Israeli politicians’ views on evolution: more waffling and denialism

February 24, 2015 • 12:45 pm

Haaretz is the New York Times of Israel, a paper aimed at the intellectual elite on the left. Yesterday it reported the results of a questionnaire sent to all the heads of political parties that are likely to enter the Knesset (the Israeli legislature). There were four questions:

1. What is your position on teaching evolution in Israeli schools?

2. What is your position on the state’s biometric database? [A five-year old law, which I object to, requiring Israeli citizens to furnish fingerprints and facial contours for identity cards.]

3. What is your position on Israel’s contribution to global warming?

4. Do you personally believe in God?

The paper was most interested in the last question about God (of the 7 answering politicos, one said she was an atheist, and another waffled, while the rest were believers), but I was interested in #1, the question about evolution. Let’s look at what the politicians said. Their parties are given first, then their names:

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An ignorant fool, blinded by his faith (note that Shas is an Orthodox party). The Gopnik Test brands him unworthy.

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This is a waffle if there ever was one. What does he mean by “pluralistic”? That all theories, including creationism and intelligent-design creationism, should be taught? His recommendation is not only disingenuous, but would do nothing to raise the state education from its “nadir.” He also fails the Gopnik Test.

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Zehava Galon was the only atheist, and also is pro-evolution. Israelis: vote for her! I’m not keen on the accommodationism, though,

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Another right thinker, one who doesn’t mince words. Note that he is an Israeli Arab, and head of a party. You wouldn’t see an Israeli heading a political party in Palestine! Kudos to Ayman for his forthright views.

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Another waffler who apparently wants creationism taught along with evolution. And note that he’s the former science and technology minister!

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Another blinkered ignoramus. Note above that Yahad is an orthodox party, so this is no surprise. Remember that, contrary to what many people think, a lot of Orthodox Jews—but not all of them—oppose evolution.

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Yet another waffler! The “various approaches” seems to be a code word for “other views,” i.e., creationism.

So what we have here are only two of the seven politicians passing The Gopnik Test, two failing it outright, and three wafflers. That’s a sad situation. Reader Golan, who sent me the link, made these comments after reading the results (I believe he/she is an Israeli):

This was a non-issue in Israel until recent years, and nobody in the main non-orthodox parties would seriously question the need to teach evolution. I see this as a very disturbing import from the U.S.

Keep in mind that Shas and Yahad are ultra-orthodox Sepharadic parties, so their answers are at least unsurprising.

But that’s not all the data. Haaretz noted that four party heads did not response. Have a look:

It cannot have escaped your attention that our questionnaire is only partial. Of the heads of the 11 parties to which we sent the questions, only seven chose to respond. You don’t need to be a brilliant analyst to recognize which side of the political map the nonresponders are on.

“MK Litzman declines to respond in this instance,” wrote Yaakov Izak, the spokesman for Yaakov Litzman. It’s understandable: United Torah Judaism is the Ashkenazi Haredi party that is responsible for its interpretation of the Torah, not for the State of Israel. Its members will not be cabinet ministers in the next government, and its voters will not come from the readership of Haaretz.

The same cannot be said for the Israeli right, which holds the reins of the democratic government but refuses to play the democratic game.

The heads of the right-wing parties had a full month to respond with a sentence or two, in their own language, and they were dumbstruck.

Avigdor Lieberman’s spokesman, Tal Nahum, said, “We do not cooperate with Haaretz.” That is not true, of course — Yisrael Beiteinu cooperates when it’s convenient for the party.

And if you think that Israeli newspapers toe the government’s line, here’s how Netanyahu’s office responded and how Haaretz reported that response:

The campaign headquarters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surpassed itself, when media adviser Ofer Golan opined that the questionnaire was “cheeky.”

I can’t recall being called that since high school — the same high school where I learned about the creation of the world instead of the evolution of species, like 95.5 percent of Israeli schoolchildren.

In fact, the response from Netanyahu headquarters should not have surprised anyone. After all, it’s the same Netanyahu who refuses to meet his challengers in a televised debate, the same Likud that has not offered prospective voters a party platform.

In the end, only two out of the 11 politicians polled said that they unequivocally favor the teaching of truth over fiction, with four refusing to answer. Now those refusals could be based on the other three questions, and probably are, but this is a sad indictment of the state of Israeli politics. When the former minister of science and technology waffles about evolution, you know that the Knesset, insofar as science is concerned, is mirroring the U.S. Congress—especially the Republicans.

