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A Family Affair

Throughout Israel’s history, the question 'what do Israelis think' has evolved a great deal, not least because the question 'who are the Israelis' has changed dramatically over time.

Imagine a family tree. It is shaped like a pyramid, with branches of children, siblings, and cousins. Some members are tight, others have grown apart. Like all families, there are black sheep, and there are fights.

Like a royal family, the institution of public opinion research in Israel is prone to emotional intrigue. The stakes are high, and public fascination never wavers.

Israel has been gazing at itself in the methodological mirror for as long as the country has existed, and even slightly before. If Israel is a political experiment in itself, it is also the testing ground for the study of public opinion. Pioneers of the field—not those pioneers, and not those fields—came to Israel to learn how to look at people. And like all families, the tree has yielded both good and bad fruit.

Data from the country’s earliest years can be as thrilling as seeing a portrait of mom at 18. You mean that 85 percent of the public thought that there were too many political parties, and that similar parties should unite into only two to four big ones—in 1948?

Flipping the lens to put public opinion researchers and their science under the glass reveals as much about the country as the data itself, and perhaps more: it sometimes reveals what the researchers never set out to find.

In the Beginning

At the top of this family tree is a dapper social scientist named Louis Guttman. His story is revered in a circle of polling friends that has expanded over generations. In 1947, Guttman was already a rising-star sociologist at Cornell University, married to rising-star Ruth, on her way to becoming a behavioral geneticist. That was the year they boarded a boat for Palestine to plant the seeds of opinion research in Israel.

Such is Guttman’s status that one of his oldest living academic collaborators, the now-nonagenarian Elihu Katz, in his introduction to an edited volume about public opinion almost biblical in length – likens his venerable personal qualities to those of Abraham the patriarch.

Before Guttman’s appointment at Cornell, he had never left his hometown of Minneapolis, according to a delightful Harvard dissertation, ‘The American Soldier in Jerusalem: How Social Science and Social Scientists Travel,’ by Tal Arbel. Her thesis could be read as an excuse to retell the legend, a sort of polling-Passover story, if it wasn’t such a substantive work in the history of science. Yet Guttman’s work at the forefront of the evolving field of survey research—he completed his PhD in 1942—led him to a consulting gig for the American government during World War II. His task at the War Department was to find out what made the soldiers happy—or, more urgently, what demoralized them. The multi-volume series The American Soldier (Guttman contributed to Volume 4) is a seminal work in applied social research.

There was no Israel yet, but the forces were aligned for the final political push. And for war. Guttman had been a passionate Zionist at home, and looked for frameworks to spend time in Palestine. He arrived in Palestine in 1947 with an American grant, to deepen his expertise in studies of military attitudes. After some adjustment, his subject would be the Haganah, the paramilitary group that would later form the Israel Defense Forces.

The whole field was new. The American Institute of Public Opinion, founded by George Gallup, had only been established 12 years earlier. The key concept of Guttman’s work was “applied” research; from the start, his surveys were conducted to help make decisions.

The first studies tested the effectiveness of the Haganah’s underground radio communication network. Over the next two years, Guttman’s applied research unit measured which units suffered from “low morale,” the “psycho-technical” suitability for various units, and soldiers’ plans following the war. The results were published in booklets with hand-drawn graphs. The booklets also displayed quaint sketches of soldiers—in trucks, at reveille, or flat on the sand, eyes thrust into gunsights. These are reproduced, retaining some of their charm, in Gabriel Weimann’s 2015 compendium, The Pioneering Story of the Study of Public Opinion in Israel, where Katz made his comparison of Guttman to Abraham.

Like Israel, public opinion research was born in war—and factional fighting. Guttman established a volunteer unit within the Haganah to conduct the research. As the siege of 1948 squeezed the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, researchers sent questionnaires to the owners of shops in the city to determine whether they had sufficient stocks of food. A messenger from Guttman’s team was dispatched to distribute the questionnaires, and to collect them once completed. But he turned out to be a Lehi man, loyal to the pre-state paramilitary organization competing with the Haganah. The messenger promptly delivered the completed questionnaires to Lehi, never to resurface, according to Weimann. Perhaps the messenger felt he had scored a factional victory.

