The Mideast? 'God help us'
War and Peace Index study reveals Israelis have overwhelmingly negative connotations with Middle East. Majority prefer integration with West over regional neighbors, but also say they identify with Jewish culture more than Western
The world of images that the concept, “Middle East” arouses in the Israeli Jewish population is mainly negative and includes adverse opinions, perceptions and emotions.
This conclusion emerged from an analysis of the answers to an open question we posed to a statistical sampling of the public as part of the August Peace Index Survey:
The War and Peace Index in conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research. Published monthly since 1994, is run by Prof. Ephraim Yaar and Prof. Tamar Hermann; and is compiled of a monthly telephone survey of 600 Israeli citizens representing the various sectors in Israeli society.
The question asked was, “When you think about the Middle East, what is the first word that comes to mind?”
Of all the words the interviewees quickly conjured, 61% had negative connotations, 20% neutral, and 19% were of a positive nature.
As expected, the negatively weighted words were mainly related to war, terrorism and Islam. These were accompanied by expressions of a general, colorful nature such as: “a nutcase region,” “a shitty place,” “a morass,” “I can’t take any more of it,” “God help us,” and “What the hell are we doing here?”
On a positive note, the most common choice of words expressed an aspiration for peace. The neutral words chosen were mainly those related to countries (Egypt, Jordan, Iran), relevant continents (Africa, Asia) and to the climate (heat, drought).
Given the abundant negativity, it comes as no surprise that a majority of the Jewish public fails to believe that Israel will succeed in integrating with the Middle East politically (71%), economically (52%), or culturally (59%) in the years to come.
Moreover, it is not interested in doing so, clearly preferring integration with the West (Europe, the United States) in all three spheres. In the political sphere, 63% are interested in integrating with the West as opposed to 28% who are interested in integrating with the Middle East.
In the economic sphere, 74% are for the West in contrast with 18% for the Middle East; and in the cultural sphere, 69% are pro-West in relation to the 15% of regional supporters.
A comparison to data collected on these questions not much more than a decade ago (February 1995), that is, in the early stages of the Oslo process, showed that the tendency to prefer integration with the West over integration with the East has strengthened. This is most likely a byproduct of the process’s failure.
The answers to the questions were analyzed according to the socio-demographic characteristics of the Jewish population (ethnicity, age, education, level of religiosity and political stance on support of or opposition to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority).
The assessment revealed that for all three spheres; political, economic and cultural, the pattern of preferring integration with the West over that with the Middle East was dominant.
The gaps between the different groups, including those between Ashkenazi and Sephardi participants, only involved the intensity of the preference.
Only one group, those with a low-level education (partial high school and lower), preferred integration with the Middle East over that with the Western world.
It is also worth emphasizing that the tendency to prefer the West is especially noticeable amongst young people up to the age of 29, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, third-generation Israelis, and seculars.
Nevertheless, the desire to integrate with the West does not entail the loss of one’s unique identity.
In response to a question concerning which of the three cultures; Western, Jewish, or Arab one feels closest to, over two-thirds, 64% said they felt closest to Jewish culture.
Thirty-one percent said they felt closest to Western culture. Only a tiny minority of 2% felt closest to Arab culture.
The Jewish public also displayed great uniformity in its tendency to prefer Jewish culture over Western or Arab culture, save two exceptions.
One was seen in the ethnic cross-section and the second was revealed amongst immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who answered divisively with 47% in favor of Jewish culture and 48% preferring that of the West.
A separation in accordance to degree of religiosity found that seculars tend, by a small margin, to prefer the Western culture (51%) over the Jewish culture (45.5%).
There is, however, a clear preference for the Jewish culture amongst the ultra-Orthodox and the religious (over 90%) and the two traditional groups: The traditional-religious (79%) and the traditional-secular (73%).
Despite, and perhaps because of the negative portrayal of the Middle East in the eyes of Israel’s Jewish public, there is a great interest in the Arab world.
About two-thirds said they are very or moderately interested in media coverage on the subject, while only about one-third said they are almost or totally uninterested.
Seemingly the interest, then, is mainly instrumental in terms of “Know the enemy.” As for the scope of media reporting, the most frequent opinion (38%) is that the quantity of media reports on the Middle Eastern region is appropriate. The rest of those asked were divided almost equally between those who see it as too much (25%) or too little (27%).
The findings on the Israeli Arabs’ positions on these questions are particularly thought-provoking. Their world of images regarding the Middle East is more balanced.
Thirty-four percent used neutral wording and images, 32% were negative and 34% relayed positivism.
Here too, though, the majority prefers integration with the West (Europe-United States) and not with the Middle East.
In the political sphere, 49.5% prefer integration with the West as opposed to 39% with the Middle East.
In business and economy, 63% are pro-West versus 39% in favor of the Middle East.
A particularly surprising finding is the preference for the West over the East regarding cultural integration; 49.5% as opposed to 23% (the rest, about one-fourth, have no clear opinion on the issue).
Yet, when asked about their closeness to one of three mentioned cultures, an overwhelming majority of 88% said they felt especially close to the Arab culture, 7% to the Jewish culture, and 4% to the Western culture (the rest did not know).