Now I don’t know much about these parties, and perhaps Israeli readers can fill us in below. But even if these politicians are pandering to the electorate and not giving their real views, it’s still dishonest.

69 thoughts on “Israeli politicians’ views on evolution: more waffling and denialism

  1. Zehava Galon was the only atheist, and also is pro-evolution. Israelis: vote for her! I’m not keen on the accommodationism, though,

    What?? If you had everything you wanted delivered on a silver platter you’d kvetch that it wasn’t an engraved platter!

  2. Minor typo correction needed. You say; “Remember that, contrary to what many people think, a lot of Orthodox Jews—but not all of them—oppose religion.”

    I think you mean they oppose evolution.

    1. I think liberal American Jews are much more disgruntled about settlement policy, but I’ve no doubt the new anti-modernism goes hand-in-hand with pro-settler policies. Remember too, they have “allies” in American fundamentalists (“allies” in scare quotes because many fundies are counting on Israeli settlers to spark Armageddon and the End Times).

    2. Hmmm…sadly too many of our favored politicians sound like the Discovery Institute too.

      Of course most of our citizenry (to include american Jews) are not fond of our own politics, so maybe you’re on to something.

  3. Two questions:

    1. Could you explain this a bit?: “Remember that, contrary to what many people think, a lot of Orthodox Jews—but not all of them—oppose religion.”

    2. Hey, what happened to Labour? Are they so dead that they don’t even have candidates any more?

    1. As I understand it, the Labor party combined with the Hatnuah party headed by Tsipi Livni which combined party now calls itself the Zionist Union. And I am not a local.

        1. Answer from a local:
          Yes, The labour is running with another party under the flag of “Zionist Union” (wow, it sounds even worst in English). It still exist as a party though.
          And yes, their answers were terrible. To be fair, though, Herzog was interviewed a couple of days later, said those answers were a mistake, and that he supports teaching of evolution, without qualifications. He also said he believed in God.

          1. Where did he say that?
            Also, of course Herzog himself “believes” in evolution (couldn’t find a better way to say it), but I am confident that his first answer wasn’t a mistake, but a typical attempt to commit to nothing and bridges open to the ultra-orthodox parties.

  4. 95.5 percent of Israeli schoolchildren don’t learn about evolution?! Did I read that correctly? That’s a shocking statistic!

  5. Even tho not a theocracy, as an explicitly religious state they have more reason to buck evolution than US politicians. If they acknowledge evolution, then they support common descent, and the whole business of being special/needing a separate state collapses.

    1. I don’t think a Jewish state is the same as a religious state. Jews are an ethnic group. Which has only a little to do with common descent, except that Jewishness is a mitochondrial character.

      1. Yes, in the same way that there’s an incompletely recessive autosomal gene for being a wizard.

    2. To add to John’s point, I don’t think Israel’s reason for existence as a state is as heavily tied to theology as you make it sound. To be blunt, I think the holocaust and a desire to found a geopolitically safe space for Jews had as much to do with it as biblical land claims.

      1. The choice to establish a safe haven for Jews in the Holy Land has ofcourse historical and religious reasons. But the zionist movement started as a secular nationalist movement to escape the rising anti-semitism in Europe and Russia in the late 19th century, decades before the holocaust. The Dreyfus Affair in France and pogroms in Russia were the main incentives to get out of Europe and seek refuge in the Holy Land.

    3. Israel isn’t explicitly or implicitly religious. We don’t have separation of church (or synagogue) and state, but in practice, Israel is less religious than the US in some ways.
      We have some religious law as part of the state law (in areas of marriage and divorce and personal status) but they are all inheritance from the time of the British Mandate. Since that, in turn, absorbed most of the preexisting Ottoman law, Muslim courts have more power than Rabbinical courts.
      However, since the Israeli public is divided between political left and right, and our elections are relational (which means that small groups are represented) and the ultra-orthodox are those who most easily jump from one side to another to form a coalition, they can often decide who forms the government and this gives them political power far beyond their proportional size.

      1. Isn’t that the case with all proportionally-representative electoral systems? PR seems like common sense until you realise that it’s often harder to get rid of a ruling party with PR than it is with first past the post.
        Maybe you meant something different by “relational” though.

