Separation of Synagogue and State in Israel?


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Israel’s Religiously Divided Society

Source: Pew Research Forum

Deep gulfs among Jews, as well as between Jews and Arabs, over political values and religion’s role in public life

Wailing wall and Dome of the Rock

Wailing wall and Dome of the Rock in the background

Israel's diverse religious landscapeNearly 70 years after the establishment of the modern State of Israel, its Jewish population remains united behind the idea that Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people and a necessary refuge from rising anti-Semitism around the globe. But alongside these sources of unity, a major new survey by Pew Research Center also finds deep divisions in Israeli society – not only between Israeli Jews and the country’s Arab minority, but also among the religious subgroups that make up Israeli Jewry.

Nearly all Israeli Jews identify with one of four categories: Haredi (commonly translated as “ultra-Orthodox”), Dati (“religious”), Masorti (“traditional”) or Hiloni (“secular”).

Although they live in the same small country and share many traditions, highly religious and secular Jews inhabit largely separate social worlds, with relatively few close friends and little intermarriage outside their own groups. In fact, the survey finds that secular Jews in Israel are more uncomfortable with the notion that a child of theirs might someday marry an ultra-Orthodox Jew than they are with the prospect of their child marrying a Christian. (See Chapter 11 for more information.)

Moreover, these divisions are reflected in starkly contrasting positions on many public policy questions, including marriage, divorce, religious conversion, military conscription, gender segregation and public transportation. Overwhelmingly, Haredi and Dati Jews (both generally considered Orthodox) express the view that Israel’s government should promote religious beliefs and values, while secular Jews strongly favor separation of religion from government policy.

Israeli Jews see democracy as compatible with Jewish state but are divided on whether democratic princes or religious law should take priority

Most Jews across the religious spectrum agree in principle that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state. But they are at odds about what should happen, in practice, if democratic decision-making collides with Jewish law (halakha). The vast majority of secular Jews say democratic principles should take precedence over religious law, while a similarly large share of ultra-Orthodox Jews say religious law should take priority.

Even more fundamentally, these groups disagree on what Jewish identity is mainly about: Most of the ultra-Orthodox say “being Jewish” is mainly a matter of religion, while secular Jews tend to say it is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture.

To be sure, Jewish identity in Israel is complex, spanning notions of religion, ethnicity, nationality and family. When asked, “What is your present religion, if any?” virtually all Israeli Jews say they are Jewish – and almost none say they have no religion – even though roughly half describe themselves as secular and one-in-five do not believe in God. For some, Jewish identity also is bound up with Israeli national pride. Most secular Jews in Israel say they see themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second, while most Orthodox Jews (Haredim and Datiim) say they see themselves as Jewish first and then Israeli.

The survey also looks at differences among Israeli Jews based on age, gender, education, ethnicity (Ashkenazi or Sephardi/Mizrahi) and other demographic factors. For example, Sephardim/Mizrahim are generally more religiously observant than Ashkenazim, and men are somewhat more likely than women to say halakha should take precedence over democratic principles. But in many respects, these demographic differences are dwarfed by the major gulfs seen among the four religious subgroups that make up Israeli Jewry.

Self-categorization of Jews in Israel

Nearly all Israeli Jews interviewed in this survey self-identify as Haredi, Dati, Masorti or Hiloni. Here’s a brief description of what the survey shows about these categories.

Haredi (9% of Jews, 8% of all Israeli adults)
Though often translated as “ultra-Orthodox,” the Hebrew word Haredi literally means trembling or fearing God. The survey shows that Jews who describe themselves as Haredim are generally highly observant of Jewish religious law (halakha), and they express a strong preference for a state in which religious law would take precedence over democratic principles.

Dati (13% of Jews, 10% of all Israeli adults)
Literally meaning religious, Dati is sometimes translated as “modern Orthodox.” The survey finds that most Datiim are traditionally observant (keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath, for example). But they are more integrated into Israel’s overall society than Haredim, and Dati men are much more likely than Haredi men to have served in the Israeli military.

Masorti (29% of Jews, 23% of all Israeli adults)
Translated as “traditional,” Masortim occupy a broad middle ground between Orthodoxy and secularism, and they report widely varying levels of observance. In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, Masortim are the most diverse of these four self-defined types of Jews.

Hiloni (49% of Jews, 40% of all Israeli adults)
Though nominally “secular,” many Hilonim observe some religious traditions, such as keeping kosher and fasting on Yom Kippur. But they generally oppose the Orthodox rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, and they say democratic principles should take precedence over religious law.

