A Portrait of Israeli Jews

The Israeli Democracy Institute today formally presents the findings of the third Guttman-AVI CHAI report, A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews. Based on a survey conducted by IDI’s Guttman Center for Surveys for the AVI CHAI Foundation in 2009, the report is a sequel to two earlier studies conducted in 1991 and 1999. Taken together, the three surveys present a unique continuum of Jewish religiosity in Israel.

Here are the main findings:

From 1991 to 1999, there was a decline in attachment to Jewish tradition and religion. From 1999 to 2009, by contrast, there was an increase in this attachment, which returned to and in some aspects even surpassed the level measured in 1991. One example of this is the observance of religious tradition: in 1991, 24% of the respondents stated that they “observe religious tradition to a great extent”; in 1999 only 19% did so; in 2009, 26% did.

The decline in attachment to Jewish tradition in 1999 was interpreted then as a result of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union. The reversal of the trend between 1999 and 2009 may be evidence that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been assimilated into Israeli society and adopted Jewish customs and traditions; it may also reflect an increase in the demographic weight of the Orthodox and Ultraorthodox in the Jewish population. However, it is important to note that while the Orthodox and Ultraorthodox state that they observe religious precepts more stringently than they did in the past and are more strongly attached to tradition, those who defined themselves as “secular but not anti-religious” and “secular and anti-religious” did not report that they were more observant than previously. The statistical data reveal a strong correlation between self-defined religiosity and observance of tradition; nevertheless, Israeli Jews who define themselves as secular but not anti-religious, and even as secular and anti-religious, do observe some traditions. Israeli Jews are fiercely loyal to Jewish rites of passage, but less scrupulous about keeping kosher (76%), not eating hametz on Passover (67%), fasting on Yom Kippur (68%), lighting Sabbath candles (66%) and making Kiddush on Friday night (60%).

  • Festival customs. A majority of Israeli Jews (85%) say that it is important to celebrate Jewish festivals in the traditional manner, but they do so selectively. An overwhelming majority (90%) think this about the Passover Seder; many (82%) say that they light Hanukkah candles. A smaller percentage refrain from eating hametz on Passover (67%), fast on Yom Kippur (68%), listen to the public reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim (36%), or take part in an all-night study session on Shavuot (20%). At the same time, most Israeli Jews also want to preserve individual freedom of choice and are in favor of permitting weekday activities on the Sabbath in the public space. More than 60% support allowing cultural events and sports activities to take place on the Sabbath; 58% support public transportation on the Sabbath and permitting shopping centers to do business as usual. Similarly, 51% support instituting civil marriage.
  • Kashrut. Most Israeli Jews eat only kosher food at home (76%) and outside the home (70%) and never eat pork (72%). Most say that they do so for religious reasons.
  • The Status of Women. The data indicate significant differences in this issue among the various groups: 67% of the Ultraorthodox believe that the husband should work and support the family, with the wife staying home to take care of the children; only 35% of the Orthodox feel this way. The figures are 23% for the Traditional, 18% for the secular but not anti-religious, and 20% for secular anti-religious respondents.
  • The Bond between Israel and the Diaspora. In 1999, there was a certain retreat in the sense of solidarity in comparison to 1991: in 1991, 76% of the respondents believed that Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews have a shared destiny, as opposed to the 68% who felt this way in 1999. In 2009, however, there was an uptrend, with more Israeli Jews (73%) feeling that they have a common destiny with Diaspora Jews. Most (81%) also agree with the assertion that without the Jewish religion the Jewish people would no longer exist. Nevertheless, more than half of the respondents agree that the Jews in Israel are a different nation than the Jews abroad.
  • Attitude about Non-Orthodox Streams in Judaism. Most Israeli Jews (61%) believe that the Conservative and the Reform movements should have equal status with the Orthodox.
  • Attitudes toward Conversion. Although most respondents (87%) support allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel and receive Israel citizenship immediately, only about half (53%) support this for the non-Jewish spouses of Jews, and even fewer (43%) for non-Jewish grandchildren of only a Jewish grandfather. Even so, there was broad agreement with the notion that a Jew can be a good Jew even if he or she does not observe religious tradition (93%). In general, a majority of Israeli Jews (73%) accept the official position that Orthodox conversion is the path leading to recognition of a person’s Jewishness (even if he or she does not observe the precepts). Fewer (48%) accept non-Orthodox conversion.
  • Difference by Ethnic Origin. According to the 2009 survey, most Mizrahim define themselves as Traditional, Orthodox, or Ultra-Orthodox (73% total), while most Ashkenazim and those of mixed parentage (one Ashkenazi parent and one Mizrahi parent) are secular but not anti-religious (66% and 56% respectively). Mizrahi respondents were more likely to report that they observed all of the customs being studied.
  • Differences by Income Level. In general, there is a negative correlation between Israeli Jews’ income and their bond to religion and tradition. Most of these with an income far above the average define themselves as secular but not anti-religious or as secular and anti-religious (62%, as against 39% to 48% in all other income categories). Conversely, most of those with a lower-than-average income define themselves as Traditional, Orthodox, or Ultraorthodox (61%).
  • Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. In all aspects examined, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union are significantly more secular than are other Israeli Jews. The percentage of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who define themselves as secular but not anti-religious (including a few who are secular and anti-religious) is much higher than the figure for other Israeli Jews (79% and 43%, respectively).

To What Extent Do You Believe or Not Believe That

(Percentage of respondents who answered “believe wholeheartedly”
or “believe but sometimes doubt” in 2009)

Two main trends are evident over the years (1991, 1999, and 2009). With regard to fundamental matters of religious belief, such as the notion that a higher power directs the world, there was a slight increase. With regard to specifically Jewish tenets, though, such as the coming of Messiah, there was a decline in the percentage of believers in 1999 as compared to 1991; but this decline was “corrected” in 2009, when the figure returned to the 1991 level.

“The results of the survey are evidence that Israeli Jews are committed to two significant values: preserving Jewish tradition, on the one hand, and upholding individual freedom of choice, on the other. This fascinating combination is a source of tension, but it is also the basis of a broad Israeli-Jewish consensus that facilitates coexistence in the twenty-first century,” says Dr. Eli Silver, director of AVI CHAI–Israel.

An abstract of the report is available for download.