        1. No, I did not something else.
          I don’t think it’s hard to “get rid” of the ruling party in our system.
          What’s unique in the Israeli system, I think, is that there is a distinct group which has little interest in the issues that divide the other groups (though it’s often said that they prefer the right. I don’t think it’s true). This allows them to join any coalition and get pretty much what they want.

          1. 50+ years ago, the religious parties came in two flavours; right and “poalei” or “workers of”, left. Then they merged to ensure critical political mass; they considered what united them more important than their differences.

            1. The ultra orthodox parties, unlike the Zionist religious parties, have never had much interest in anything not directly related to their sector.
              The Zionist religious party (now called the Jewish Home) is deep in the right. In this, they have changed from the past, when they had “dovish” elements.

              1. My recollection (it was a long time ago) is that what we would now classify as “religious Zionist parties”, Mizrachi and Agudat Yisrael, had “workers’ “sister parties with which they then merged, before later merging with each other. But this was something like 60 years ago. At that time, I believe, the ultra-Orthodox still stood aloof from the political process, since the State had not been brought into being by the coming of the Messiah.

          2. The reason I asked is that lots of countries with PR have a few kingmaking parties that, simply by being the third most popular party, manage to wangle their way into the cabinet for literally decades on end.
            If the definition of an electoral system’s success is how easy it makes it for the populace to get rid of unsatisfactory politicians then PR seems often to fall down in that respect.
            What’s it like in Israel? Surely if there’s a distinct group which “join(s) any coalition” and “get(s) pretty much what they want” doesn’t this mean that they’re rather difficult to get rid of? Isn’t that kind of what I was alluding to?

            1. I did not understand you then.
              They are never the ruling party, because they are too small and too…. ehmmm… different for that.
              We have 120 seats in the Knesset. Say the left gets 50, the right 55 and the rest 15 seats are held by the ultra-orthodox. So they won’t get their own Prime Minister, but both side need their support and are ready to give them what they want.
              This is what I meant.

              1. Yes that’s what I meant too.
                So this ultra-orthodox party consistently gets members into the coalition, election after election…? I actually voted for proportional representation a few years back when there was a British referendum on it – unfortunately the turnout was pathetic and since the vested interests of both Labour and the Conservatives were at stake they both played it down as best they could and got their voters to nix it. Maybe it was a good thing they did, I don’t know.

              2. We had a few coalitions without the ultra-orthodox, but they were the exception, and I don’t think that this will happen this time, for various reasons.
                In Israel, people believe that this leads to a fractured system and the government being overly focused on political survival. But I think that if you look at America, you can see that their system results in two parties, which are internally fractured. Given the better representatives of the proportional system, I prefer ours, but there is a cost of smaller groups “in the middle” having disproportionately big power.

              3. Actually, it wasn’t on proportional representation, but on the transferable vote within single-member constituencies. This would mean that if your first choice candidate was bottom of the poll, your vote would be reallocated to your second choice, and so on. In the UK context, this would have meant that the Liberal Democrats would have been almost assured of holding the balance of power between Labour and Conservatives.

                Don’t get me started on the utter incompetence of the campaign in favour of change, or on what has happened of late to the Liberal Democrats, whom I supported in 2010.

              4. Okay – the fact that you needed to explain that to me is surely part of the reason I was probably the only person to vote on it in a village of a 1000+ people. Every single party, incl. the lib dems somehow, made the issue as arcane and convoluted as possible.
                As for the tactical suicide in which the lib dems seem to be engaging I don’t know what to say. The tories, for all their fuck ups and nasty ideologically skewed policies, are playing an extremely shrewd game and I fully expect them to remain in power after the election. Like voting no in the Scottish referendum voting tory is not something people admit to easily and I think the polls have underestimated this factor big time.

      2. I think when westerners complain that Israel is a religious state or theocratic-like, they aren’t complaining about your criminal laws being discriminatory or anything like that. They are complaining that your immigration laws ensure that one religious groups’ interests are always going to politicaly win out by ensuring that group is always a majority. In the same way, if the US kept its 1st amendment and all its civil liberties laws intact, but only allowed Christians to immigrate, that would be seen by most (non-fundamentalist) Americans as blatantly unfair and somewhat theocratic in nature.

        The history of Israel being what it is, and the attitudes of the surrounding countries being what they are, I think a lot of people accept that your immigration laws are likely to be the lesser of many evils. But it still sticks in our ‘democratic ideal’ craw.