While most Israelis are Jewish, a growing share (currently about one-in-five adults) belong to other groups. Most non-Jewish residents of Israel are ethnically Arab and identify, religiously, as Muslims, Christians or Druze.1

Most Arabs say Israel cannot be both a democracy and Jewish stateThe survey shows that Israeli Arabs generally do not think Israel can be a Jewish state and a democracy at the same time. This view is expressed by majorities of Muslims, Christians and Druze. And overwhelmingly, all three of these groups say that if there is a conflict between Jewish law and democracy, democracy should take precedence.

But this does not mean most Arabs in Israel are committed secularists. In fact, many Muslims and Christians support the application of their own religious law to their communities. Fully 58% of Muslims favor enshrining sharia as official law for Muslims in Israel, and 55% of Christians favor making the Bible the law of the land for Christians.

Roughly eight-in-ten Israeli Arabs (79%) say there is a lot of discrimination in Israeli society against Muslims, who are by far the biggest of the religious minorities. On this issue, Jews take the opposite view; the vast majority (74%) say they do not see much discrimination against Muslims in Israel.

At the same time, Jewish public opinion is divided on whether Israel can serve as a homeland for Jews while also accommodating the country’s Arab minority. Nearly half of Israeli Jews say Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, including roughly one-in-five Jewish adults who strongly agree with this position.

Mutual doubts about sincerity of leaders in the peace processThe divisions between Jews and Arabs are also reflected in their views on the peace process. In recent years, Arabs in Israel have become increasingly doubtful that a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully. As recently as 2013, roughly three-quarters of Israeli Arabs (74%) said a peaceful two-state solution was possible. As of early 2015, 50% say such an outcome is possible.

Israeli Arabs are highly skeptical about the sincerity of the Israeli government in seeking a peace agreement, while Israeli Jews are equally skeptical about the sincerity of Palestinian leaders. But there is plenty of distrust to go around: Fully 40% of Israeli Jews say their own government is not making a sincere effort toward peace, and an equal share of Israeli Arabs say the same about Palestinian leaders.

Israel’s major religious groups also are isolated from one another socially. The vast majority of Jews (98%), Muslims (85%), Christians (86%) and Druze (83%) say all or most of their close friends belong to their own religious community.

Jews are more likely than Arabs to say all their friends belong to their religious group. To some extent, this may reflect the fact that the majority of Israel’s population is Jewish. Two-thirds of Israeli Jews (67%) say all of their friends are Jewish. By comparison, 38% of Muslims, 21% of Christians and 22% of Druze say all their friends share their religion.

These are some of the key findings of Pew Research Center’s comprehensive survey of religion in Israel, which was conducted through face-to-face interviews in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian among 5,601 Israeli adults (ages 18 and older) from October 2014 through May 2015. The survey uses the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics’ definition of the Israeli population, which includes Jews living in the West Bank as well as Arab residents of East Jerusalem. See survey methodology for more details.

Who is included in the survey?

The survey includes interviews with citizens and residents living within the boundaries of Israel, as defined in the 2008 census conducted by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Jews were surveyed in all six census districts (Jerusalem, North, Haifa, Center, Tel Aviv and South) and in the West Bank.

Jewish residents of all areas categorized as “Judea and Samaria” (West Bank) by the Central Bureau of Statistics were eligible to be included in the sample. Some examples of West Bank communities where interviews were conducted include Beit Arye, Elkana, Ma’ale Adumim and Giv’at Ze’ev.

All Arab citizens of Israel were eligible to be included in the sample. In addition, the survey includes interviews with Arab residents of East Jerusalem.

Arab residents of Gaza and the West Bank outside of East Jerusalem were not included in the survey. The Palestinian population has been previously surveyed by the Pew Research Center as recently as 2015.

For additional details about the sample, including a map of the areas covered, see survey methodology.

The survey includes oversamples (i.e., additional interviews, over and above the number that would occur in a purely random sample) of five groups – Christians, Druze, Haredi Jews, Arabs living in East Jerusalem and Israeli settlers in the West Bank – in order to be able to analyze the views of people in these relatively small groups. However, the oversamples are statistically adjusted in the survey’s final results so that Christians, Druze, Haredim, Arabs in East Jerusalem and Israeli settlers are represented in proportion to their actual share of the Israeli adult population.

The survey probes Israelis’ religious identification, beliefs and practices; views on democracy and religion’s role in public life; moral values and life goals; perceptions about discrimination; views on intermarriage; and attitudes toward politics and the peace process.