In January 1949, Guttman conducted a survey of 600 soldiers to test their interest in an army career after the war. Eighty-eight percent said they had none. The findings were so disappointing that the top IDF brass, who had begun envisioning a permanent volunteer army, ordered a second study half a year later, this time with 2000 soldiers. The results were no better. In Weimann’s account, the findings were integral to the decision to adopt a universal military draft and to build a large reserve army—one of the most defining, enduring, and fraught institutions in Israeli life.

In April 1949, Guttman informed the dean of Cornell in a letter that the Israeli government was considering setting up a “permanent Institute of Public Opinion Research (or something with a similar title).” He went on, breathlessly: “I have been asked to stay on another year for the specific job of helping to set up the research organization… This is something I would very much like to do.” Israel became his home.

The Institute for Applied Social Research was re-born as a civilian body under the auspices of the defense ministry that September. It moved from Jaffa to Jerusalem; after a few years of ambiguous status within the thickening bureaucracy of the new state, the Institute became an independent non-profit group. The government remained its biggest client. Immigrants were pouring in; early surveys were conducted in 12 different languages, in transit camps as well as urban centers, and the government commissioned studies on practically every aspect of social life and policy.

In various forms, the Institute became the family home where the next generation of polling pioneers took their first steps.

Of all the many populations whose minds and hearts were being quantified, the ones left out were the people already there: Palestinian Arabs. Their absence is no mystery. Israeli public opinion research was born within Zionist institutions from the start; their leaders appear to have instinctively grasped the value of the nascent scientific tool for nation-building, and Arabs were not part of the project. Instead, areas with large Arab populations were placed under military rule from after the war, which would have created significant technical burdens and tainted any opinions offered.

To Guttman’s credit (or perhaps an indicator of his foresight), his first application for grant funding to travel to Palestine in 1947 was, Arbel notes, to study Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine. But at least as striking was a 1949 study among the general (Jewish) public asking whether Arab refugees ought to be allowed back to their homes. It would not have been a theoretical question then, since many of those homes still existed.

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) rejected return; 27 percent thought it should be permitted. Among Israeli respondents from Germany, 45 percent would permit return. Among Yemenite Jews, 100 percent rejected it. Dana Blander, currently a researcher at the Israeli Democracy Institute, is quoted in Weimann’s book observing that testing such a sensitive policy issue through a government-funded institute in itself indicated democratic tendencies. The irony is as obvious as it is tragic: Jewish opinion was sought democratically, to determine the fate of people who had been robbed of both voice and home. For Palestinian refugees, the survey represented anything but democracy.

Growing Up

Over the next two decades, the Institute would examine what seems like every aspect of Israeli life, documented exhaustively in Weimann’s collection. The Institute was surely ahead of most countries in testing public attitudes towards the ceasefire ending the War of Independence. Guttman’s survey regarding the “Rhodes Agreement with Egypt”—the 1949 Armistice—found that 81 percent saw it as an achievement, though young people were less enthusiastic. The Institute tested preferences for government intervention on economic affairs, cost of living, the problems of immigrants, women in the military, and—naturally—attitudes towards politics. Given how many people longed for fewer parties, and the number of parties running in 2021, it’s not clear if the leaders listened. But the government paid, sponsoring large, laborious samples with labor-intensive data collection.

Survey research was integral to the introduction of public broadcast television in Israel, something that David Ben-Gurion had resisted for some time. An anecdote from Weimann’s book illustrates the close interrelations between politics, media, and survey research.

The minister of hasbara (information, or propaganda, depending on one’s sensitivities) in 1967, Israel Galili, tapped communications scholar Elihu Katz (Like Guttman, an American immigrant) to establish Israeli television. Katz conditioned his agreement on bringing Uzi Peled, then the director of the Guttman Institute, along with him. But Peled recalls that Galili actually embraced the idea shortly after the Six Day War, when the three of them (Peled, Katz, and Guttman) presented survey results of Jewish Israeli attitudes towards the war. The study found that 50 percent and 90 percent of the Jewish population did not wish to return the Sinai Peninsula or Jerusalem, respectively, and that most had firm opinions about the other captured territories too; but on probing, it turned out that only 11 percent (of the Jewish-only sample) were able to locate all the conquered territories on a map. The ministers were indignant about the public’s ignorance of the country’s new geography. Katz, “in his pleasant Anglo-Saxon accent,” wrote Peled, joked that if they had television with maps of weather reports, the public might learn to locate the new territories. Two days later, Galili set the wheels in motion for the establishment of national television.

