Jewish Journal


February 5, 2012

‘Secular-Zionist Israeliness being challenged by strengthening Jewish identity’



Professor Tamar Hermann discusses the findings of the new Guttman Center report on Israelis’ ‘beliefs, observance and values,’ which she coordinated.

I wrote two earlier posts on this study: Hanukkah miracle: Israeli Jews light more candles than American Jews and Most Israelis believe in God — Is that a problem?

So between 1991 and 1999 the number of observant Israelis went down and between 1999 and 2009 it went up - do we know why? Can we forecast what’s going to happen between 2009 and 2019?

The report’s findings suggest three possible explanations for the higher level of observance amongst Jewish Israelis:

1. The higher birth rates amongst the ultra-Orthodox and the Orthodox communities compared to those of the traditional and the secular sectors; 2. The growing numbers of newcomers form the former Soviet Union who became more aware of their Jewish identity, and hence moved away from their former utterly secular way of life; 3. The growing numbers of the mainly Shas voters who formerly defined the themselves traditional (some even secular), who have become more religious in the past few years. The combination of the three developments apparently increased the level of observance reflected in the report.

Half of Israeli Jews say they would not consider someone to be Jewish if he or she had not been converted by the Orthodox rabbinate; most Israeli Jews feel a strong bond with Diaspora Jewry; the more religious the Israeli the stronger the chance he feels this bond with Diaspora Jewry. What do you make out of all these findings? Do they not contradict one another? 

I see no contradiction whatsoever between these findings. On the contrary. In the past, mainly the secular were “indoctrinated” in schools and elsewhere that the Israeli Jew (Tzabar) and the Diaspora Jew (Galuti)  embodied two antithetical even irreconcilable identities/cognitions. Therefore Judaism for them played a relatively weak bonding function with the Diaspora Jews, who were often considered a different collective entity. Today, because of various changes in the self-identity of the Jewish Israelis, their growing national (some would argue nationalistic)  awareness, their skepticism with the traditional Zionist worldview and the like, as well as their much more frequent personal contacts with Jewish communities aboard, this dichotomy was considerably eroded. Therefore their sense of unity with the Diaspora Jewry got stronger (while as Peter Beinart correctly observed, it has significantly weakened on the other side, at least on that of the American young Jews). Amongst the non-secular the sense of unity with the Diaspora has always been strong, and for obvious reasons, it is strongest amongst the non and anti-Zionist sectors, who actually see themselves as living in a kind of Diaspora in the Zionist State of Israel.

How can a “majority of Israeli Jews (73%) accept the official position in Israel that Orthodox conversion is the path leading to recognition of a person’s Jewishness” but still “agree” or “totally agree” that the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status in Israel - are we Israelis idiots?

Idiots? Not at all – the two views are in no contradiction with each other. Personally, the respondents see Orthodox Judaism as the “authentic” one. At the same time, particularly the secular would like the state to grant those who prefer the Conservative or the Reform versions the same formal rights as granted to the Orthodox. It is the same phenomenon as the majority personal preference for Orthodox marriage combined with the call for having civil marriage in Israel.

Most commentators followed the publication of your study with punditry related to the growing power of the religious sects in Israeli society, but all in all, the percentage of the ultra-Orthodox is still relatively low (7%) and the Orthodox, while growing in number, are also still a relatively small fraction of Israel’s society (15%). Do you think those commentators are just being hysterical (because most of them are secular) or do they have good reason to be concerned?

The number of those defining themselves as ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox (altogether about one quarter of the adult population. Their share of the younger age cohorts is significantly larger) seem to be less important to these concerned (mostly secular) commentators than the fact that by and large the data suggest that the Israeli Jewish society is turning less and less secular in the Western sense of this term. Today, more Jewish Israelis than in the past are performing various Jewish “duties” and attribute more importance to Jewish ritual functions as a manifestation of their personal and collective identity. In other words, it seems that the classical, secular-Zionist “Israeliness” is being defeated or at least strongly challenged by the strengthening Jewish awareness/identity.

Are the commentators just panicking? Not necessarily if we bring into the picture the findings of this survey and of other research projects that the more Orthodox a Jewish Israeli is, the less he or she is concerned with democratic values, such a human rights and civil rights, and the more they see the halakha as superior to the state’s laws. This correlation in my view should worry all of us who are supportive of the democratic essence of the State of Israel and its functioning, and in particular, those who are in charge of the political education in the country.

Here’s a question that can be very important when one measures the real strength of the different sectors: If you had to divide Israel’s society into two camps instead of five (Haredi, Orthodox, traditional, secular and not anti-religious, secular and anti-religious), would you have the “traditional” more in the “secular” camp or more in the “religious” camp?

It is important to note that measuring the relative size of each of the four groups was not one of the aims of this research project, which is meant basically to connect between the respondents self-definition and their attitudes towards a variety of issues in reference to the Jewish religion and traditions.  In fact, the sample was constructed according to the information about the relative size of these groups as presented in the various reports of the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).

In other words – we did not give the readers any new demographic data in this regard. However, to the main point raised in the above question – nowadays the CBS offers two categories of “traditional” – Orthodox traditional and secular traditional.  The former seems to be closer in almost all aspects to the Orthodox camp, while the latter are very close to the secular. Numerically then, if divided into two only camps, the secular (whatever than means in a society in which over 80% tell you that they believe in God) is still bigger today than the religious one.
The headlines focused on the fact that more Israelis now believe in God and that more practice some Jewish rituals than in the past, but the study also identified several practices that Israelis keep less than they used to do. Less Israelis keep kosher today, more Israelis eat hametz at Passover, a lot less go to Megilah readings on Purim. So, are we becoming more or less traditional, and in what way?

There seems to be no coherent “we” here. Aggregate data is always “confusing” when it gets to the specific details and the matching between the various parameters which often look inconsistent because of the aggregation process. By and large, however, it seems that the Israeli society is getting closer to Jewish traditional (not necessarily religious) modes of thinking and conduct.

The strongest reason for this I suppose is the ‘sociological conversion’ of the newcomers from the former Soviet Union. The younger generation has been socialized by various Israeli institutions (schools, IDF, etc), and hence adopted a variety of Jewish practices which are common in the Israeli Jewish “native” society. A certain contribution to the above move towards tradition was also made by the so-called “Jewish Renaissance,” via which secular participants in these learning and social activities have become more familiar with various Jewish rituals and concepts and also adopted them and reported thereof .

With all the recent talk about the “exclusion” of women in Israel - do you see a problem with what most Israelis say about the status of women - is Israeli society really becoming more exclusionary towards women?

Jewish society at large – apparently not. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox and even the Orthodox are certainly more insistent that the public space gets more gendered, and that women and men become more separated. Unfortunately, this demand is getting more voice and legitimacy these days, while in the past it was widely rejected. It should be noted, however, that the greater legitimacy is not only the outcome of these two sectors growing demographic proportion, but also due to the multi-cultural ideology which legitimizes sectarian practices and calls for greater respect for different culture-based demands regarding the nature of the public sphere. 

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