Jewish Journal


January 30, 2012

Most Israelis believe in God — Is that a problem?



(Photo: Reuters)

The Guttman Center report A Portrait of Israeli Jews is a long and important new study of Israelis’ “beliefs, observance and values.” Its 121 pages contain quite a lot of material to chew on, which I intend to do in the coming days and weeks.

The first thing I’d like to say, though, is that most of the early headlines that followed the study’s publication were pretty far from capturing its true nature and what I think it entails. They focused on the fact that “80% of Israeli Jews believe in God” — not a surprising headline, as this was the headline provided by the Guttman PR people to the overworked people of the daily press (“There is a God!”).

Hence, the hysterical analysis of secular left-leaning publications. “It is the only prism through which it is possible to comprehend the occupation, the racism, the Haredization and the capitulation to the settlers,” wrote one commentator (Gideon Levy, on Haaretz). “Israelis have another ticking bomb they have failed to dismantle over the years,” wrote blogger Ami Kaufman. It was the kind of oy vey knee-jerk response one expects following the publication of such a study. Israelis believe in God — can you imagine a more terrible phenomenon? Well, I can.

Eighty percent of Jewish Israelis believe in God. Eighty-eight percent of Americans also believe in God (according to Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey), 72 percent of American Jews believe in God (according to the same Pew study). Where’s the problem? That Israelis are more like Americans and less like Europeans?

“There once was a secular majority and it no longer exists,” wrote an Israeli novelist (Haaretz again, no English translation at the time of writing). Well — not true. Maybe 60 years ago there was a secular majority for a short period of time, but Israel’s society has been more traditional than Israel’s press for quite a long time. The “secular majority” was fiction. There was no majority — there were religious and secular and many people in between. If one wants to consider traditional Israelis as secular, one has a secular majority — if one counts them as religious, one has a religious majority.

And it is not only a matter of counting, but also of prioritizing between different indicators that gives contradictory impressions of Israel’s true nature. The percentage of Israelis who have a “special Friday night meal” had gone down from 66 percent in 1991 to 60 percent in 1999 (researchers believe that most Jewish beliefs and practices dropped from ’91 to ’99 because of the wave of Russian immigration) then up to 69 percent in 2009.

Does this make Israelis more religious? Or maybe they are just being more traditional and are less threatened by being tagged “religious” if they practice religiously? Or maybe it is a heightened sense of family driving them to have more Shabbat meals and light more Chanukah candles (from 76 percent in 1999 to 82 percent in 2009)?

The Guttman study strives to be a serious publication and is worthy of serious discussion. If the ensuing commentary gives you the impression that Israel is becoming a clerical society, you’d better look more carefully at the data.

Yes, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox Israelis is going up: from 5 percent to 7 percent in the course of 10 years. Hardly the change that makes Israel the land of zealotry. Yes, Israelis light more Chanukah candles, but they also eat more non-kosher food.

Exclusion of women is a topic of hefty discussion, but, “[M]ost Israeli Jews (63 percent) believe that the status of women in Israel should be changed. Even more (74 percent) are opposed to the idea that the husband should be the sole breadwinner and the wife should stay at home to take care of the family and house. More than half (57 percent) agree that a women can fulfill herself even without children.”

Some Israeli commentators were repelled by the fact that most Israeli Jews believe that “the Jews are the chosen people” (70 percent). There are two reasons not to be shocked. One: Israeli Jews always believed that they are the “chosen people” (in 1991 the percent was 69 percent — almost identical). Two: There’s nothing wrong with such belief. When Americans were asked by Gallup if their nation “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,” 80 percent said yes. According to a Pew survey, “About half of Americans (49 percent) and Germans (47 percent) agree with the statement, ‘Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.’ ” Jewish exceptionalism, much like American exceptionalism, is something with which other people can do one of two things: be annoyed by it or humor it. And I’d always recommend the latter approach.

If there’s reason to be annoyed, it is at the oh-so-predictable response to the Guttman study. Instead of looking at this survey with deserved curiosity, with a sense of real interest in the way Israelis think and talk about their identity and faith, what we got is mostly polemical responses of those wanting to take the new findings directly from the print to their ad campaign for some political cause or other. Scare the secular into voting this, cajole the religious to vote that — while the secular left was hysterical, the religious right was using the findings to demonstrate its new and mostly imaginary might.

Don’t read all those ideologically crafted responses; read the study if you have the time. One would hope that some Israelis would also take the time to read it, as, “[M]ore than half of the respondents (55 percent) believe that relations between the religious and non-religious in Israel are ‘not so good’ or ‘not at all good.’ Most of them (59 percent) have few or no close friends who differ from them with regard to observing the religious precepts (‘more observant or less observant than you are’).”

This study — unlike what most commentators make you think — could serve the cause of bettering the relations between different Israeli factions rather than making them worse.

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