The family propagated. In the mid-1960s, yet another young American political scientist from Cleveland, found his way to Israel. Asher (né Alan) Arian arrived, and was tapped to establish the political science department at Tel Aviv University. By 1969 Arian had also established the Israel Election Studies, the longest-running tracking series on Israeli political issues and a trove of data. In 1979, Michal Shamir returned from doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota, where she had studied political systems; Arian soon partnered with her on research, then brought her into the “Elections in Israel” series he had established. The series is a rich edited volume of academic articles dissecting each election cycle since Arian began in 1969. After a generation of founding fathers from America, with Guttman, Katz, and Arian, Shamir and her peers represented the field going native.

Arian and Shamir would write prolifically together, and the family-style partnership was key to their success: “The fact that we did it together was fun,” Shamir told me in an interview, and believed the National Election Studies project endured at first, partly for that reason.

I took courses with Shamir during my doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University, and I worked with Arian at the Israeli Democracy Institute in the mid-2000s. Arian could, in fact, make survey research surprisingly fun. Working on a sprawling questionnaire about religious behavior in Israel, we found that the previous studies in the series had a question about whether the respondent regularly kissed mezuzahs. The abbreviated question name was KISSME. The three of us on the team—Asher, myself and another IDI researcher—looked at each other; we were soon all engaged in a wince-worthy version of Shirley Bassey’s “Kiss Me, Honey Honey.” The question itself was dropped.

Arian died in 2010, but Michal Shamir continues the National Election Study to this day.

His first National Election survey of 1969 asked all manner of questions regarding political engagement, media consumption habits, interest in a range of public affairs, electoral reform, and national and local government ratings.

It even tested polls themselves: did the respondents believe polls influenced voters and politicians? Could polls even be trusted? (Two-thirds said yes, although only 14 percent said they could “always” be trusted.) When asked if they personally followed surveys in the newspapers, nearly three-quarters reported reading surveys.

Given how deeply survey research had inserted itself into the construction of Israel’s most powerful institutions—the army, the media, and the electoral framework— perhaps it was inevitable that the research instrument, not just their findings, reflected what was missing from the country’s national X-ray.

The Invisibles

In 1971, sociologist Yochanan Peres published an article called “Ethnic Relations in Israel,” reporting on surveys testing interactions between three major groups in Israeli society. These groups, in his terminology, were European Jews, non-European or Oriental Jews, and non-Jews—meaning Palestinian Arab citizens. At points in the text Peres referred to last as “Palestinian Arabs.”

What researchers now commonly call “coexistence” questions—would you marry someone of another social or ethnic group, invite them over, live in the same neighborhoods—have a long history. The prototypes were developed in the 1930s by American sociologists studying how Americans (usually samples of university or graduate students) felt about Armenians, Koreans, Chinese, French and various other groups, according to the historian of public opinion studies Jean Converse. The inquiry was quaintly referred to as “social distance,” and some of the questions are surprisingly unchanged.

Peres’ findings remain apposite, and they are sobering: Both “European” and “Oriental” (Mizrahi) Jews expressed prejudiced views of Mizrahim. Negative stereotypes were sometimes higher among the Mizrahi samples, which the author suggests could result from internalized “self-contempt” or racism between various Mizrahi communities. But some responses could have also been expressions of despair: “Some people say that neighborhoods where Orientals live seem always to be dirty. What’s your opinion?” Sixty-five percent of “Oriental” respondents agreed, compared to 59 percent of “Europeans.”

There was little symmetry between the two Jewish groups. 60 percent of “European high school students” expressed reservations about marriage to Mizrahi groups; among their Mizrahi counterparts, 81 percent did not have a problem with marriage to Ashkenazi Jews.