Using data from Pew Research Center’s 2013 study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the report also makes comparisons between Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States. There are deep connections between the world’s two largest Jewish populations, but also some key differences. For instance, Israeli Jews overall are more religiously observant than U.S. Jews. Politically, American Jews are more optimistic about the possibility of a peaceful two-state solution and more negative about Jewish settlements in the West Bank than are Israeli Jews. U.S.-Israeli comparisons are discussed in detail in Chapter 1.

How religious groups are defined

The 2015 Pew Research Center survey of Israel includes interviews with 3,789 Jews, 871 Muslims, 468 Christians and 439 Druze. An additional 34 respondents belong to other religions or are religiously unaffiliated.

Respondents are analyzed as part of these religious groups based on their response to the following question: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, another religion or no religion?”

All respondents classified as Muslims, Christians and Druze in this study identified themselves as such in response to the religious identity question. The vast majority of Jews (3,725) also said they are Jewish when asked about their religion. In addition, 64 respondents who identified as having “no religion” said, in response to a subsequent question, that they consider themselves Jewish aside from religion and had a Jewish upbringing (they were either raised Jewish in some way or had at least one Jewish parent). These respondents, who make up roughly 2% of the total Jewish sample, are classified as Jewish in this survey.

This approach parallels the methods used to define Jews in Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of U.S. Jews, which included interviews with 3,475 Jewish respondents. But unlike in Israel, where the vast majority of Jews identified as Jewish by religion, in the U.S. survey roughly one-in-five Jews said they have no religion but that they consider themselves Jewish aside from religion and had a Jewish parent or upbringing.

Together, the current study and the previously published survey of Jewish Americans provide an in-depth look at the religious beliefs, values, and social and political views of an estimated 80% of the world’s Jewish population. These studies, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Neubauer Family Foundation, are part of a larger effort by Pew Research Center to understand religious change and its impact on societies around the world.

The rest of this Overview explores some sources of both unity and division in Israeli society, as revealed by the survey. While the major subgroups of Israeli Jews are united in their support of Israel as a Jewish homeland, they are deeply at odds over the role that religion should play in their country’s public life. And although Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze in Israel share many life goals – placing great emphasis on maintaining strong families and obtaining a good education for their children, for example – they live religiously balkanized lives.

Israeli Jews united on need for Jewish homeland

Nearly unanimous share agree all Jews should have the right to citizenship in Israel

Israel is no longer a predominantly immigrant society; at present, roughly three-quarters of Israeli adults are natives, and just one-quarter were born abroad. Yet with virtual unanimity, Israeli Jews of every kind – native-born and immigrant, young and old, secular and highly religious – agree that all Jews everywhere should have the right to make “aliyah,” or move to Israel and receive immediate citizenship.2

This overwhelming support for Jewish immigration may be linked, in part, to perceptions about anti-Semitism. Fully three-quarters of Israeli Jews (76%) think that anti-Semitism is both common and increasing around the world, and roughly nine-in-ten (91%) say that a Jewish state is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people.

Most Jews say Israel necessary for long-term survival of the Jewish peopleMost Jews say Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews

Large divide among Jews on whether halakha should be state law

Most Israeli Jews (79%) say Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel. But they do not see an inherent contradiction between a Jewish homeland and a functioning democracy. Asked whether Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic one, majorities of all four Jewish subgroups say “yes.” However, Haredim are less certain than other Israeli Jews that democracy is compatible with Jewish statehood. While a slim majority of Haredim surveyed (58%) say Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democracy, about one-third (36%) say it cannot.

This may be because many Haredim believe that religious law (halakha) should trump democratic decision-making. To test this, the survey posed a hypothetical question: “And if there is a contradiction between halakha and democratic principles, should the State of Israel give preference to democratic principles or halakha?” In such a situation, 89% of Haredim say halakha should be given preference, and only 3% of Haredi respondents would defer to democratic ideals. By contrast, among Hilonim, an equally lopsided share (89%) say the state should give preference to democratic principles; just 1% of secular Jewish respondents would yield to halakha.

When asked whether halakha should be made the official law of the land for Jews in Israel, majorities of Haredim (86%) and Datiim (69%) say they would favor this change. By contrast, most Masortim (57%) and an overwhelming majority of Hilonim (90%) oppose making halakha the law of the land for Jews in Israel.

The disagreements over what it means to live in a Jewish state are not merely hypothetical. The survey asks about numerous concrete policy issues in Israel – including marriage, divorce, conversion, military conscription, transportation, public prayer and gender segregation – and finds deep divides.

