Will the Pew Israel Report Open our Eyes?

Photo by Laurel Dunay in "Through the Lens"
Photo by Laurel Dunay in “Through the Lens

By Rabbi Uri Regev

It was with mixed feelings that I read the Pew report on Israel’s Religiously Divided Society, which was released this week.

Pew research publications are always a cause of excitement, if not for the findings, which are often grim and disturbing, then for their depth, scope and reliability. This time I happen to be very familiar with the subject matter and the population surveyed, and therefore have an additional prism, which served me in assessing the report. Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, the trans-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership organization, which I have the privilege of leading, has been focusing on polling public opinion regarding religion and state in Israel from its inception; and I have been closely following such studies for some decades now. For obvious reasons (that have to do with the thrust of Hiddush’s work) my focus here is on the findings regarding the Jewish population.

Needless to say, Pew’s thoroughness in conducting its polling based upon face-to-face interviews with over 5,000 participants, including both Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish populations in the representative sample is almost unparalleled. To a great degree, the key findings follow the pattern already familiar to everyone who is interested in this field; and yet there were some surprises both in what the study revealed and in what it did not include.

The report is vast, and even though the Hebrew language version prepared by Pew includes only 39 pages, compared to the 236 pages of the original English report, I fear that the number of people who will take in its full scope is limited. The Israeli media’s reaction to it, even though advanced copies were made available to the journalists, focused primarily on the alarming data regarding widely held anti-Arab sentiments among Israeli Jews. This was naturally seen as more sensational than the oft-discussed clash of religion and state, of halakha and democracy, and of patterns of religious observance. As could be expected, some of the Orthodox media triumphantly declared that the report validates the traditional character of Israeli Jews and underscores the low traction that Reform and Conservative have achieved in the country. Both these aspects are merely partial pictures of what should occupy a much greater place in Israel’s public and political discourses, and also that of responsible world Jewish leadership.

The Pew study provides us with an opportunity to focus once again on the religion-state conflict in Israel, something that Diaspora Jewish leadership usually tries to avoid discussing, not wanting to generate controversy within their respective communities, fearing divisiveness, or for fear of raising criticism against Israel at a time when the country’s image is under constant challenge. Simply put, even though the study shows that a majority of both secular and religious Israeli Jews believe that Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters are compatible, the truer picture is quite different. Israel at 68 years old is embroiled in a battle over these often conflicting concepts. The question regarding which of these one would follow in the case of a contradiction is very telling. A majority of Israel’s religious Jewish population would put aside democratic values and principles if they perceive them to conflict with halakha. For Israel’s secular population, the Jewish majority, the opposite is true. When put in abstract terms, the significance of these questions may seem somewhat sterile, and therefore not alarming.

This finding of the Pew report is connected to another finding, according to which the majority of the ultra-Orthodox and Zionist Orthodox support halakha becoming the binding law of the state for Jews, compared to the majority of secular and masorti Jews who oppose this. While the concern that Israel may turn into a theocracy (a Torah state), which starkly contradicts the vision of the Declaration of Independence and goes against the will of the majority of Israel, is not realistic in the foreseeable future… Nevertheless, even if we are not there yet, it is clear that Azoulay, Gafni, and their colleagues in the government and the Knesset are making every possible maneuver to bring us closer to theocracy, and to deny Israeli Jewish citizens the freedom of choice and ability to break off the shackles of the fundamentalist state rabbinate, which controls vast areas of community and personal life. It is not a coincidence therefore that in key areas of the conflict over religion and state the study proves once again that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support freedom of religion and equality and oppose the government’s coercive policies in areas such as public transportation on Shabbat, mandatory drafting of yeshiva students, and prohibiting enforced gender separation in public transportation, including that which serves the Haredi population.

It is very unfortunate that even though the report acknowledges that Israel recognizes only religious marriage avenues, prohibiting both civil and non-Orthodox alternatives, it did not see the importance of exploring Israelis’ support for civil marriages and the principle of marriage freedom. Rather, the study limited itself to asking a question exclusively about support for Reform and Conservative marriages. This creates a misperception as to the public view of marriage freedom in Israel. Both Hiddush’s extensive polling and other studies that have taken place over recent years have shown without exception the clear majority support freedom of marriage and ending the Orthodox rabbinic monopoly over marriage and divorce. In neglecting to ask these questions the Pew study missed the opportunity to shed further light on the stronger position that Israelis hold regarding the fact that Israel is the last and only Western Democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry due to religious strictures (in the case of the Jewish community, Orthodox religious strictures) on all its citizenry. The price exacted from both the Israeli population and potentially from world Jewry is enormous. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are denied the basic civil right of marriage. Millions more are denied the right to marriage ceremonies that befit their beliefs and lifestyles, and the majority of children growing up the Jewish community in America would find that if they choose to make their lives in Israel, they would be denied the right of legal marriage. It is commendable that in the last couple years we see an unprecedented awakening among mainstream Jewish leadership on the issue of marriage equality, and it is to be hoped that the Pew finding regarding Reform and Conservative marriages will not distract the readership from the truly overriding issue of the right to marry altogether.

