First Pew Study in Israel Finds Increasing Polarization Amongst Jews

Photo courtesy Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life
Photo courtesy Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life

By Judy Maltz

Israel is becoming a more religiously polarized society, with both ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews gaining ground on more moderately observant groups, according to a first-of-its-kind report published today by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center.

The report attributed the growth in the ultra-Orthodox population to higher birth rates among this group, whereas the increase at the other end of the spectrum was ascribed to the growing number of more moderately observant Jews who have been leaving the fold.

The study found that only about half of Israeli Jews (54 percent) who were raised modern Orthodox and two-thirds who were raised traditional still identify as such. “The movement among Jewish subgroups in Israel is generally in the direction of lower observance,” the report notes.

The various Jewish communities in Israel have become so polarized, the report found, that secular Jews would prefer that their child marry a Christian than an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

The study was conducted between October 2014 and May 2015 among 5,601 Israeli adults, including Jewish residents of the West Bank and Arab residents of East Jerusalem. In addition to exploring religious attitudes and practices, the survey also looked at perceptions about discrimination and views on the peace process and politics. This is the first time the Pew Research Center has devoted an entire report to Israel.

For the purpose of the study, Jewish Israelis were asked to identify themselves as one of the following: Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (modern Orthodox), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular). Ultra-Orthodox accounted for 9 percent of the Jewish population, modern Orthodox for 13 percent, traditional for 29 percent and secular for 49 percent.  The traditional or Masorti group, which is composed largely of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, is the most diverse with regards to religious beliefs and practices. It includes Jews who observe some religious practices but are not strict about adhering to Jewish law.

Although almost half of Israeli Jews are secular, the survey found that Orthodox views dominated some key public policy issues. For example, 54 percent of all Israeli Jews (including 28 percent of secular Jews) said they opposed allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct marriages in Israel. A plurality of 47 percent (including 35 percent of secular Jews) said they opposed allowing women to pray out loud at the Western Wall.

Regardless of their beliefs, many secular Israelis, the report found, observed key Jewish religious practices. For example, more than two-thirds of secular Jews said they did not eat pork. An overwhelming 87 percent said they had attended or held a Passover Seder in the past year. One-third said they kept kosher at home. More than half said they lit Shabbat candles always or sometimes. An overwhelming 80 percent said they lit Hanukkah candles, and 30 percent said they fasted the entire day on Yom Kippur (another 13 percent said they fasted part of the day).

Alan Cooperman, the director of religious research at the Pew Research Center, said that based on the findings, the United States is a more religious society than Israel. “One of the best questions to use for overall comparisons like this is to ask how important is religion in your life,” he said in an interview with Haaretz.

“In the United States, more than half of all Americans say it’s very important in their lives, while in Israel, among Jews, it’s 30 percent. That’s pretty comparable to what it is among American Jews, which is 26 percent. In Israeli society as a whole, however, the non-Jewish population is more religious than the Jewish population, so among Israelis overall, 36 percent say religion is very important in their lives.”

The following are some other key findings of the report:

Only a small percentage of Israeli Jews identify with the Conservative and Reform movements. According to the Pew study, 2 percent of Israeli Jews identify as Conservative and 3 percent as Reform. These figures are a few percentage points lower than those reported in a study published several years ago by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Israeli Jews not totally comfortable with the term “Zionist.” Only 30 percent said the term “very accurately” described them, while 44 percent said it “somewhat accurately” described them, 16 percent said it “not too accurately” described them, and 8 percent said it “not at all” described them. Among secular Jews, nearly one-quarter said the term either “not too accurately” or “not at all” described them.

Most Israeli Jews oppose turning Jewish law, or halakha, into state law. Although 64 percent of all Israeli Jews said they opposed making halakha state law, a majority of ultra-Orthodox (86 percent) and modern Orthodox (69 percent) was in favor.

Most Israeli Jews believe Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democracy, but most Israeli Arabs do not. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Israeli Jews said it could balance both facets, whereas only 27 percent of Arabs agreed.

Israeli Muslims are more religious than Jews: Sixty-eight percent of Israeli Muslims said religion was “very important” in their lives, as compared with only 30 percent of Jews. They also tended to be more religious than Christian Arabs and Druze in Israel, though less religious than their counterparts elsewhere. For example, 85 percent of Muslims in Jordan, 85 percent in the Palestinian territories and 82 percent in Iraq have said religion was “very important” in their lives. Among Israeli Jews, 26 percent said religion was “somewhat important” in their lives, and 44 percent said it was “not too/not at all important.”