For example, the vast majority of Haredim and Datiim say public transportation should be shut down throughout the entire country on the Jewish Sabbath, while the vast majority of Hilonim (94%) oppose shutting down all public transport in observance of the Sabbath. Masortim are more evenly divided between those who favor shutting down public transport across the entire country on the Sabbath (44%) and those who want to keep buses, trains or other public transportation running in at least some areas (52%).

The public intermingling of men and women is another point of disagreement. A solid majority of Haredim (62%) favor gender segregation on public transportation, such as buses and trains, used by members of the Haredi community. Among Hilonim, meanwhile, just 5% favor this policy. The vast majority of Hilonim (93%) are opposed to enforcing gender segregation on any public transport, even when it is used by Haredim.

There is also debate on issues concerning family law. Israel does not allow civil marriage, and Jewish marriages conducted in Israel must be sanctioned by Orthodox rabbis. (For more details on marriage and divorce in Israel, see Chapter 11.) Haredim strongly oppose allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to conduct marriages in Israel, while a majority of Hilonim favor changing the current law to allow Reform and Conservative rabbis to conduct weddings.

Jewish groups disagree on key public policy issues

Israeli Jews divided on the status of Arabs

Majorities of Haredim, Datim agree Arabs should be expelled

Israeli Jews are divided on the question of whether Arabs should be allowed to live in the Jewish state. The survey asked Jews whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Roughly half of Israeli Jews strongly agree (21%) or agree (27%), while a similar share disagree (29%) or strongly disagree (17%).3

Datiim are especially likely to favor the expulsion of Arabs. Roughly seven-in-ten (71%) say Arabs should be transferred.

Hilonim lean in the other direction: Most (58%) disagree and say Arabs should not be expelled from Israel, including 25% who strongly disagree. But even among these self-described secular Israeli Jews, about one-third (36%) favor the expulsion of Arabs from the country.

Where Jews place themselves on the political spectrum – on the left, in the center or on the right – is strongly correlated with their views on the expulsion of Arabs. Among the 8% of Jews who say they lean left, an overwhelming majority either disagree (25%) or strongly disagree (61%) that Arabs should be expelled. By contrast, roughly seven-in-ten of those on the political right agree (35%) or strongly agree (36%) that Arabs should be expelled or transferred.4

More details on this question can be found in Chapter 8.

Politically, Datiim lean toward the right; most Hilonim see themselves in the center

The spectrum of religious observance in Israel – on which Haredim are generally the most religious and Hilonim the least – does not always line up perfectly with Israel’s political spectrum. On some issues, including those pertaining to religion in public life, there is a clear overlap: Haredim are furthest to the right and Hilonim are furthest to the left, with Datiim and Masortim in between.

Israeli Jews largely identify their political ideology with center or right

But on other political issues, including those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, smaller shares of Haredim than of Datiim take right-leaning positions. These differences may partly reflect the ambivalence some Haredi Jews have felt about the State of Israel ever since its establishment; some Haredi leaders opposed the formal creation of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah. In addition, some Haredi leaders have, at various points in Israel’s history, advocated for centrist or left-leaning positions, such as opposing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and supporting the possibility of giving up land in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. And in pragmatic Israeli politics, the chief concern of Haredi political parties has often been the economic well-being and support of their community, while Datiim are often more ideologically motivated with respect to Israel’s security.5

Overall, more Datiim place themselves on the political right (56%) than in the center (41%). Haredim, on the other hand, are about equally likely to place themselves in the ideological center (52%) and the right (47%); the same is true of Masortim. Most Hilonim (62%) identify as political centrists. Hilonim are more likely than members of the other Jewish subgroups to place themselves on the left side of the spectrum – but, still, only 14% do so.

The survey also asked respondents what political party they identify with, if any. Within each Jewish subgroup, no single political party constitutes a majority. But at the time the survey was fielded (October 2014 to May 2015), Haredim generally supported parties that represent the interests of their community, including the Shas party and Yahadut Hatorah (United Torah Judaism).

Among Masortim and Hilonim, the most common party affiliation was Likud, the largely secular, center-right party that currently leads the ruling coalition government in Israel (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party). Among Hilonim, there was also some support for the center-left Avoda party (Labor), the leading opposition party to the current government; Yisrael Beytenu, a largely secular right-leaning party that draws support from many Russian immigrants; and Yesh Atid, a secular party representing mostly middle class interests.

Datiim were about equally likely to identify with Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) – a right-leaning, religious Zionist and pro-settlement party – and the Shas party (a religious party that traditionally supports Mizrahi interests). Both Jewish Home and Shas are currently part of Likud’s governing coalition.

Among Arabs, there was significant support for the United Arab List, Hadash and Balad, three of the parties that have allied as the Joint List as part of the opposition to the current government.

