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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Terror and tolerance

How persistent terrorism leads to increased intolerance, especially among right-wing voters

KINGSTON, R.I. –The timing for Marc Hutchison was perfect. 

On March 17, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, won re-election, thanks largely to support from right-wing voters concerned about terrorism and the country’s security.

The next day, Hutchison, a University of Rhode Island associate professor in political science, learned that his article showing how chronic terrorism cultivated political intolerance in Israel, particularly among those on the right, was accepted by a prestigious political science journal.

“Netanyahu’s actions just before the election validated what we found in the study,’’ says Hutchison. “When he renounced his commitment to a two-state solution and warned that Israeli Arabs would be ‘voting in droves’, Netanyahu capitalized on intolerance among the Israeli right that, as we show in our study, has grown over time as a result of chronic terrorism. Obviously, these tactics were effective as Netanyahu’s Likud party greatly exceeded its pre-election polling numbers and won decidedly.”

Hutchison’s “The Impact of Persistent Terrorism on Political Tolerance: Israel, 1980 to 2011’’ is noteworthy for another reason. The 40-year-old Warwick resident is the first URI political scientist to publish in the American Political Science Review, considered the top journal in the field.

Hutchison worked on the article, to be published later this year, with Mark Peffley, political science professor at the University of Kentucky and Michal Shamir, political science professor at Tel-Aviv University.

They explored how terrorist attacks influence political tolerance – or a willingness to extend liberties to enemies. 

Researchers in the United States and elsewhere have explored how people respond to a single massive attack like the ones on Sept. 9, 2011. Those studies found, for example, a sharp increase in public support for policies restricting civil liberties, like government surveillance and detaining terrorism suspects without charging them.

But there have been no studies looking at how persistent terrorist attacks erode democratic values over the long haul. Israel was a good candidate because terrorism has plagued the country for decades. Terrorism is a daily threat to Israelis. A recent survey found that 12 percent had been present during an attack, and another 60 percent said they knew a victim in an attack.

Hutchison and his colleagues focused on Israel during a turbulent period, from 1980 to 2011. During those years, Israel endured more than 1,500 attacks, an average of about 50 a year. 

The study analyzed 18 Israeli public opinion surveys conducted between 1980 and 2011 that looked at political tolerance among Israeli Jews and compared the findings with political views among left- and right-wing voters.

The results: Persistent terrorism encourages greater intolerance but particularly among those identifying with the Israeli right who have become more troubled by terrorism over time. Intolerance can empower right-wing governments determined to curtail civil liberties of perceived enemies, such as Arab and Jewish leftist groups.

“There is no denying that the large number of terrorist attacks poses a potentially serious threat to democratic support in Israel,’’ says Hutchison, “making it a valuable case for studying democracies under chronic threat from terrorism and a necessary complement to studies in countries like the United States, with few but massive terrorist attacks.’’

The study is important because political tolerance, says Hutchison, is crucial to a thriving democracy. Political tolerance is the willingness to put up with groups or ideas that one finds objectionable. Without tolerance, there is no “open’’ competition for power or ideas – the hallmark of a democracy, says Hutchison.

So far, Israel has kept its democracy, but Hutchison points out that not every democracy survives the stress of chronic threat. A slew of emerging democracies – Peru, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Thailand – became non-democratic between 1980 and 2011. Of those, only Peru and Turkey returned to and remained a democracy.

Terrorism in Israel is anchored in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Beyond its physical danger, terrorism also triggers a threat to Jewish national identity, says Hutchison. That identity, he says, is valued more by right-wing groups than left-leaning ones.

“There is every incentive for Israeli politicians, particularly those on the right who own the issues of national security and terrorism, to use fear to manipulate the public for political gains – and for justifying the repression of the Arab/Palestinian minority,’’ says Hutchison. “The role of the elite political rhetoric in stoking fears of terrorism and political intolerance in Israel and elsewhere clearly requires further study.’’

Brian Krueger, chair of URI’s political science department, says Hutchison’s article puts URI in the “international spotlight.’’

“His work on Israel, like a canary in a coal mine, perhaps is a window into our own possible future,’’ Krueger says. “Terrorism as a tactic has increased dramatically over the past few decades globally. Will more countries’ populations conform to the Israeli pattern? We don’t know for sure, of course, but Marc’s research speaks to the need for nations and peoples to work together for peace now, as it becomes increasingly difficult to extend basic civilities as time passes.’’

Pictured above: 
Marc Hutchison, an associate professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. For more information, visit Marc Hutchison.

Photo courtesy of Marc Hutchison.