What British people think of Israel:
Public opinion surveys 2005-2012

Published: 8 JUne 2012
Briefing Number 314

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Summary:This Briefing summarises the findings of eight surveys of public opinion in the UK on Israel, which were carried out by major and respected polling organisations between 2005 and 2012, including YouGov and Populus. Organisations commissioning surveys included the Friedrich  Ebert  Foundation in Germany, and the BBC World Service. The results show that:

- two thirds of British people think that ordinary Israelis reject the idea of a Palestinian state

- two thirds think that Israel has never offered to give up land for peace

- 42.4% of British people agree with the statement that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians....”

- Israel, along with North Korea, ranks third behind only Iran and Pakistan for “negative influence” in the world 

Key message:  These are dire results.  They show the size of the challenge of promoting informed understanding of Israel in the UK  

Background and key messages:

This Beyond Images Briefing concisely summarises the findings of eight public opinion surveys which were carried out in the UK during the period 2005 to 2012, and which examine British public attitudes towards Israel. 

These surveys were each carried out by highly respected and authoritative polling companies.   

The largest pro-Israel advocacy organisation in the UK is called BICOM (www.bicom.org.uk). They commission their own public opinion surveys. However, their findings are not usually published.  In this Briefing we have focused on reputable public opinion surveys which were independently commissioned and where the results have been published.  We have added one set of BICOM survey findings by Populus, because these results were publicised at a BICOM conference (see section 1 below).     

We add our own comments, after describing each of the survey findings.

Beyond Images key messages:

  • Israeli diplomats in the UK correctly point out the strengths in Israeli-British relations.  For example, it is correct that the British Government is leading European efforts to toughen sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, Israel-British trade and academic and hi-tech collaboration are each increasing.  But the public opinion survey results we summarise show that these developments are happening in spite of the public mood in the UK, rather than because of it.   
  • The 2011 results from Populus (see section 1 below) show that the most basic messages about Israel’s diplomatic policies have not been absorbed by the British public despite over a decade of intensive and expensive activity by UK pro-Israel advocacy groups  
  • The alarming finding of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in April 2012 (see section 2 below) shows that the demonisation of Israel is making significant inroads into mainstream British opinion.  The idea that Israel is seeking the “extermination” of the Palestinians is a central theme of demonisers of Israel
  • The survey results – individually and collectively - are dire.  They show the size of the challenge of promoting informed and balanced understanding of Israel in the UK

  • With British public opinion in this grim condition, future moves to boycott Israel and seek to have it treated as a pariah state are absolutely inevitable in the UK.  The climate is ripe for such moves, which are a product of the condition of public opinion
  • The eight sets of survey results go back to 2005.  Advocacy strategies in the UK need to be built on a sober and accurate assessment of these findings.  Some groups in the UK claim that advocacy is “strong” and that “real successes” are being registered.  Too often, they choose to disregard these survey findings            

1. Populus poll - May 2011

Populus are a well-known, respected and experienced polling company (www.populus.co.uk).  In May 2011 Populus director Rick Nye took part in a conference in London called ‘We Believe in Israel’ which was organised by a London-based Israel advocacy organisation called BICOM (www.bicom.org.uk).  Nye presented some findings from a recent poll which Populus had conducted about British public attitudes towards Israel. He stated:

“Two thirds of British people think that ordinary Israelis reject the idea of a Palestinian state.... “

“Two thirds of British people polled think that Israel has never offered to give up land for peace in the past.....”

“Only a small majority even among the most pro-Israel part of the population believe that ordinary Israelis accept the idea [of a Palestinian state].....”

The full poll findings have not been published.  Nye’s statements were reported in a British newspaper, Jewish Chronicle, in the week after the conference where he presented them (see www.thejc.org, 20 May 2011)

Beyond Images comment:  BICOM – which hosted the event at which these findings were made known - is the UK-based organisation that has taken a prominent role in the last 12 years in advocating of Israel in the UK.  Among the key facts of advocacy are that successive Israeli governments and the Israeli people support the creation of a Palestinian state, and have repeatedly made proposals to create one via negotiations.  BICOM did not comment publicly on the implications of Nye’s survey findings.

2. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung survey results, April 2012

The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (or Foundation) is a well-respected social democratic thinktank on public affairs which is based in Berlin, Germany (see www.feslondon.org.uk for the website of the London office of the Foundation).   In April 2012 the Foundation published a major report, based on extensive polling of the British and other European publics, called ‘Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination’, which surveyed public attitudes to anti-semitism, and also to Israel (together with other foreign policy and ethnic identity issues).  Page 42 of the report states that:

42.4% of British people polled agreed with the statement that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians....”

35.9% of British people agreed with the statement that “considering Israel’s policy I can understand why people do not like Jews.....”

Beyond Images comment:  The survey covered opinion in many other European countries too. The only two countries where the percentage of people answering this question was higher than in the UK were Germany and Portugal.   No pro-Israel communal body, or central Israel advocacy organisation, has commented on these findings, and they were not reported in any mainstream communal media.    

3. BBC World Service Survey May 2012

The BBC World Service runs an annual worldwide survey on how different countries are perceived, as either “mostly positive” or “mostly negative”.  They survey public opinion in around 22 countries, and the 2012 survey was run by GlobeScan with the Programme on International Policy Attitudes (‘PIPA’).  The results were published in May 2012, and include the following:

Israel, along with North Korea, ranks third behind only Iran and Pakistan , for “negative influence”

50% of those surveyed worldwide had negative views of Israel

21% gave Israel a positive rating

The negative rating for Israel among the public in Britain was 69%, considerably higher than the average result in the survey

74% of those questioned in Spain view Israel negatively; 68% in Germany, 65% in Australia and 59% in Canada. 

50% of those questioned in the USA have a positive view of Israel, as do 54% in Nigeria and 45% in Kenya.

The survey found that evaluations of Israel’s influence on the world, which were “already largely unfavourable in 2011” – have worsened in 2012.

The above conclusions are taken from a detailed article analysing the survey which was written by staff from Israeli online newspaper The Times of Israel, and published on 17 May 2012 (www.timesofisrael.com).

Beyond Images comments: These figures tell their own story.  This BBC poll is now an annual exercise, and its results have been consistently grim since 2006 (see further examples, below).   The fact that other European countries are hardly any better is no consolation.  It is interesting to see the more positive attitudes to Israel from Nigeria and Kenya. 

Other surveys

Here are the results of five other surveys of British public opinion carried out since 2005

4. YouGov survey – January 2005

In January 2005 the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph newspaper published the results of a survey conducted by the respected public opinion and polling company YouGov into the way British citizens view 24 countries around the world, including Russia, South Africa, Canada, China, Egypt, Japan and Israel.  (Source: Daily Telegraph, 3 January 2005).  A sample of 2058 British people were questioned, rating the 24 countries on the basis of 12 separate criteria.  The findings included the following:  

Israel came out top of the list of 24 countries where people would “least like to live”. 

It was also the country considered by those questioned to be the “least deserving of international respect”, and also thought to be among the world’s “least democratic countries”

Beyond Images comment: No public comment was issued by any Anglo-Jewish body or pro-Israel advocacy group in the UK on this survey.     

5. Simon Anholt survey, November 2006

Leading brand analyst Simon Anholt conducted a survey of 25,000 consumers (in countries including Britain) to assess how Israel as a ‘national brand’ was perceived (together with 35 other countries).  Questions were asked concerning tourism, exports, governance, people, investment, immigration and cultural heritage. Anholt’s report placed Israel at the bottom of the 36 countries surveyed.  Said Anholt:

“Israel’s brand is, by a considerable margin, the most negative we have ever measured in the National Brand Index, and comes in at the bottom of the ranking on almost every question…..”  

He went on to suggest that it would take 30 years for Israel to change its international image (reported in the Jerusalem Post, 3 December 2006)

Beyond Images comment: Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman at the time, Amir Gissin, did not dispute the findings.  He stated that Anholt’s research would “increase awareness” among Israeli decision-makers about Israel’s image problem.  We on Beyond Images are not aware of any comments which were made any communal advocacy organisation in the UK on these findings.  

6. BBC World Service public opinion survey, 2007:

In March 2007 the BBC World Service published the results of a poll of 28,000 people.  This was the first year in which the BBC conducted its now-annual survey of perceptions of different countries.  

Israel was ranked, together with Iran and the USA, as the countries with the most negative influence in the world.  

The survey polled people in 27 countries, and the other countries in the survey included Britain, Canada, China, France, India, Japan, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela (see Jerusalem Post, 7 March 2007).

Beyond Images comments: An Israeli Government spokesman, Danny Seaman, dismissed the BBC findings saying that they were “not a serious evaluation of what people in the world think about Israel.....”  He added that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had conducted its own surveys which had produced “significantly different results.…”  (Jerusalem Post, ibid)         

7. BBC World Service public opinion survey, 2008

The BBC World Service published a survey in April 2008 of attitudes towards countries round the world (source: The Jerusalem Post, 2 April 2008).  The following countries were among those which were selected to be ‘ranked’ in the poll: Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the US and the European Union.  The World Service questioned 17,457 people in 34 countries between October 2007 and January 2008.  This was the second survey of its type by the BBC World Service. 

When the people surveyed were asked which countries in the world had a positive or negative influence in the world, Israel and Iran received the most negative ratings

The proportion of those polled expressing positive views of Israel in the UK was 19% 

Beyond Images comment:  BICOM’s CEO at the time, Lorna Fitzsimons, commented that “this BBC poll shows that viewers don’t really understand the core issues within the Middle East conflict, even after watching BBC coverage.  Israel has a big challenge…..” (source: Jerusalem Post report, 2 April 2008)

8. BBC World Service public opinion survey, 2011  

This was another in the annual series of BBC World Service public opinion surveys.  28,619 people were surveyed. The poll concluded that:

14% of the British have a “generally positive” view of Israel

66% of the British surveyed have a “generally negative” view of Israel 

Beyond Images comments:  The 66% result for “generally negative” was the highest “generally negative“ view in any surveyed country in Europe. Only the Spanish equalled 66%.  Meanwhile, only one country has a lower finding for “generally positive” than the 14% result in Britain, namely Portugal.   Grassroots activist website 21st Century Socialism commented that these survey findings “provide fertile ground for campaigns in the West in support of the Palestinians, including the increasingly influential movement for a boycott of Israel....”.   We are not aware of any comment by any communal organisation or any pro-Israel advocacy organisation in the UK. 

Some related Beyond Images resources

Beyond Images Briefing 282 – 6 May 2011
Britain and Israel: some unvarnished facts

Beyond Images Briefing 281 – 29 April 2011
From schoolbooks to concert halls:
Israel’s vanishing narrative in British public life