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Study Surprisingly Finds 47% of Israeli-Jews Believe that the 1948 Palestinian Refugees were Expelled by Israel

A TC doctoral student's new study reveals a more critical view of the 'Zionist narrative' of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

First Study of its Kind Finds the Collective Memory of Israeli-Jews is Critical of Israel's Role in the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian Conflict  

NEW YORK, NY April 6, 2009 – A new public opinion survey finds surprising attitudes on the part of Israeli Jews regarding Israel’s ongoing conflict with Arabs and Palestinians. With regard to the main historical event of the conflict -- the 1948 Palestinian exodus -- 39% of Israeli Jews surveyed believe expulsion by Israel was one of the factors leading to that exodus, in addition to Palestinian fear and the call of Arabs/Palestinian leaders to leave. An additional 8% believe the refugees were primarily expelled, adding up for a total of 47% that believe expulsion took place. In contrast, only 41% accept the Zionist narrative that rejects even partial expulsion and claims Palestinians left due to their own accord.

In addition, 46% believe that Israel and the Arab/Palestinian people have been equally responsible for the outbreak and continuation of the conflict. In contrast, only 43% hold the Zionist narrative primarily blaming the Arab/Palestinian people, and 4% blame the Jews.

“Collective memory” is a group’s viewpoint of history. In general, the study found Israeli Jews’ collective memory to be significantly critical of Israel’s role in the conflict. They have somewhat rejected the “Zionist narrative” of the conflict which holds the Arabs/Palestinians primarily responsible for the conflict.

Preliminary results from the study were released in January and have been reported in the media in five languages in countries around the world. The authors have continued to analyze the data and post new findings (view findings at

Rafi Nets-Zehngut, an Israeli, a Fellow at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Daniel Bar-Tal, a faculty member at the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, conducted the study in summer 2008.  

“Typically, societies involved in intractable conflicts like the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict adopt a collective memory of the conflict that is biased to a large degree and self-serving, as is part of the Zionist narrative,” says Nets-Zehngut. “If such study had been conducted between the 1950s and the 1970s, surely a much higher percentage of Israeli Jews would have held the Zionist narrative. The fact that we found this memory of the conflict to be somewhat critical (even though the conflict is still going on) is encouraging. It suggests that the Israeli-Jewish society has changed to become more critical, open and self-reflective, allowing it to adopt less biased narratives.”

However, Daniel Bar-Tal believes that the Israeli-Jewish society still has a significant way to go in changing its collective memory to become less biased and self serving. Many Israeli Jews still believe a Zionist narrative of many issues in the history of the conflict – a simplistic memory of the conflict which portrays Israel in a positive light and the Arabs/Palestinians in a negative one. “Holding such a Zionist narrative serves as an obstacle to peace since it promotes negative emotions, mistrust, de-legitimization and negative stereotypes of Arabs and Palestinians,” Bar-Tal said. 

For example, regarding a more recent event – the failure of the Summer 2000 peace negotiations between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat – Israeli Jews took a harder line. Fifty six percent believe that Arafat declined a very generous peace offer by Barak because he did not want peace with Israel, versus only 25% who believe both parties were responsible for the failure and 3% who believed that Barak was responsible. Likewise, 60% replied that in the 1947 United Nations' partition plan of the Land of Israel/Palestine the Palestinians received an equal or larger part of the territory, relative to their percentage of its population. However, the facts are that the partition plan, which was rejected by the Palestinians, offered them (about 2/3 of the total population then) a smaller part of the territory (only 44%).

The study found older people, and the more religious ones to be more likely to believe the Zionist narrative. Further more, those supporting the Zionist narrative were significantly less likely to support peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syria – pointing to the important role of collective memory in conflicts. In addition, a strong connection was found between the collective memory of "past Jewish persecution" (regarding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust) and the diagnosed collective memory of the conflict. People holding a significant memory of Jewish persecution are much more likely to adopt a Zionist narrative. This memory of persecution is discussed as one of the determinants of Israel's conduct along the conflict – and this study provides support for its impact.

The study is funded by a grant awarded by the IRPA (International Peace Research Association) Foundation to Nets-Zehngut, who came up with the idea to research this topic. It was conducted among a representative sample of 500 Israeli Jews through Dialog, a well-established Israeli center for public opinion research. The questions in the survey examined the collective memory regarding 25 major issues associated with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, ranging from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 21at centaury. The aim is to publish the findings in a book. This study is related to further research by Nets-Zehngut, which examined the way seven primary Israeli social and state institutions (e.g., the media and the Israeli army) presented the causes of the 1948 Palestinian exodus during the years of 1949-2004. These institutions had major impact on the Israeli-Jewish collective memory discussed above.

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Published Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009


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