Pew’s Israel study presents: Expel this, do not marry that, disagree with all others


There are many ways to summarize a 200-page report on a survey of more than 5,000 Israelis. There are many competing stories in this lengthy, richly detailed volume of the Pew Research Center’s study, released on March 8. There is, of course, the story of a “Religiously Divided Society,” as the report as a whole is titled. But there are many more stories and endless ways of telling them.

One can begin with what is probably the most shocking headline: “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.” A troubling finding, no doubt. But not without its own complexities (more about that later).

Or one can begin with a timely headline in a week in which Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Israel: “The most common view among Israeli Jews is that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel.” Amazingly, 52 percent of Jewish Israelis adhere to this view, the regrettable result of the Obama era’s impact on the level of trust Israelis have in their greatest ally.

One can also begin by examining the insular state of mind of Jewish Israelis: two-thirds believe anti-Semitism is “very common” around the world and “is not only common but on the rise globally”.

Or one can begin by delving right into chapter one, where the Pew people draw upon their Portrait of Jewish Americans – the much talked-about study from three years ago – and compare the attitudes of the two dominant Jewish societies in today’s world: “Israeli Jews and U.S. Jews often do not practice Judaism the same way. Israeli Jews themselves range from very religious to secular, but they are, on average, more religiously observant than American Jews.”

Some people will feel vindicated by the Pew data: For example, those, like me, who argue that there is no point in asking Israelis which is more important to them, Judaism or democracy, because Jewish Israelis see no contradiction in having a state that is both Jewish and democratic. Seventy-two percent of Jews adhere to this view (with which Israel's minorities – 64 percent of them Arabs – disagree).

Some people will be disappointed by the data. For example, Conservative and Reform Jews whose presence in Israel according to Pew is quite marginal – less significant than what previous surveys were showing (roughly 5 percent of Israeli Jews “identify” with Conservative and Reform Judaism).

Some people will find some of the data surprising. For example, the fact that only 33 percent of Israeli Jews believe “living in Israel” is “an essential part of what it means to be Jewish.”

Some will find many of the data trivial: For example: every Israeli with a minimal curiosity ought to know by now that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Israel is rare. Only 1 percent of Muslims, Christians and Druze and 2 percent of Jews in Israel say “they have a spouse who belongs to a non-Jewish religion or is religiously unaffiliated”.

But there is no one interested in Israel who would not appreciate the effort invested in this study, and no one who already knows everything it has to offer. Reasons for concern? The new report has some of these! Among those is what seems like a slow, gradual trend toward religious polarization. Reasons for satisfaction? The new report has some of these, too! On Sunday morning, when I was talking to Pew's Director of Religious Research Alan Cooperman about the study, he gave me good advice: Do not overlook the areas of consensus – the questions from which to learn about the common values that make a society one. His example of such consensus was as obvious as it was meaningful: “the percentage of Jewish Israelis who agree that Jews around the world should have the right to make Aliyah.” That is, the percentage of Israeli Jews who believe other Jews should be entitled to immigrate to Israel with no questions asked.

That percentage is as high as 98 percent. Cooperman says, and he is certainly right, that it does not have to be that way. He says, and I hope he is wrong, that 100 years from now, we might look at this number and this unanimity among Israeli Jews with puzzlement – because it will no longer be that way.

Transfer of Arabs and Jewish-Arab relations

Not even a 2,5000-word article can describe all that is buried inside a 200-page report (you can see some of the data I did not include in this article in the attached graphics). But some stories merit immediate attention, and maybe the foremost of those is the issue of Jewish Israelis’ feelings about Arab Israelis.

One thing that separates Israeli Jews from their American brethren, and this is vividly portrayed in the Pew report, is the extent to which they live within a Jewish bubble. In Israel, Jews do not marry people of other faiths, and they also do not mix with them socially. “Members of Israel’s major religious groups tend to be isolated from one another socially,” the report found. “98 percent of Jews say most or all of their close friends are Jewish, and 85 percent of Muslims say most or all of their close friends are Muslim.”

Jews and Arabs don’t mix socially, and they also carry the baggage of political and ideological suspicion toward the other. Jews want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state, and most of them do not think it impossible to achieve, but Arabs have their doubts: They “generally think the principles of democracy and those of a Jewish state are incompatible.” Jews generally believe they live in a society in which discrimination is not common. Arabs disagree: 79 percent of them say there is “a lot of discrimination against Muslims” in Israel, compared with 21 percent of Jews who say this.

