Friday, 24 February 2023 11:02

How Israeli youth helped usher in the farthest right-wing government ever

Israelis have routinely come out to protest proposals by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government over the last two months. But one surprising demographic identifies with the country’s farthest-right government ever: young voters.

Over the past month, tens of thousands of Israelis have come out to protest their new government’s proposed judicial reforms, which could weaken the country’s democracy and separation of powers. The crowds are diverse in age, but unlike popular liberal or democratic protests in many countries, attendees say the audience skews older.

Recent polling backs that surprising observation: A joint poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute last month found that 73 percent of Jewish Israelis between ages 18 and 24 identify as right-wing, compared with only 46 percent of Jewish Israelis over 65. Young Jewish Israelis are showing up to rallies and polling stations for the extremist politicians whose November electoral victory ushered in Israel’s farthest right-wing government ever.

Odeliya Matter, a 29-year-old educator from Beersheba and left-wing activist, says that among her high school-aged students, “the political differences I notice in my students versus in my generation just 10 years ago is stark.”

Pollsters, activists, and politicians struggle to pin down exactly why Israeli youth are so out of step with often left-leaning young people in developed countries around the world. But experts say changing demographics, concerns about peace and security, the success of right-wing parties and politicians in pushing an ethnonationalist narrative through the media, and historical events and policy choices that have further isolated Palestinians all play a part.

“This generation grew up in what most would consider the safest times [for Israelis], they grew up in the post-Intifada years, and yet they grew up the most isolated from their Palestinian neighbors,” said Alon Yakter, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University who studies voting patterns. “There’s so many ways that can impact a young person’s perspective on politics.”

Right-wing support among Israeli youth is higher than their parents

Israeli youth, and in particular those under 24, increasingly support the political right, far more than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.

While experts said it’s hard to compare recent polls to older, less reliable polling before the 2010s, the country has moved incrementally rightward throughout the last decade.

While all Israelis’ faith in the state to ensure security has plummeted dramatically in a short time, the right’s has dropped more than any other political group’s. Only 30 percent of right-wing Israelis said in the most recent poll in 2022 that they feel the state can ensure their security, compared to 84 percent in 2020. The most obvious event that could have contributed to this shift is the May 2021 outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas. That fighting began with a series of controversial Israeli actions in Jerusalem against Palestinians that prompted Hamas to fire a barrage of rockets at major cities in Israel. Israel responded with devastating airstrikes in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

In Israel, the left-right dichotomy is heavily influenced by issues of peace and security, with the left historically more likely to support making concessions with Palestinian negotiators toward a two-state solution, and the right more likely to support one Israel-dominated state, including in the occupied territories (albeit with some caveats on each side).

Among other actions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly elected government has withheld funding from the Palestinian Authority, claiming it will transfer the money to families of Israeli victims of Palestinian militant attacks, and vowed to expand into the West Bank, including by acknowledging existing illegal settlements.

The Israeli youth who helped elect that government are indeed less in favor of a two-state solution than older generations. According to a joint poll published by Israeli and Palestinian academics in January 2023, just 20 percent of Israeli Jewish youth 18 to 34 support a two-state solution, an 8 percentage point drop in two years, while 68 percent oppose it. This stands in contrast to the 47 percent of Israeli Jewish respondents over 55 who support the two-state solution, perhaps as a result of being more secular and old enough to remember times when peace processes were higher on the political agenda.

Israeli youth’s political leanings, briefly explained

A commonly cited explanation for the shift of young people to the right — changes in Israel’s demographics, most notably an increase in people who identify as orthodox or ultra-orthodox — helps explain what’s going on, but not fully.

Currently, the fertility rate for ultra-orthodox women in Israel is 6.6, meaning each ultra-orthodox woman on average would bear an average of 6.6 children in her lifetime, and for orthodox groups it’s 3.9, far outpacing fertility rates for secular women at 2.0, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. Religious families are more likely to vote for right-wing politicians. That holds for young people too, says Dahlia Scheindlin, an academic who co-authored the study on support for two-state solutions. She said religiosity is the dominant predictive factor in how a young person will vote in Israel.

But Yakter says that demographic explanations should not be solely relied upon to explain young people’s political leanings. “Commentators often point out that one-quarter of preschoolers are ultra-orthodox, but it’s not as though they’re voters yet,” he said.

Rather, the right’s success in playing off concerns about security has helped draw in young voters. Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, identifies himself as center-right and says a sense of insecurity has bolstered support for right-wing politicians. “Today, it seems like the right has a stronger voice and a more clear picture” to address that worry, he said. “And that’s basically why we’ve seen the rise of Itamar Ben-Gvir, who realized that that was the No. 1 burning issue for Israelis and that’s why he became so popular in the polls.”

Ben-Gvir, the leader of Israel’s Jewish Power party and new minister of national security, has a long track record of racist and specifically anti-Arab statements, and has encouraged Israelis to arm themselves. At one pre-election rally in East Jerusalem, he drew a gun and called for police to shoot Palestinian counterprotesters. Matter, who works as an Israeli educator for the Forum for Regional Thinking, a group of Palestinian and Israeli scholars who teach critical thinking classes to high school students, said she is troubled by the degree of racism and anti-Arab bias influencing young people.

She says that as an 18-year-old, 10 years ago, she “had never had any access to Palestinian perspectives whatsoever.” Now, she says, the narratives her students come into her classroom with are even more right-wing. Both Scheindlin and Yakter cited the rise of right-wing newspapers, including Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, the most widely read daily newspaper in Israel, as one major example.

Yakter also said several key events and policy choices over the last two decades have helped shape the views of a generation of young Israelis. After the 2000-2005 period of violence known as the Second Intifada, the 2006 Palestinian election of Hamas (a militant political group that doesn’t recognize Israel), the ensuing Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2007, and Israel’s construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, chances for interaction between Palestinians and Israelis have been far more limited than in previous generations. Stringent restrictions on movement for Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel’s illegal annexation of territory have also contributed to the divide. Human rights groups have described the current situation as an apartheid state perpetrated by Israel.

Matter says that is only part of the equation. “I’m 29, I’m of the generation that grew up with the wall, and I didn’t have access to West Bank Palestinians or Gazans, but I don’t think that’s an excuse as to why we’ve become radicalized as a generation, as a people. I think it has to do with the basic core values of this country, with the education system, and a media system that has been highly influenced with right-wing rhetoric, a rhetoric that normalizes things like settlement expansion.”

“Our bias toward Arabs is legitimized through these means,” she said.

Likewise, younger generations have not been witness to the same frequency of peace talks as their parents, and the idea of acknowledging territory claimed by Palestinians is often unimaginable. Matter says her students’ ideas of peace generally fall into three categories, “whether it’s ‘Jewish people deserve to live here more than Arabs,’ or ‘we should do Arabs a favor and put them through a process of modernization,’ or completely ignoring that any Arabs live here.” She says at least one-quarter of her students voted for Ben-Gvir.

Yakter said that to be seen — as the Israeli left often is — as politically willing to make concessions to the Palestinians is often cast as traitorous by the right wing.

“We grow up thinking the extreme is the normal,” Matter said.

Claire Porter Robbins is a Canadian writer and former aid worker with experience in the Middle East and the Balkans. She’s previously edited for the Globe and Mail.