Two recent examples put these survey questions into a very different context.

Firstly, a clear majority of the ministers in Netanyahu’s government approved the historic Western Wall agreement between the Israeli government, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Women of the Wall, affirming the agreement as a government resolution. Then, Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay (of Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party) who has specific authority over Israel’s Jewish sacred sites, announced that he would not sign into effect the regulations stipulated in the agreement because his rabbi told him not to. Imagine a similar situation in the US, with a Cabinet member refusing to follow a court ruling or Presidential executive order because she gives greater weight to her pastor’s religious edicts than to those of the courts or the Commander-in-Chief. This is exactly what we have been facing for quite some time in Israel. Rather than show the specific minister and his likeminded civil servants the door, PM Netanyahu and his Cabinet members are now engaged in acrobatics, trying to appease Azoulay, his fellow ultra-Orthodox political leaders, and their rabbis; while not losing face with the non-Orthodox diaspora movements with whom the agreement was reached.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, following a landmark Supreme Court ruling that allowed non-Orthodox converts access to public ritual baths (mikva’ot) for their conversions, the powerful chair of the Knesset finance committee, Rabbi Moshe Gafni (of UTJ, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party), announced that he sees the Supreme Court ruling as yet another declaration of war by the Court against Judaism. He stated, “The Supreme Court declared war on the Torah. It will not cease and will not rest until it destroys and decimates Judaism in the country such that, God forbid, nothing will be left. We will put up a battle and fight against it,” and submitted a draft bill that would undo the Supreme Court ruling. His proposed legislation quickly received full support from both the MKs of the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the MKs of the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party, led by Minister Naftali Bennett.

In both these instances, the issue at stake is freedom of religion, freedom of worship, and equal access to state funded institutions. Neither instance involves a real clash between Judaism and democracy, but rather between narrow sectarian interpretations of Judaism in Israel, aiming not at ensuring religious liberty for the ultra-Orthodox, but denying that liberty to others.

There are many more examples of this nature. The Pew study’s findings are not new. Last month, Hiddush published comparable results of a poll that included a similar question. This a known challenge, which neither Israeli political leaders on the right and left, nor Diaspora Jewish leadership really want to address. This poses a major threat to the integrity of Israel’s democracy and its ability to maintain the solidarity and identification of world Jewry with Israel, and yet it continues to be pushed under the carpet. In recent years, we have seen the beginning of a shift on the part of Diaspora Jewry, which we and most Israelis highly welcome, but how far and vocal it will be remains to be seen. I’m referring to landmark JPPI study of diaspora Jewish leadership views on Israel as Jewish and democratic state, the JFNA’s new iRep project (the Israel Religious Expression Platform) aimed at promoting freedom of marriage in Israel, and AJC’s J-REC coalition to advance religious pluralism, marriage freedom and Jewish status issues in Israel.

For diaspora Jewry it is important to understand that whereas in their communities the division of Jewish identity along denominational lines is common, for Israelis the phenomenon of the non-Orthodox denominations is a relatively recent development, going against the political stream, unsupported by government funds (which generously fund all forms of Orthodox operations), and often discriminated against and denied full legal recognition. Nevertheless, both non-Orthodox movements have grown considerably in Israel in recent years, belying the misguided notion of yesteryear that “the synagogue that the Israeli Jew does not attend must be Orthodox.” Not only are the Movements growing, but there is a flourishing of post-denominational prayer groups and synagogues, such as Beit Tefila Yisraeli in Tel Aviv, which attracts some thousand participants to their popular musical kabbalat Shabbat services at the Tel Aviv port. Under these circumstances, we should not attach too much importance to the specific percentage the study indicated of Israelis who identify with Reform and Conservative. We should bear in mind that similarly credible recent studies of public opinion in Israel have indicated higher percentages, and that as reliable as this study is, it’s still acknowledges a margin of error of some 3%.

