Some Initial Insights into the Pew Study on Israeli Jewish Identity

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Earlier today, the Pew Study on the “Jewishness of Israelis” was released. It would be the first such comprehensive study on the State of Israel since the Jewish State was established nearly 70 years ago.

The report seems to suggest that there remains a significant bond on the part of Jews with their religious and cultural identity, even when Jews describe themselves as “non observant.” Such an identity transcends their loyalty and commitment to statehood. Israelis remain committed to preserving the two key ingredients for their national identity, maintaining Israel as a democracy and promoting the Jewish character of the State.

The challenge here for liberal Jewish movements, i.e. Reform and Conservative Judaism, is to foster a deeper understanding of how such movements can enhance and enrich Israel’s Jewish content. At this point in time, Israelis have not been respective to the messages and practices associated with these American-based religious expressions. Quite to the contrary, Israelis by a significant majority appear to reject a role for these denominational groups within the society.

Disappointingly, the study appears not to have measured the Diaspora-Israel connection and where that phenomenon might fit into defining Israeli religious and political identity. One can gather, as a result, little understanding from this report on how Israelis view their fellow Jews across the globe.

In some measure the religiosity of a significant segment of Israelis and the general pattern of selective religious practice of many others would remind us of how geography and politics can impact a society. Residing amidst a religious revolution in the Middle East where Islam is seeking to define itself and affirm its presence, Israelis seem to be engaged in their own internal battle in creating a national religious identity through their efforts to define the “Jewish” character of the State.

Israelis appear to either formally embrace Judaism in its most traditional forms or in turn outright reject its practices and requirements. In the act of nation-building, the founders and architects of this national Jewish enterprise appear to have failed in creating a national identity as many Israelis reject the “Zionist” label.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR.