|How ‘religious’ are Israelis?|
|Friday, 11 May 2012 17:53|
|Revealing data about American and Israeli Jews’ beliefs and practices|
Forget about “Iran,” social justice protests, and the peace process. In the past few months, the main headlines in Israel have involved religious issues: the Supreme Court’s abrogation of the Tal Law that had tried to institutionalize haredi exemption from national service; the Tel Aviv municipality’s declaration that buses would start running on the Sabbath; religious attempts to push women – both civilian and military – out of the public domain and so on. Which prompts the question: What are the sociological trends in the religious sphere? Are Israelis becoming more religious or less so?
Every decade or so, the Guttmann Center for Surveys (part of the Israel Democracy Institute) conducts a wide-ranging survey on precisely this question, and the latest installment was recently issued. As one would expect, the results do not present a simple, straightforward picture but rather a complex one.
The percentage of Israelis who define themselves as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) has increased during the past 10 years, rising from 5 percent to 7 percent. So, too, the Orthodox, who have an increase from 11 to 15 percent. While the percentage of “Traditionalists” has remained virtually the same (33 to 32 percent), the “Secular” percentage declined from 46 to 43 percent. Perhaps most surprising of all, the “Secular, Anti-Religious” percentage fell by half (from 6 to 3 percent).
On the face of it, this would seem to suggest that Israeli society is becoming more religious. Well, perhaps so. However, the main reason is not necessarily the higher ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox birth rates but rather the “acculturation” of the approximately one million Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s – the vast majority of whom arrived in Israel as very secular people indoctrinated by Soviet atheistic Communism and/or people who were religiously deracinated by that regime.
Over time, they have become more like other Israelis, living in a Jewish State with all its cultural and national/ethnic customs, holidays and symbols. Of course, the vast majority is not Orthodox, but once they gained familiarity with Jewish customs and practices, many moved into the “Traditionalist” camp. Some even moved from “Secular, Anti-Religious” into the “Secular” camp. Here we see most clearly how differently Israel and the United States define the term “secular.” Though unaware of recent comparable U.S. data, I am sure the percentage of American secular Jewry (at least in the sense of those unaffiliated with any synagogue) is far lower than in Israel. Whereas secular Jews comprise only 46 percent of Israel’s entire Jewish population, 76 percent of Israeli Jews eat only kosher meat at home, 70 percent eat only kosher outside the home, and 63 percent separate meat and dairy at home! This means that 17 percent of Israeli secular Jews separate meat and dairy – and 24 percent eat only kosher!
And then there’s “God.” Here we do have data from the United States, through the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010 Report. Whereas 72 percent of American Jews believe in God, 80 percent Israel’s Jews believe. Are Scriptures the literal word of God? Thirty-seven percent of American Jews said “yes,” whereas 65 percent of Israeli Jews so believe.
Of course, none of this should be too surprising, given that it is easier to buy and eat kosher in Israel than in the U.S., easier to find a synagogue in Israel (indeed, it’s hard to avoid them!), and, given the ubiquity of biblical quotes, references and symbols in Israel, also easier to perceive the Torah as God-given.
Do these statistics mean that Israeli and American Jews are drifting further apart? From an Israeli perspective, no… and yes! Seventy-three percent of Israel’s Jews believe Israeli and American Jews have a shared destiny, but slightly more than half also feel that Jews in Israel constitute “a different nation” than Jews living in the diaspora.
That is not so much a contradiction as a paradoxical truism. My interpretation of these last numbers is that psychologically, socially and culturally Israelis are indeed very different from American Jews; but the rest of the world (and certainly American society at large) still views the two groups as belonging to the same religion and therefore sharing a common fate. Jewish history does not fully support that assumption – but that’s a topic for another day.
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In 2008-09, he was Schusterman Visiting Professor at Brown University. Visit www.profslw.com.