Jewish attitudes towards Arab-Palestinian citizens were dismal. It is no surprise that 90 percent of Jews, with minimal variations, flatly rejected marriage to Arabs. But majorities also disagreed with forging friendships or living in the same neighborhood as Arabs—60 percent among the “Europeans,” and 72 percent of the “Orientals.”

But the real innovation was that Peres’ survey included a sample of Arab citizens themselves—one of the first known studies of this group. He conducted the fieldwork in 1966, at the tail end of military rule over Arab-populated regions of Israel, with a second wave of research in 1967, following the war. These findings too are sobering. The proportion of Arabs who said they felt more at home in another Arab state rather than in Israel rose after the war. Among students, the proportion nearly doubled to a majority of 57 percent. Yet 80 percent, combining “yes” and “yes with reservations” responses, responded that Israel had the right to exist. Among those who gave a qualified yes, Peres reported that the top reservations were the need for “repatriation of the refugees” and the desire for Israel to grant “full first-class citizenship” to Arabs in Israel. These missing pieces of the Arab citizenship equation are no less glaring today.

It would be another decade before Sammy Smooha, another American-trained Jewish Israeli academic, took the next step in research among the country’s Arab citizens. Smooha returned to Israel in 1974 from his doctoral work at UCLA on ethnic relations among Jews, looking for new research topics.

In 1976, Arab citizens staged a series of marches to protest the expropriation of their land. In the ensuing confrontations, Israeli security forces opened live fire, killing six and wounding hundreds. “Land Day” became a touchstone moment in the collective memory of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Smooha recalled when we spoke by phone that some colleagues were convinced that Arabs were becoming radicalized and extreme; he had found his next research topic.

The symbolism is thick, as if only bullets could shatter the glass of Israel’s social mirror. Smooha, an Iraqi Jew, also may have cracked another barrier in a research field heavily dominated by American immigrants and Ashkenazi Jews. But he dismisses the idea that his origins led to a specific interest in studying Arab citizens. He views himself as a scholar of inter-group relations between Arabs and Jews.

Smooha was the first researcher to generate random representative samples. (Peres interviewed select groups and, by his own admission, mostly male subjects.) One of Smooha’s striking findings confirmed what Peres had found: roughly 80 percent accepted Israel’s existence, Smooha recalled when we spoke; a majority thought Israel was democratic. He didn’t agree; but “who was I to argue?” he chuckled. His findings led him to see Israel’s Arab population as integration-oriented rather than as a security threat.

Smooha later developed an index of Jewish-Arab relations, which became a mainstay of coexistence studies and continued through recent years—another invaluable time series that chronicles one of the most troubled of family relations.

What did it mean that Jewish Israelis were the authors of public opinion research about Arabs up to that time?

Asad Ghanem, who began working on Arab-Israeli studies with Smooha in 1988, believes that identity matters. “It’s a bit brutal to say this” he told me, “but people are nurtured on their identity. Some researchers, even the best ones, believe that theories of the US apply to the whole world,” raising an implicit critique of American dominance over a field purporting to read people’s minds.

There were genuine differences that affected methodology. Smooha was among the first to use name-based samples; “but if you go to Tamra, there are 500 people with the same family name,” remarks Ghanem. There were irregular addresses, difficulties interviewing women, ongoing suspicion of authorities, and sensitivities expressing political views, just 20 years after the end of military rule. Yet Ghanem believes that the surveys he later conducted have advanced critical social issues, including Arab opinion about gender relations and women’s equality. His work with a veteran NGO, Women Against Violence, helped bring the sensitive issue of domestic violence to light.

Israel’s Interior Ministry—not often seen as a source of support for Arab citizens in Israel—wanted to find out how local government could be more effective, Ghanem said. In the 1990s, the authorities wanted to know what citizens wanted, so he began to include studies about civic participation, to improve the effectiveness of local government. The inquiry was rife with complexity—“the hamulot didn’t love it,” he recalls, referring to the large family clans that often consolidate local power in villages. “So we tried to think in a deep way about how to encourage it,” referring to civic activism, engagement, and participation. He believes that the surveys gave state authorities a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the Arab communities, contributing to slow, but lasting improvements in relations.

