What’s really important to take away from the new Pew study

The Pew report on Israel’s Religiously Divided Society should be a source of alarm to both Israelis and world Jewish leaders.
March 15, 2016

The Pew report on Israel’s Religiously Divided Society should be a source of alarm to both Israelis and world Jewish leaders. It was of particular interest to us at. Hiddush–Freedom of Religion for Israel, which is a trans-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership that places much attention on polling public opinion regarding religion and state in Israel, focusing on  findings regarding the Jewish population.

I fear that few will fully study this vast report. Most will instead rely on the media, which primarily focused on the alarming data regarding widely held anti-Arab sentiments among Israeli Jews. The report, though, raises a number of issues of religious import that have received predictable reactions. As expected, the Orthodox media triumphantly declared that the report validates the religious/traditional character of Israeli Jews, pointing to the low rates of Reform and Conservative affiliation in Israel. The findings that I mentioned present only a partial picture of the Israeli reality, offering only a narrow perspective on what should occupy a much greater place in Israel’s public and political discourses and among responsible world Jewish leadership. Unfortunately, some people have lost sight of the broad scope of the study and have instead focused on these narrow issues. Two key general alarming areas demand to be addressed. : The real threat to democracy on the religion-state and the Jewish-Arab fronts, and the painful correlation between these threats and the religion-secular divide.  

While the study shows that a majority of Israeli Jews believe Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters are compatible, the truer picture is quite different. Pew shows that a majority of Israel’s religious Jewish population supports halacha becoming the binding law of the state for Jews; but the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support religious freedom and oppose the government’s coercive policies on religious affairs. Nevertheless, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians continue to maneuver toward realizing this theocratic vision, as it works to strengthen the powers of the fundamentalist state rabbinate.

Addressing the issue of marriage freedom, the report regrettably does not explore Israelis’ support for civil marriages, but rather focuses on support for Reform and Conservative weddings. If civil marriage had been included, it would have demonstrated, as Hiddush’s extensive polling does, that a clear majority supports marriage freedom and an end to the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce. Israel is the only Western democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry. Hundreds of thousands cannot legally marry in Israel, and this would apply to the majority of children growing up in the American Jewish community, if they wished to reside in Israel.

Fortunately, there has been a recent, unprecedented awakening among mainstream Jewish leadership on this issue: The seminal JPPI study of Diaspora Jewish leadership views on Israel as Jewish and democratic, the JFNA’s new iRep project 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.

Such initiatives have been influential in promoting liberal approaches to religious issues. Diaspora Jewish pressure led a majority of the ministers in Netanyahu’s government to vote for the recent historic Western Wall agreement. However, Religious Services Minister Azoulay (Shas), following his rabbi’s instructions, has announced that he will not sign the regulations required for its implementation. Now Netanyahu and his Cabinet are trying to appease the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical leadership while trying to save face with the non-Orthodox Diaspora movements.

Similarly, following the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing access to public (State funded) ritual baths for non-Orthodox conversions, the chair of the Knesset finance committee, Rabbi Gafni (UTJ), assaulted the Supreme Court, stating that it has declared war against Judaism and will not rest until it sees Judaism fully destroyed in Israel. He submitted a bill to undo it, and received full support from haredi parties and some of the Orthodox Jewish Home party. Health Minister Rabbi Litzman (UTJ) announced that the Charedi parties will topple the government if his bill is not passed, and that Netanyahu has to choose: either the Reform in America or the Charedi in Israel.

These two events are but very recent examples of the Orthodox attempt to suppress the non-Orthodox streams. Still, both non-Orthodox movements have grown considerably in Israel. It should be noted that several credible studies, done recently, indicate higher percentages of Israelis who identify as Reform and Conservative, than reported by Pew.

The Pew study’s categories do not do justice to Israel’s Jewish identity mosaic. It is unfortunate that Pew chose to maintain the older religious categories of Jewish identity, including only one “masorti” label. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics had previously made two designations:  “masorti leaning towards religious” and “masorti not so religious.” This distinction is of great importance because traditional practices are prevalent among Israeli Jews, including the hiloni. Those classified as “masorti not so religious” (approximately 25 percent of Israeli Jews) are far closer to the hiloni (secular) population on positions of religion and state than to those held by the religious population.

The Pew study also reflects on the Jewish-Arab conflict, but the pollsters chose a rather sensational question: support for the expulsion and transfer of Arabs. The results indicate a clear divide between the majority of religious Jews who support this and the majority of the hiloni and masorti that oppose it. Oddly, majorities in all subgroups of Jews in Israel support Pew’s question on “preferential treatment of Jews in Israel.”  This may depend on wording, and I would direct your attention to the better (IMHO) framing of the IDI Democracy Index of 2014: “Do you agree or disagree that Jewish citizens of Israel should have greater rights than non-Jewish citizens?” The division along religious identity lines is once again evident in the responses to this question: the majority of Orthodox agreed, while the majority of non-Orthodox disagreed.

This clearly does not reflect the position of all those who identify as “religious.” Some of the leading champions for human equality come from the Orthodox community. Yet, disturbingly, repeated statistical data indicates an alarming level of correlation between religious education with anti-democratic and anti-gentile views.

The Pew study should act as an urgent reminder that Israel must return to the inspiring and healing spirit that permeates through its Declaration of Independence, prescribing its Jewish and democratic characters as guided by the prophetic “precepts of liberty, justice and peace,” and ensuring “full social and political equality for all regardless of religion, gender, or race.” It is my sincerest hope that Pew findings will help open the eyes of policymakers and public opinion molders throughout the Jewish world to understand the dire need to address such threatening trends, and re-commit to fully realize Israel’s founding vision.

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel, Inc. — a transdenominational Israel/Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality in Israel.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.