        1. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people (not religion). This is not a religious thing.
          I am fine with the law of return and don’t feel a need to satisfy your taste, but I respect your opinion.

  6. Sad as that may be, it is possibly better than how our politicians would perform in the States.

    I am curious to learn how the emergence of Creationism into the minds of Israeli politicians was possibly an American import. Perhaps they recognize it as a working tactic to gain support from their constituents?

    1. I am sure it’s an import. But the religious opposition to teaching evolution, the American style, is a (relatively) new phenomenon.
      The secular politician are adapting, which is what I find most scary.

      1. I remember attending a guest lecture by a Lubavitcher rabbi in a sociology of religion course I did as an undergraduate at McGill c. 1998. I asked him about evolution; he rattled off some of then popular Christian creationsts (e.g. Kent Hovind) and said while they’re wrong about the nature of god (trinity, etc. I take it) they are right about the approximate age of the earth and its history. I later used this on my final exam as an example of syncretism.

  7. Can you clarify “contrary to what many people think, a lot of Orthodox Jews—but not all of them—oppose religion”?

    1. I see now it was a typo. I guess it’s a credit to my open-mindedness that I thought there might be some kind of oxymoronically irreligious version of Orthodox Judaism I didn’t know about.

  8. Until recently, in UK Jewry at least, creationism was lunatic fringe, although the rabbi I had in my youth thought than humankind was the special creation, and believed in the existence of a Missing Link.

    The abominable Mehmet Kaya, whose mailing list I was for a while, is busy cultivating links with Israeli Orthodox rabbis.

    All this more than 800 years after Maimonides demonstrated on internal evidence that the Bible could not possibly be taken literally.

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I did not see major parties, such as Labour or Likud.
    Still saddening that only 2 were accepting evolution, and one of them even very -and uncalled for- accommodationist too.
    What is the stance of Labour and Likud?

      1. The Labour is Labour. The other component of the Zionist Union is insiginficant.
        Before they united, it was not unlikely that Hatnua wouldn’t not get the minimum number of votes necessary to get into the next Knesset.

  10. If I were a politician I would have a policy of never answering these types of questionnaires. If you answer one of them you’d have to answer all of them that come your way, otherwise people could read into your lack of response. Plus, some of these questionnaires can force you to choose between options that you may not hold – at least this one afforded open ended responses.

    If they wanted to know my views they can book some time and we could have a more in-depth conversation.

    This would probably make me unelectable.

    1. Why yes, as a political candidate you should address all policy questions that come your way. Just like in an employment interview, the candidate should be willing to answer all employment-related questions that are asked of them. “I’m not going to tell you how I plan to do the job” is unacceptable.

      If a candidate is concerned about having to answer the same question (or slight variants of it) over and over again, then the right thing to do is publish your platform on major issues, and then just refer people to it as needed. You might even have a stock “needs more study” or “defer to local government” answer for questions about some local policy that you’ve never encountered before. AFAIK most political parties and candidates in multiple democratic systems do exactly that (publish platforms). But I’m guessing the evolution education question isn’t on most national platforms because its not high enough priority to make the list, so yes when they get it they should answer it.

      Personally, I like the way AAAS does policy questioning far better than an interview. They basically mail the candidates a set of questions, give them lots of time to respond, and then publish the results. That allows a candidate to be as nuanced as they need to be and avoids the problems associated with sound bytes and time crunches. Political debates are useful (IMO) to see how well candidates handle thinking on their feet, personal negotiations, etc. These are important leadership skills and so I think debates have value. But neither debates nor interviews are really the best way to delve deeply into someone’s policy positions. I think written descriptions are a much better way to go for that. Written descriptions also tend to make blather and meaningless crap easier to identify; you are less likely to be swayed by rhetoric or charisma when you’re reading vs. listening to a real person.

  11. Thanks for bringing this up, Jerry. I hope that this draws some attention to this distortion of reason.
    Both Galon and Odeh are of the extreme left, and either anti-Zionist or post Zionist. Neither is an option for most Israelis, me included, although I am convinced that the vast majority of Israelis support teaching evolution. Most of us based on foreign affair and security policies, and not on issues like teaching evolution.
    The religious candidates, Dery and Yishai are also not an option for most Israelis. Both are ultra-orthodox. Dery served time in prison for corruption felonies and Yishai left shas and formed a new party which is at the extreme right end of the political spectrum. I find it extremely unlikely that he will make it to the next Knesset.
    I cannot tell about all the other candidates, but I am ready to bet that Herzog and Perry are privately evolutionists, and answered the way they did just to not anger the ultra-orthodox, who, in the Israeli Political system, often get to decide the Prime Minister. For me, this is even worse than actually believing in what they say.
    Those who did not answer would probably play the same dirty hypocritical game.