But inclusion has its limits, and families have codes. Families also know how to enforce their rules on members who step out of line.

Nadim Rouhana is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and a prominent scholar of international conflict and negotiation, now living in Boston. In the year 2000, he was among the founders of Mada al-Carmel: The Arab Center for Applied Social Research, a policy think tank with a dedicated survey research unit for Arab Palestinian citizens.

For a decade, this group was a flagship for survey research. There was no other body specializing in this community, established and run by Arabs. In Rouhana’s opinion, that mattered.

In Rouhana’s view, Smooha—of whom Rouhana speaks with the respect of a longtime colleague—was ultimately interested in answering questions related to an Israeli Jewish agenda: Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic, in light of its large indigenous minority? How? From Rouhana’s perspective, Smooha’s questions to Arabs were designed and interpreted to answer the questions of Israeli Jews.

Rouhana, speaking to me from Boston, where he is a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, gives an illustration. Smooha found that a large proportion of Arabs, if given the choice of living in Israel or in a Palestinian state, would choose Israel. Smooha saw that as evidence of healthy minority integration; Rouhana saw it as an indigenous connection to the land.

“It’s a simple example with major implications,” Rouhana says. He characterized the Arab attitude as “I don’t want to move to a Palestinian state because my home is in Haifa—it’s my homeland.”

The point of Mada’s survey unit was “to set our own agenda.” The surveys tested issues spanning the war in Iraq, nascent right-wing ideas of redrawing Israel’s borders to cut off the Triangle (a region of predominantly Arab communities adjacent to the Green Line) and making Arabs there part of a Palestinian state, voting issues, the second Lebanon war, and others.

But Mada al-Carmel also worked on far more sensitive issues outside its survey unit. The Haifa Declaration was Mada’s major project probing the nature of Palestinian identity in Israel, and the identity of the state itself. For several years starting in 2002, Mada convened Arab intellectual leaders for discussion, ultimately producing a strongly worded document discussing the Nakba, Palestinian identity, and the challenge to Israel as a Jewish state, from the perspective of its non-Jewish minorities.

It was too much for the family. The Israeli right-wing group NGO Monitor began poking around Mada’s donors; within a few years of the Haifa Declaration, they found a weak spot with a Canadian foundation supporting the survey research unit. Whilst autonomous, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is supported by the Canadian government. In 2010, Canada had a conservative, pro-Israel premier, and IDRC had a director who was jumpy about protecting IDRC’s government funding. After the aggressive Israeli NGO demanded answers concerning IDRC’s involvement in the Haifa Declaration (it had none—the foundation was supporting the survey research), the Israeli Ambassador in Ottawa, Miriam Ziv, met with the director of the foundation.

Then, in the midst of a hefty three-year grant for which IDRC staff had written glowing evaluation reports, the foundation summarily pulled out. Even its termination letter affirmed the quality of Mada’s work based on the grant.

Mada sued. In court, as reported by Canada’s Globe and Mail, Mada’s lawyers asked the foundation director if the meeting with the Israeli ambassador contributed to the decision. A lawyer for the Canadian government prohibited the director from answering, on grounds of national security.

The parties ultimately reached an out-of-court settlement, but on the condition, Rouhana relates, of non-disclosure. Losing a major funder inevitably hurt fundraising efforts in general; Mada al-Carmel still exists, but the survey research unit has closed down.

Was Mada’s survey work tainted by radical Palestinian political activism? It’s impossible to consider the question without recalling the overarching, and celebrated, goal of Israel’s earliest surveys: building the Jewish state. The goal is no less political, but to Israeli Jews, presumably transparent.

In recent years, an Arab commercial research firm called Statnet has become a prominent fixture in discussions of Arab political and electoral trends. The director, Yousef Makladeh, has become ubiquitous in Israeli media as the voice of Arab public opinion. His research is credible, his reporting provides straightforward electoral and social analysis—hot-button topics rarely arise. Still, Makladeh’s presence alone has contributed to growing awareness that the opinions of one-fifth of Israel’s population matter.