Then there is the explosive question of expulsion. 

Why was it even asked? Cooperman said it is a good “gut check” indicator. That is also why the question was devised to be simplistic. Pew did not ask about any specific suggestion or plan for how to transfer Arabs out of Israel — there is no such plan. It also did not elaborate on specifics when it asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement: “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Does that mean all Arabs? Some Arabs? Those who make trouble? With compensation? Without compensation? Forcefully? Under what circumstances? To where? Will a Palestinian state be involved? 

This is the kind of question I would not answer if it were posed to me in a survey, but only 6 percent of Jewish respondents refused to respond. Most Israeli-Jewish respondents gave an answer, and a disturbing one at that. As a gut check, it shows that too many Jewish Israelis (48 percent) are willing to agree with such a broad statement, while fewer Jewish Israelis (46 percent) disagree with it. Right-wing and religious respondents — as is, regrettably, to be expected — are the ones saying yes to expulsion or transfer — 72 percent of right-wingers (who make up 32 percent of all Jewish Israelis) and 71 percent of religious (among Dati, for Haredi, it is 59 percent).

Late in the study, buried on Page 154, there’s a detailed discussion of other surveys that asked similar questions related to the expulsion of Arabs. The most recent of these surveys, by Haifa University, found that 32 percent of Israeli Jews agree or tend to agree with the statement, “Arab citizens should leave the country and receive proper compensation.” That is still a high percentage, but it is notably lower than the number found by Pew — possibly a result of the different wording.  

All of this leads to the larger point: Relations between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis are not as good as they ought to be. Which is to say: Israeli Jews should be better educated about the proper ways of treating a minority. Which is also to say: Arab Israelis should consider the impact that some of the actions of their leaders have on the attitudes of Jews toward them. Which still is to say: This Pew question — whether you like the way it was posed or not — should raise an alarm.

U.S. Jews from Mars, Israeli Jews from Venus? 

In the shorter Hebrew version of the report, the Pew team did not emphasize the comparisons it makes between Israeli Jews and American Jews. This story, they were told by Israeli advisers, will not be of great interest to the Israeli media. 

Well, it is of interest to me. And like all the chapters of the Pew report, it has a bittersweet taste. 

There is good news: American Jews feel attached to Israel, as was also found in the 2013 report. Israeli Jews feel they “share a common destiny” with American Jews and that, overall, American Jews have a “good influence on Israel.” Cries of a widening separation surely have their place as we look to the next generation, and the new survey highlights many areas here and there on which there is no agreement between Jews (settlements, peace process, level of U.S. support and more). Nevertheless, we should not overlook the fact that the two Pew reports contain a lot of data that points to very tight connections and positive feelings.

Still, there is news in the report that should make both communities stop to think about ways to strengthen the sense of a shared destiny, as the actual Jewishness of the two communities seems quite different. They disagree on many political issues (settlements, the peace process); they differ in their understanding of Israel’s situation (39 percent of Israelis say economic problems are Israel’s “most important” problem — only 1 percent of U.S. Jews say the same). They also have different ways of practicing their common Judaism. 

One example: 56 percent of American Jews see “working for justice and equality” as an “essential part of what it means to be Jewish” — compared to just 27 percent of Israeli Jews. 

Another example: “Fully half of Israeli Jews say the international stream of Judaism they identify with is Orthodox.” This means that many Jewish Israelis who aren’t practicing Orthodoxy nevertheless identify with the Orthodox interpretation of Judaism — not the stream with which most American Jews identify. 

The relatively high number of Orthodox Jews in Israel is reflected in practical differences between the two countries’ communities. Roughly 25 percent of Israelis say they attend religious services at least weekly, “more than double the share of American Jews who say the same (11 percent).” Fifty-six percent of Israeli Jews say that someone in their home “always or usually lights Sabbath candles on Friday night.” In the U.S., that number is cut in half — 23 percent. Six in 10 Israeli Jews (63 percent) say they maintain a kosher home. 