  12. “I support teaching the theory of evolution as the theoretical foundation accepted today by science for the development of the variety of species on Earth.”

    You could read even this as a bit waffly if you wanted to. “…accepted today by science…” sounds like he wants to put disclaimer stickers in science textbooks, or have biology teachers start every sentence “Scientists believe…”.

  13. I hasn’t time to read the comments yet, but, I personally am smacked in the gob.
    I had some idealized version of a largely secular intelligent bunch of people in Israel, with a few religious and very religious. This makes Israel and it’s leadership sound ignorant, primitive and superstitious. These kind of strong views on the bible and their religion must play a large part in informing decision relating to Palestine and settlements and ‘rights’.
    I going to dig a bit deeper but hearing this is quite disappointing.

    1. I think that your conclusions from this thread are too far reaching.
      Our politicians are a bunch of hypocrites who would sell their mothers to win the elections.
      Our people are “largely secular intelligent bunch” 😉

      1. I have been distracted by stuff recently but just had a quic look at a Guttman Institute survey. It is a bit old but says belief in god runs at 63%. 24% not sure.
        That seems to be a lot of belief compared to secular countries.

    2. Since settlements are mentioned here, I’ll jump back in here. What I always hear over here in the US when it comes to justifying the settlements is something Biblically-based, hence my equating the Jewish state with a religious state, above.

      That and my old friend, colleague and co-author David Feingold (whose late wife was a Holocaust survivor), who would wax nostalgic over Israel “in the heroic days” (~1957, when he post-doc’d there), before the “fundamentalists ruined it”.

      1. Most settlers are religious, but the Prime Minister never has been.
        On this subject I will speak for myself, but I believe that I represent many of my secular compatriots: the bible has a huge significance for us, not as the word of God, or anything of this kind, but as a historical document.
        By this, I don’t mean that I believe in the historicity of the bible stories (definitely not all of them), but that it’s a story that my people has told for many centuries and it represents a strong connection between the Jewish people and this land.

  14. A few clarification.
    About the “Zionist Union” – In an interview a couple of days later, Herzog said that the there was a “mishap” in sending the answers, and that he did not approve them. He said that he thinks evolution should be taught in school, and that he learned it himself. He also said that he believe in god (he’s not orthodox, and does not follow religious rules).
    The leader of Yesh Atid, Lapid (which is not the one that gave the answers for some reason, later said his position is that evolution should be taught. He somewhat ruined it, though, by saying that the reason it’s important is because “it’s the only scientific view about the creation of the world” which, as many people were very happy to tell him, is not true.

  15. This is certainly a good bit of education into Israeli politics. It does turn the stomach just a bit to think that some of these politicians get there opinion on evolution from American politicians (republicans). That just seems sick.

    I would like to see a survey of the public in Israel. It should be much better and maybe take the bad taste of politicians out of my mouth.

    1. It has zero statistical value, but everybody I know who is not ultra-orthodox (i.e. secular and “normal” religious people) don’t question the validity of the theory of evolution.
      We learn bible in schools, so maybe younger children are confused (my 7 years old daughter knows that humans evolved “from other animals, which evolved from others etc”, but she can also ask me why God created us with only two eyes or something like that), but at a later age, they get over it.

  16. I can’t recall being called that since high school — the same high school where I learned about the creation of the world instead of the evolution of species, like 95.5 percent of Israeli schoolchildren.

    So Israel is the same as all Western Asia. I’m not surprised.

    But this surprises me and/or clashes with my cultural context:

    “[A five-year old law, which I object to, requiring Israeli citizens to furnish fingerprints and facial contours for identity cards.]”

    Why would anyone object to high quality, less easily forged identity cards? Presumably citizens would want their states to protect their identities…

  17. Also, it would be more accurate to call Galon “the only one who is *openly* atheist”. I’m quite sure Herzog, Livni and also Netanyahu do not believe in god, but they will never say it.

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