Yet, decades of excluding Arabs from Israel’s mirror of itself, and smothering their own reflective conversations, have left their mark: When Prime Minister Netanyahu was caught dismissing Arab parliamentarians as a part of his coalition calculations in 2020, he was reflecting, rather than inventing, years of exclusive discourse no less evident in the history of polls than in society itself.

Along Came Mina

If Jews and Arabs were long-estranged cousins in survey research, at times other members of the survey research family nearly stopped speaking to each other.

In the mid-1960s, Mina Tzemah completed her PhD at Yale, at the age of 29. She had a master’s in statistics and had been one of Louis Guttman’s favorite students, she told me. When she missed the deadline to apply for Yale, she asked Guttman for help, showing him a list of potential supervisors. He told her, she reports: “I don’t know any of them, but they surely know me.” She got in.

But after Tzemah returned in the late 1960s, she left academia for a private firm with a new department of applied research. Guttman was angry that she had left his fold of researchers for other shores. Later, in the 1980s, he became openly critical that her work had moved away from his methodology. He was also increasingly critical of the commercial industry of polling and especially media-commissioned polls, a stance well-documented in Weimann’s book. Tzemah recalled that he was also suspicious of faulty analysis within electoral projections. They broke for a time, though they would reconcile in later years.

In the 1970s, Tzemah and others were working on perfecting electoral surveys and exit polls. In his National Election Study, Asher Arian was particularly interested in party shifts, Tzemah recalls, so he always asked about prior votes. That was how he noticed the gap: whether purposely or forgetfully, people misrepresented their past vote, and they usually under-represented their vote for Likud. Up until then, Tzemah explains, researchers had been scrambling to get their demographic samples right. Now they started weighting based on previous votes.

Tzemah was 41 in 1977. Labor and its forerunners had dominated politics since statehood. Tzemah had elaborated on Arian’s past-vote weighting scheme. At the time, she recalls, nobody was sure what to do with undecided voters in surveys. Some split them equally (in other words, following the existing party breakdown in that survey— always a terrible assumption). Tzemah and other colleagues, whose names she rattles off – together, they are now the respected elders of academic survey research—tried to account for the bias in past reporting and bring it into the undecided allocation model. “They had the right idea,” she says, somewhat cagey about the details. “I just improved it.”

Her polls began picking up a rise in support for Likud; shortly before the 1977 election, her findings showed a Likud victory. She was terrified to publish them, she remembers, 43 years later—“that I would be so drastically wrong that I wouldn’t be able to walk in the street.”

Her boss insisted, shopping around an article about the poll projection. But most of the large newspapers were disinclined to publish findings that were such an anomaly. In the end, he published it in his own small finance paper, Mabat. Tzemah predicted that Likud would win 42 seats, and the Labor-led Alignment 30.

When Likud won, Tzemah was with friends at a small election-watching party, mostly playing with their baby. In her telling, screams rang out throughout the neighborhood. The prime-time news anchor on Israel’s sole television station famously announced the “earthquake”: Likud had won 43 seats, the Alignment 32. Tzemah recalls the pollster in the studio, Hanoch Smith, quipping “and nobody had predicted it.”

Her boss rushed the article to Jerusalem, proving that one person had known: and along came Mina.

Her credibility attained near-mythical status. On the night of the 1988 elections, she was in a studio with her latest exit poll. Next to her sat Yochanan Peres, who proclaimed “Mina amina”—“Mina is trustworthy.”

In later years, her polls would fail as spectacularly as the rest on election night. Which is to say, not by very much. But even a few percentage points can skew everything in the fuzzy math of mandate allocation, based on Israel’s obscure vote-sharing and surplus vote allocation system. Even the few percentage points of a normal sampling error – can skew results by four or five parliamentary seats. When parties are running close, these seats make or break a contender’s chances.

The phenomenon of Mina opened a window into those family members who had strayed from their elders. Polling was leaking out of policy institutes and academia, finding new shores: media and elections. These personalities might well be considered the rebellious teens of the family.

After the great prediction, Tzemah would lead the public opinion research section of Dahaf, an advertising agency. Dahaf was among the first to become actively involved in the rapidly professionalizing field of political campaigns. Television was now established, and Israel had plenty of campaigns to go around.