When I looked at the makeup of the impressive 5,000+ sample, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it is fully representative of the current reality of the Jewish population in Israel.

One group which is undoubtedly underrepresented in the sample but has significant implications for the topics explored is the some 350,000 Israeli citizens from the FSU whose mothers are not Jewish. They make up more than 5% of the Israeli Jewish population, adversely impacted by the alignment of religion and politics in Israel, but they are hardly present in the Pew study. The study notes the significant difference between its 1% share of “other” or “without religion,” and that of the Central Bureau of Statistics’ 4%. The sample’s omission is notable when one looks at the responses to Jewish ancestry, for only 1% of Israeli Jews in the Pew sample claim to have only a Jewish father.

The other unfortunate choice of the study was, in my view, was to maintain the older categories of Jewish identity, which included only one “masorti” label. For more than 10 years now, the CBS has divided this category into two; “masorti leaning towards religious,” and “masorti not so religious.” While the labels may seem awkward, the distinction is of great importance. As the study clearly indicates, Israeli hiloni are far from atheist, and the study shows high levels of traditional observance among them. The phenomenon of the “masorti not so religious,” which according to the CBS constitute approximately 25% of Israeli Jews, is far closer to the hiloni population with regards to positions on many religion-state conflicts, than to that of the religious population. Given these two considerations, namely that the hiloni are not atheist, and that the “not so religious” are similar to them, the facile conclusion of some journalists (especially those that write for Israel’s religious media) that the study shows that the hiloni are a minority is a very self-serving conclusion, which does not do justice to the real picture of Israel’s Jewish identity mosaic today.

Another major area of concern that the Pew study reveals, which has been known for quite some time per previous public opinion studies, but has not received the proper attention is the Jewish-Arab conflict within Israel. Much of the Pew media coverage focused on the trees rather than the forest; rather than, for instance, the emerging conclusion that there is a looming threat from religious quarters to Israeli democracy and the rule of law, and that the clear majority of Israelis object to the euphemistically described “status quo,” and the policies of Israeli governments over the years.

The study itself chose a sensational question to illustrate the topic by asking the respondents’ opinions regarding the expulsion and transfer of Arabs. One of the leading Israeli experts in the field – Professor Sami Samocha – has already reacted to the study, pointing to the question’s ambiguous language and the difficulty of attaching full value to the responses. Regardless of whether the phrasing of the question is optimal or not, the results indicate a clear division between the majority of religious and ultra-Orthodox who support this and the majority of the Hiloni and masorti that oppose it. Oddly, regarding the question on “preferential treatment of Jews in Israel,” according the Pew study, a majority of all subgroups of Jews in Israel support this, but one may ask whether this question was adequately phrased and what the respondents actually understood it to mean. I intuitively hold that a more accurate way of asking the question and therefore assessing the responses is found IDI democracy index of 2014: “do you agree or disagree that Jewish citizens of Israel should have greater rights than non-Jewish citizens?” The majority of Zionist Orthodox and haredim agreed with this, and the majority of hiloni and traditional disagreed.

Let me not be misunderstood – I do not claim that Jewish religiosity is identical to anti-gentile, anti-Arab sentiments. Some of the leading champions of democracy and civil liberties come from the religious Israeli sector. What I’m saying is – that the repeated statistical data indicating an alarming level of correlation between religious identity and education with anti-democratic, anti-rule-of-law, anti-gentile views should lead us to an urgent reckoning that something very basic is wrong with religious instruction that breeds such views. Clearly the powers that be in Israel, whether the chief rabbinate, haredi rabbinic leadership, and their political representatives have done little if anything to stem this tide. No true democracy can flourish if such anti-democratic views are allowed to grow and spread their venom throughout it. Deep soul searching and urgent political, public and educational measures are needed. Other than Israel’s president, who limits his message primarily to the racist plague, none of these avenues are meeting the challenge. It will be easy to dissect the Pew study and look at its numerous questions, and analyze them ad nauseum, but its true contribution, as well as the seminal few comparable studies done in recent years will be best made if it opens the eyes of both policymakers and public opinion molders within Israel and the Jewish communities outside Israel to understand that seven decades after the founding of the State of Israel, there is dire and urgent need to address some of the threatening trends, especially those that are cloaked in religious rhetoric and claim exemption from review and rebuke, invoking the Divine name.

We must return to the inspiring and healing spirit imbued in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, envisaging the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel as being guided by the “precepts of liberty, justice and peace, as envisaged by the Hebrew prophets,” and ensuring “full social and political equality for all regardless of religion, gender, or race.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.