in the failure of past negotiations.
- About half of Jewish youth wish there were no Arab representatives in the Knesset
- Arab youth tend to value education as a springboard to greater achievement in society. But they also feel a sense of alienation and frustration at obstacles to integration in Israeli society.
- At the same time, Arab youth have more faith in the Israeli government than do Jewish youth.
- With regard to the past, the percentage of Israeli youth interested in the Holocaust rose from 68% in 1998 to 81% in 2010. Analysts determined that the Holocaust has become a “unifying force in Israeli society.” [p.7]
According to report co-publisher Dr. Roby Nathanson of the Macro Center for Political Economics, Tel Aviv, the study is significant as a predictor of political developments, since the Israeli population is relatively young: 43.6 percent of Israelis are under age 48.
“The future of the country and the region will be influenced by them,” Nathanson said at a recent colloquium in Berlin hosted by Christiane Kesper, head of the international development department of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which has had representatives in Israel since 1978. The foundation, akin to a think-tank, is associated with the Social Democratic Party in Germany.
In-depth interviews with 80 individuals were introduced to the new study as a compliment to the statistical findings (the results may be viewed at http://www.fes.org.il/ or at http://www.macro.org.il/).
Per age group, 800 youths were interviewed. Of those, 600 were Jewish and 200 Arab. The breakdown represented limited population data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The study designers added differentiations by region and by religious affiliation. They also compared the answers of new immigrants to those of the rest of the population.
In addition to a scholarly analysis, the report includes reactions from a handful of well-known Israelis in the fields of arts, politics and society.
Finally, American journalist Bernard Avishai (currently teaching management at Hebrew University in Jerusalem) and study co-author Matthias Albert (teaching political science at the University of Bielefeld, Germany) place the study in an international context.
The survey took place against the backdrop of failing peace talks and a global economic crisis. Thus the team of scholars found themselves wondering where and who today’s role models are for young Israelis and where sources of stability and security might be found.
The in-depth, follow-up interviews confirmed that Arab and Jewish youth are little different from youth anywhere, in terms of their preoccupations: flirting with the opposite sex, spending hours daily on the Internet (particularly social networking sites) and doing very little reading for pleasure. Their interest in politics was low – many said that they had learned from adults that politics and politicians are corrupt. Nearly all shared the dream of starting a family.
In fact, only ten percent considered economic success more important than having a happy family life.
All interviewees seemed to reluctantly accept the status quo in terms of Israeli politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the study, the optimism of the “Oslo years” has dissipated, reflecting the cyclical traumatic events of the past decade. A major influence on this loss of optimism is the fact that Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza have not appeared to make any difference in terms of security for Israel and progress in making peace.
Overall, older respondents showed much less trust in governmental institutions than their younger counterparts.
Analysts were disturbed by an apparent decline in support for democracy among both Arab and Jewish respondents since 1998. And, in what report co-authors Ephraim Ya'ar and Yasmin Alkalai of Tel Aviv University refer to as the “Intifada effect,” preference for a “strong leader” among Jewish respondents remained high, though somewhat down from the period of the second Intifada.
The survey posed numerous questions related to attitudes towards Germany and German-Israeli relations. In short, it found that fewer Israelis today believe that Germany could return to its Nazi past and that increasing numbers of Israelis see Germany as an important ally of Israel (despite having all the problems that any European state has in terms of xenophobia). The more religious the respondents, the more likely they were to distrust Germany.
At the recent symposium in Berlin, Ya’ar said the growing interest in the Holocaust among Jewish youth was due in part to the influence of youth delegations visiting such sites as the memorial at Auschwitz in Poland. “It shows that this education works,” he commented.
Correspondingly, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation stressed in the report that it would maintain its commitment to Holocaust-educational activities and programs.
“The Holocaust for us is the past, it is a lesson,” noted Emmanuel Nahshon, charge d’affairs of the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, speaking at the symposium. “But it is also an essential part of our identity, and for the Germans as well.”
Ultimately, most young Israelis have developed a world-view that incorporates the complexities and contradictions of their environment without seeing an urgent need to resolve them – a situation that the analysts viewed with a mix of concern and admiration.
Young Israelis “are more robust than we [adults] are in situations of ambiguity,” the report noted. They “choose risk and uncertainty as a way of life.” [p. 30]
“The vitality of Israel is in the hands of the younger generation,” said Reinhold Robbe, president of the German-Israel Society, speaking in Berlin. Israel’s vitality “and depends on their desire for a common future within a diverse society.”
Representing young Jewish Israelis at the recent symposium, JDC volunteer Sabina Alkanajev said that “the more we know” about current events and the past, “the stronger our democratic values will be.”