Dahaf was run by ad man Eliezer Zorabin. He had advised on the Likud’s 1977 “earthquake” campaign. As reported by Alex Anski in his 1978 book Selling the Likud, Ezer Weizmann—who ran the campaign from within the Likud—reportedly said, admiringly, of Zorabin: “Let Eliezer sell and he’ll sell you a car without an engine.” Foreshadowing the later populism of today’s Likud party, Weizmann went on to laud Zorabin’s attitude towards policy: “If the [party] platform brings votes, they’ll use it. If not—they won’t!” Likud has not published a manifesto platform since 2009. Weizmann later became President of Israel.

The stakes for campaigns were arguably far higher after 1977. Labor internalized that it had lost not only the election but its hegemony over Israeli society and key institutions. It could no longer depend on entrenched patronage networks for votes, and actually had to earn support. Likud realized that its aggressive campaign had paid off.

Campaigns mattered more than ever, just as the field of campaigning was becoming fully modernized—broadly meaning more American, mass media oriented, and more professional. Polls were a hallmark of both.

By the 1981 elections, both large parties had equipped themselves with expert pollsters, naturally Americans. These were no academics but fully-formed campaign gurus. David Garth was a savvy, established American campaign strategist working for Likud; he brought with him Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, two young polling experts who had helped Garth’s winning campaign for Ed Koch in the 1977 race for mayor of New York City. (Labor’s Shimon Peres had his own American campaign consultant that year too, David Sawyer.)

These figures became well-known later in their careers. By the 1990s, Israeli politicians sought pollsters who were already celebrities. In 1996, strategist-pollster Arthur Finkelstein took Israeli populism to a new level, and his client was Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1999, a team of star consultants arrived, including polling guru (and my future mentor) Stan Greenberg, on a roll after victorious campaigns for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and now Ehud Barak. Tellingly, in recent years Netanyahu has shared the notorious pollster John McLaughlin with Donald Trump. The Israel-America special relationship lives on in polls, and apparently in politics. The last few decades also gave rise to a new generation of sabra-Israeli pollster-campaign strategists.

From Peaks to Valleys

At some point, the vibrant life of Israeli polls turned into polling mania. Data Israel, an open, free electronic archive of surveys housed at the Israel Democracy Institute, contains no less than 11 different survey series—each containing years of surveys tracking specific projects and themes. These include the Jewish-Arab Index, the Peace Index surveys beginning in the Oslo years, the National Security Index, the Democracy Index, the Guttman Surveys, and now the Israel Voice series at IDI: over 1200 surveys in total. Add to these the National Election Studies now run by Michal Shamir (also accessible to the public at Tel Aviv University); a geyser of media-commissioned surveys on elections as well as other topics; and internal party surveys for political campaigns or policymaking. And all before even considering market research.

In Weimann’s 2015 book commemorating Guttman, Elihu Katz opined that the field may have grown too big. Sami Smooha too told me that Israelis are “overstudied.” Gabriel Weimann has written more bluntly about the “Lie of the survey.”

In public eyes, polling became associated with campaigns that were increasingly crude, divisive, and much too frequent. Citizens were rarely privy to the “internal” polls guiding campaigns, long questionnaires full of detail and nuance. Instead, the public is treated to a blizzard of media polls ahead of elections, often poorly interpreted, and the emotional exhaustion of watching exit polls roll in, sometimes getting it wrong. By 2019, the number of people who believed the surveys was down from 68 percent in 1969 to 40 percent, according to the Data Israel archives. Only three percent said they strongly believed them.

Institutional distrust goes well beyond polls, of course. The Israel Democracy Index from 2020 found that one-third of Israelis or fewer trust the media, the Knesset, or the government (28 percent) and barely one-fifth (19 percent) trust the political parties. Nor is poll-cynicism unique to Israel. Exit polls began to suffer reputation damage the world over in 2015, with much-analyzed forecast failures in the Israel and UK elections. The American polling debacle in 2016 was a severe blow to survey credibility – perhaps felt more painfully given the nature of the winner.

