JERUSALEM — A little over three years ago, the results of an opinion survey taken among Israeli high school students stunned the nation and created what press reports at the time described as panic in the educational system.
Sixty percent of youths in what has long been portrayed as the only democracy in the Middle East said that Israeli Arabs, who make up about 17% of Israel's population, are not entitled to equal rights with Israeli Jews. Nearly half the youths were ready to diminish the rights that Israeli Arabs already enjoy.
Combined with the election to Parliament at about the same time of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose anti-Arab platform is openly racist and anti-democratic, the survey spurred Israel's Ministry of Education into action.
The ministry sponsored meetings between Jewish and Arab students, who are normally educated in separate schools here. Virtually every gathering of teachers suddenly included a speech or discussion on coexistence. And Education Minister Yitzhak Navon declared that "education for democracy" would be the keynote theme for the next two school years.
Those years are past now, and a repeat survey among a new group of 15- to 18-year-olds has provided a yardstick by which to grade the ministry's and the nation's efforts.
According to the new survey, Israeli high schoolers now have a slightly better opinion of democracy in general than they had three years ago. But when it comes to supporting equal rights for Arabs in practice, their attitudes have changed very little.
"All together, the message is that Israel still has a significant, substantial political, civic and educational problem concerning attitudes to Arabs within a democratic context," said Alouph Hareven of Jerusalem's Van Leer Foundation, a private research institute that supported both the 1984 and 1987 surveys. Hareven coordinates a program on coexistence, known as "To Live Together," that the foundation has developed in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
"The picture is full of lights and shadows," said Yitzhak Shapiro, Navon's chief of staff and the man who organized a new unit in the ministry to deal with education for democracy. But Shapiro conceded in an interview that "the main attitudes concerning Arabs are about the same" as they were three years ago.
When the results of the latest poll were made public late last month, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was prime minister at the time of the first survey, said they were shocking.
More than three out of four students, asked if they preferred the present system or what amounts to a dictatorship of "strong leaders who will not depend on (political) parties," opted for the existing parliamentary democracy. This was up from two out of three in 1984.
But well over half still said Israeli Arabs are either "not entitled" or "certainly not entitled" to equal rights with Israeli Jews; and depending on the way the question was asked, anywhere from 42% to 58% said that existing Arab rights should be narrowed.
Nearly half the high schoolers said that Israeli Arabs should not have the same freedom of movement as Jews; 53% said their voting rights should be limited; 58% said they should not have the same access to important government jobs, and 52% said their rights to criticize the government should be less than for Jews.
Both Hareven and Shapiro emphasized that there were some encouraging signs in the latest survey.
The proportion of young people who said they would vote for Kahane, for example, dropped from 11% to 6% in the latest poll. And the percentage of those who said they believe that most Israeli Arabs are loyal to the state increased from 13% to about 30%.
Even in these areas, however, there were cautionary notes. While the number who said they would vote for Kahane dropped sharply, the percentage who said they basically agree with his ideas remained at about 30. And a similar percentage said they support the existence of vigilante groups dedicated to avenging Arab attacks on Jews.
The attitudes of Israeli high school students toward Arabs are particularly important because virtually all Jewish boys and about half the girls will be drafted into the army almost immediately on graduation. Many will spend at least part of their army time in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip or West Bank, where the army rules over 1.4 million mostly resentful Palestinians.
To be sure, the problem of anti-democratic and anti-Arab attitudes among Jewish young people is not the problem of the schools alone.
"We cannot restrict our teaching of democracy and coexistence to the classroom," Navon commented a few days ago. "Young people also learn in the street and from the media, and they hear public figures."
Navon was particularly critical of "public figures, among them ministers, deputy ministers and the heads of public institutions," who openly advocate policies to encourage Palestinians to leave Gaza and the West Bank for neighboring Arab nations.