Vast majority of Jews believe in God with absolute or some certainty. 50 percent of those surveyed said they believed in God with absolute certainty and another 27 percent said that they did though with less certainty. The remaining 23 percent said they did not believe in God or did not know if they did. Among secular Jews, 44 percent said they did not believe in God or did not know if they did. Israeli college graduates were less likely to believe in God than those with just high school degrees, and Ashkenazi Jews were less likely to believe in God that Sephardi-Mizrahi Jews.

At the same time, more than half of Israeli Jews believe in evolution. Fifty-three percent of Israeli Jews said that humans and other living things have evolved over time. Only 37 percent of Arabs said they believed in evolution.

A majority of Israeli Jews believes their country was given to them by God. Sixty one percent of all Israeli Jews, including 31 percent of all secular Jews, said they believed Israel was a divine gift to the Jews.

Non-Jews in Israel are more likely to believe in God than Jews. Seventy-nine percent of Israeli Christians and 84 percent of Israeli Druze said they believed in God with absolute certainly. Because of cultural sensitivities, Israeli Muslims were not asked if they believed in God.

Vast majority of Israeli Muslims fast on Ramadan and give zakat (a percentage of their income to mosque or charity). Eighty three percent of Israeli Muslims said they fasted during the holy month of Ramadan, though younger Muslims were less likely to, and two-thirds said they gave Zakat.

Most Israeli Catholics rarely or never go to confession. Sixty eight percent said they seldom or never went, while another 16 percent said they went only once or twice a year.

Most Israeli Jews travel and handle money on Shabbat. Sixty-two percent of Israeli Jews travel on Shabbat, and 55 percent handle money. More than half of Masorti Jews (53 percent) travel on Shabbat, and 40 percent of them handle money.

At the same time, most Israeli Jews light Shabbat candles, keep kosher and fast on Yom Kippur. Three-quarters of Israeli Jews light Shabbat candles always or sometimes, 63 percent keep kosher at home, 52 percent keep kosher outside the home, 82 percent do not eat pork, and 60 percent fast on Yom Kippur.

Friendships and marriages rarely cross religious lines, even among Jewish subgroups in Israel. Only about 1 percent of Israeli Arabs and 2 percent of Israeli Jews reported having a spouse from another faith. The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews said that all or most of their friends belonged to the same subgroup and that they were married to a member of the same subgroup. Those most likely to cross over among the subgroups were Masorti Jews. Eighty percent of secular Jews said they would be either “not at all comfortable” or “not too comfortable” if their child were to marry a Christian. But 93 percent said they would feel this way if their child were to marry a Haredi Jew.

Religious identity takes different forms. Only 22 percent of Israeli Jews say being Jewish is mainly about religion, whereas 55 percent say it is mainly about ancestry and/or culture. Among Muslim, more than twice the share (45 percent) say being a Muslim is about religion. Although 54 percent of Israeli Jews say being Jewish is “very important” to them, only 30 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives.

Religious observance far more prevalent among Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews. Although two-thirds of Ashkenazi Jews identified as secular, less than one-third (32 percent) of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews did.

Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews have highest retention rates among subgroups.  Among the Haredim, 94 percent of those born into the subgroup currently identify as such. Three percent of those raised ultra-Orthodox are now Dati, 2 percent are Masorti and 1 percent are secular. Among secular Jews, 90 percent of those born into the subgroup currently identify as such. Two percent of those raised secular are now Haredi, 1 percent are Dati and 7 percent are Masorti. The biggest shifts were observed in the “religious middle.” Only 54 percent of those raised Dati continued to identify as such. Five percent are now Haredi, 35 percent are now Masorti and 5 percent are now secular. Similarly, only 67 percent of those raised Masorti continue to identify as such. Two percent are now Haredi, 6 percent are now Dati, and 25 percent are now secular.

More Israeli Jews say they are Jewish first, and only second Israeli. Among Israeli Jews, 46 percent said they were Jewish before Israeli, while 35 percent said they were Israeli before Jewish. Only among secular Jews did a majority say they were Israeli (59 percent) before Jewish (20 percent).

Holocaust a common denominator in Jewish identity. For a majority of Israelis, across the various sub-groups, remembering the Holocaust is considered essential to Jewish identity.

Second-generation Russian-speaking immigrants tend to be more observant than their parents. Seventy percent of the children of Russian-speakers who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s say they believe in God, as compared with only 55 percent of their parents. They are also more likely to light Shabbat candles and keep kosher at home than their parents. Still, they tend to be less religious than Israeli Jews on average.

Most secular Jews never attend synagogue or pray. One-third of Israeli Jews reported that they never attended synagogue, and half said they never prayed. Among secular Israelis, a majority of 60 percent said they never attended synagogue, and 79 percent said they never prayed.

The complete Pew report, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” is available for download here.

An overview in Hebrew is available here.