In 2013 Dahaf, Mina Tzemah’s legendary home, closed. She joined a different commercial agency, but she continued with electoral projections. In 2019 Eretz Nehederet, the country’s top satire television show, created a parody of her exit polls ahead of the April elections. First Tzemah’s character chases down reluctant voters to take the poll. She then hauls the ballot boxes to her inner chambers to work her secret projection model. In the parody, Tzemah inflicts arbitrary tortures on the ballot papers, including dusting them up with a leaf-blower, and finally placing a pigeon on top of a pile on the floor. The bird wags its behind, mussing the ballots with its feathers.

Family Fortunes

In many ways, opinion research in Israel has remained a family affair.

The family is blessed with longevity. Elihu Katz is 94. Tzemah is 84, but as she pointed out on the phone, she’s “midway through [her] career.” Her mother, she is fond of observing, lived to 108. Some of the family’s actual children went into related fields, both in commercial polling and academia. Louis and Ruth Guttman’s daughter Nurit Guttman is a social scientist at Tel Aviv University. Hanoch Smith, the first election pollster for Israeli TV, was followed by his son Rafi Smith, a media pollster. Jacob and Michal Shamir have written extensively together, analyzing opinion trends; Jacob was later to establish the first joint Israeli-Palestinian polling project together, with Palestinian researcher Khalil Shikaki (a project I have directed on the Israeli side since 2017). Yaacov and Gita Levy, who founded Gallup Polling in Israel in 1970, passed the torch on to Offer Levy, who now runs New Wave Research (disclosure—I have commissioned this company extensively over the years for data collection); Mano Geva, another major commercial pollster, works with his daughter at his company, Midgam. Zorabin, the 1977 Likud ad consultant, who has been called the Don Draper of Israel, was Mina Tzemah’s partner for some 20 years.

It has also become my family.

Like Guttman I moved to Israel from the US, suffused with a romantic spirit I inherited in part from my youth movement, Habonim—just like Guttman, according to Arbel’s dissertation.

For the last 22 years of working on political public opinion research, I have seen Israel through this lens. Not through a camera frame or a reporter’s notebook, but through the one-way mirror of thousands of hours of focus groups, lost in the landscape of numbers telling the story of who we are. Unlike Guttman, I fell into it by accident, but maybe the business suited me because sometimes everything feels like an experiment here. And I am surely in the right field because my grandmother lived to 103.

Polls have been my mirror and microscope onto the family of Israel: who is in, who is out, and what are they thinking about? Zooming out was a challenge for me, but asking my colleagues helped distill, over time, some deep changes in Israeli society—for better or for worse.

Samples have improved not only among Arab Palestinian citizens. Tamar Hermann, who has presided for the last decade over the Guttman Institute archives housed at the Israel Democracy Institute (now called Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research) points to advances in sampling the insular Haredi population, including working with Haredi interviewers.

Have attitudes changed fundamentally? Tzemah observes that Likud and right-wingers are not shy to identify themselves in surveys anymore, naturally given that the center of political gravity has shifted rightward over time. Hermann notes that terms such as “democracy” are no longer politically neutral in the current environment. The word “peace,” she says, is hardly used—only “final status accord.” On the other hand, the word “Nakba” can and has been tested, she notes, even as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fades from the public agenda.

Hermann explains that once, the conflict was the deepest divide between left and right-wing ideologies, but that increasingly the fight is over liberal and conservative, or a sort of neo-religious set of norms. Tzemah says that the divide is now “democracy and the judiciary, the idea of tyranny of majority or liberal democracy.”

If polling is a mirror, it’s no accident that my polls increasingly measure not only democracy but threats to Israel’s democratic institutions.

But research, in its design alone, reflect the changing shape of the family. For years, I have partnered with an Arab colleague on qualitative research among Palestinian citizens – we have grown up together in the field. Now, for the first time in my 21-year polling history, and as far as anyone knows for the first time ever, I am working on a survey combining Israeli and Palestinian attitudes, commissioned by the human rights group B’Tselem. Unlike the side-by-side Israeli-Palestinian surveys established in the early 2000s, this one will be weighted together as one population. When the results are in, long before anyone’s status is resolved, our poll will discern trends among the entire population of people, river to sea.

And whatever the results, the very nature of our inquiry will find a different face in the mirror, reflecting who the family has become.


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