Cooperman found this astonishing. Not the fact that there are more Israeli Orthodox Jews and hence more people who keep kosher, but, rather, the fact that even among non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, the level of kashrut at home is as high as 52 percent. You can also view this from a different angle: Among Israel’s non-Orthodox Jews, only 20 percent eat pork. In the U.S., the percentage of pork-eating non-Orthodox Jews is 65 percent.

What does this tell us about these two communities? It tells us a story of how different circumstances make different communities. The report aptly highlights obvious structural differences between two societies, one of which is a tiny elite within a greater society and the other a full-fledged national social quilt. Take education, for example: On average, Israeli Jews are as educated as Americans. But Jewish Americans are among the most educated elite within American society, and hence, overall, are much more educated than most Israelis. 

Of course, these circumstantial differences are also evident when it comes to measuring Jewish life. Israeli Jews have barely any non-Jewish friends. Their supermarkets tend to sell kosher food, and their Friday night is not Friday night — it is Erev Shabbat. So for many of them, practicing Jewish customs comes effortlessly and naturally. 

Yet this is just one side of a two-sided coin. Israelis are both more religious than American Jews and more secular — also a consequence of their circumstances. One example: “While Israeli Jews overall are more likely than U.S. Jews to attend religious services weekly, they also are more likely to say they never attend synagogue (33 percent vs. 22 percent).” Very few secular Israelis say that religion is important to their lives. Why would this be? In Israel, where Jewish life is all around, one can feel Jewish as much as one wants, without much need for religion.  

When Israeli Jews meet Israeli Jews

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Pew report is its portrayal of Israel’s Jewish society, especially its detailed account of Jewish life in Israel from a religious point of view. 

This is also one of the report’s weaknesses. In America, Judaism is seen mostly through religious lenses, and thus the report looks at Israel’s Jews, too, as if they are members of a religious tribe. But in reality, they are and they are not. Like American Jews, many Israeli Jews see Judaism as not merely a “religion” (22 percent for Israelis, 15 percent for Americans) but as a “culture” or an “ancestry.” Nevertheless, the view of Israel through the lenses of religion is fascinating. It makes Israel seem highly divided — secular and religious Israelis agree on few things, religiously speaking. It makes Israel seem a society in constant battle for its Jewish identity.

About half of Israeli Jews are Hiloni — secular. The other half is Masorti (traditional, 29 percent), Dati (Zionist-religious, 13 percent) and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox, 9 percent). 

And the report shows that Israeli Jews are slowly moving to the polar sides of this social equation. To be honest, this is one of the surprises I had to grapple with because the numbers do not fully adhere to my previous understanding of Israel’s trends, but arguing with numbers makes little sense. So here is some of what the numbers show.

The Dati section of Israeli society is losing members fast. About a third of Israel’s Dati sector will switch to another sector later in life. The traditional sector is also losing some, but is gaining some, as well — probably the formerly religious. The Haredi and Hiloni sectors are retaining their members and are both slowly growing. Essentially, those who grow up Haredi stay Haredi, and those who grow up secular remain secular. 

Israeli Jews from different sectors do not mix much. This is especially true when one looks specifically at the two growing groups, the secular and Haredi. About 9 in 10 Hilonim say “they would be ‘not too’ comfortable (20 percent) or ‘not at all’ comfortable (73 percent) if their child someday married a Haredi.” But it is true of most other groups, too. Ninety-five percent of Haredis do not want their offspring to marry a secular Jew, or a traditional Jew (88 percent), or a Dati Jew (58 percent). Eighty-one percent of Dati Jews do not want a Hiloni son-in-law (they are more comfortable with Haredis). Eighty-three percent of Hiloni do not want a Dati daughter-in-law (they are somewhat more comfortable with traditional Jews). 

That is to say: The report details many of the disagreements within Israel’s society. They disagree on this, fiercely disagree on that, and hold completely opposite positions on the other. All these are not so troubling. Disagreements are natural and healthy in a diverse society, and the fact that Israelis are forced to defend their points of view sharpens the mind and makes Israel a restless, vibrant place. What troubles the reader is not the disagreement. What troubles the reader is the picture of a compartmentalized Israeli society in which too many Israelis seem to live within their silos without having much chance — or desire — to have a meaningful interaction with members of other groups. In other words: They disagree, but they do not really have a debate.

Long term, that cannot be a good thing for Israel.

And here are some of the main stats featured in the study:

“Arabs should be expelled or transfered from Israel”:

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