In 2014-2015, roughly three-in-ten Jews felt closest to Netanyahu's Likud party

Some Jews see their Jewish identity as religious, others as cultural or ethnic

The large differences among the various Jewish groups on the kind of Jewish state they envision may be tied to fundamentally different understandings of Jewish identity.

Seven-in-ten Haredim (70%) and roughly half of Datiim (52%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, while 3% of Haredim and 16% of Datiim say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture. Among Hilonim, by contrast, only 4% see being Jewish as primarily a matter of religion, while 83% say Jewish identity is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture. However, at least some members of all of these groups see their Jewish identity as bound up with both religion and ancestry/culture.

(For more on Jewish identity in Israel, including a sidebar on different types of Jewish ethnic identity, see Chapter 3.)

Haredim see being Jewish as a matter of religion; Hilonim see it as a matter of culture and/or identity

Most Hilonim see themselves as 'Israeli first'; most Haredim say 'Jewish first'The survey also asked Israeli Jews whether they see themselves as Jewish first or Israeli first. About nine-in-ten Haredim (91%), eight-in-ten Datiim (80%) and roughly six-in-ten Masortim (59%) consider themselves Jewish first, while about six-in-ten Hilonim (59%) take the opposite position, saying they see themselves as Israeli first. Among Masortim and Hilonim, about one-in-five do not take either position.

Most Haredim do not see themselves as 'Zionists'Many, but not all, Israeli Jews also identify with Zionism. Historically, the term “Zionist” usually referred to a supporter of the establishment of the State of Israel as a national homeland for the Jewish people. Today in Israel, however, “Zionist” may have additional shades of meaning, perhaps roughly equivalent to nationalist, patriotic or idealistic. Rather than trying to define the word, the survey simply asked Jewish respondents how accurately it describes them, personally.

Overall, majorities of Datiim, Masortim and Hilonim say “Zionist” describes them either very accurately or somewhat accurately. But most Haredim say the term describes them either “not too” (24%) or “not at all” (38%) accurately.6 Once again, Haredi Jews’ reluctance to describe themselves as Zionists may reflect their historical ambivalence toward the Jewish state. Among Haredim who identify as Zionists, 85% say Israel is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people; by contrast, among Haredim who do not describe themselves as Zionists, just 55% agree.

Wide variation in religious observance among Israeli Jews

Across numerous measures of religious belief and practice, Haredim are consistently the most religiously observant Jewish group in Israeli society, while Hilonim are consistently the most secular. Datiim closely resemble Haredim in some ways, although they report somewhat lower levels of daily prayer and synagogue attendance. Masortim include some people who are highly observant as well as some who are not, but on several standard measures of religious observance, Masortim tend to show medium levels of religious observance.

For example, about three-quarters of Haredim say they pray at least once a day (76%), as do most Datiim (58%). By comparison, just 1% of Hilonim say they pray daily, and 79% never pray. Self-described Masortim display less uniformity in their prayer habits: About one-in-five say they pray daily (21%), 15% say they pray at least weekly, about one-third say they pray monthly or seldom (32%), and about three-in-ten Masortim (31%) say they never pray.

Similarly, majorities among both Haredim (85%) and Datiim (74%) say they attend religious services on a weekly basis, while among Hilonim, relatively few (1%) do this and 60% say they never attend synagogue. Again, Masortim display a range of worship attendance habits.

These major differences in religious commitment among the four Jewish subgroups also are reflected in many specific Jewish religious practices. For example, very few – if any – Haredim or Datiim say they travel by car, bus or train on the Jewish Sabbath (from Friday evening to Saturday evening). By comparison, travel on the Sabbath is nearly universal among Hilonim (95%). On this question, Masortim are closely divided, with a slightly higher share saying they travel on the Sabbath (53%) than saying they do not (41%).

Secular Jews’ understanding of their Jewish identity as primarily a matter of ancestry or culture is reflected in their beliefs and practices. Not only do few Hilonim say they attend synagogue on a weekly basis or pray with regularity, but many (40%) also say they do not believe in God. However, substantial proportions of Hilonim practice what could be seen as cultural aspects of their religion. For example, 87% of Hilonim say they hosted or attended a Seder last Passover, and about half (53%) say they at least sometimes light candles before the start of the Sabbath.

Read further

Suggested Reading

True Fasting: A Message of Compassion and Love from the Old Testament

5 replies

  1. A most detailed and informative article. No surprise to learn there is so much discrepancy between the subgroups considering the changes in Judaism. Interesting to know that one in five Jews does not believe in God…can they still call themselves Jewish?

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