Jewish Journal


June 10, 2013

Yes, There Are More Reform and Conservative Israelis than You Think (But Who Are They?)



Anat Hoffman Praying with some fellow Reform Jews
Photo by Reuters/Jim Hollander

A year and a half ago, I first revealed that the number of Reform and conservative Jews in Israel might be much larger than what we think. Based on unpublished data from the Guttman Center survey, I wrote back then that "Eight percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews compared to just seven percent of Israelis who define themselves as “Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox)". My headline reflected the sense of surprise: Can you believe it? Israel has more Conservative and Reform Jews than Haredis.

There was some consternation back then over the fact that the data wasn't officially included in the Guttman report, and allegations that the decision not to publish might have been ideologically motivated. Prof. Tamar Herman, the woman in charge of the report and the numbers, rejected those allegations and warned "all those enthusiastically celebrating these findings" that they "ignore the fact that all we have is one question with no equivalent question that can assist us with verifying or disregarding its findings." "It is too early to celebrate", she said. But since then she was waiting to revisit those findings, something she has finally done now.

I met the Prof. a couple of weeks ago at the house of the American Ambassador and she told me then that her latest survey might confirm the findings from the earlier survey. Moreover, this time she had more than "one question", something which enabled her to draw some conclusions as to the nature of the Israeli Conservative and Reform population.

First, the numbers in general- all taken from the article that Herman and her colleague Chanan Cohen will publish soon at the Israel Democracy Institute web site (the stats are from the IDI's annual Democracy Index survey). There were 854 respondents to the survey, and, as Herman told me, the people surveyed here aren’t the ones surveyed for the Guttman report – so one would hope that the similar numbers aren't a fluke, that they do represent some kind of Israeli reality. However, a word of caution is still necessary, as the sample is small, and the conclusions drawn from it should be drawn carefully.

So – 7.1% of Israelis who were asked if they feel that they belong to a certain stream in Judaism answered with "Reform" (3.9%) or "Conservative" (3.2%). That's a little lower than the Guttman findings, but not much lower. 26.5% of Israelis feel closer to "Orthodoxy", and the rest of them don't feel close to any stream (57%) or don't know (10%). Let me remind you again that according to Israel's Bureau of Statistics the percentage of Haredi Jewish Israelis is 8%. In Herman and Cohen's study the percentage of Haredis is 9.4% (of the Jewish public, not the Israeli population). This means that in this study, yet again, the percentage of the self-described Reform and Conservative Jews is not much different from the percentage of self-described Haredim.

But this study, going beyond the very sketchy portrait we had in the Guttman study, can also teach us something– treat this with caution, this is only an appetizer for further study – about who these Reform and Conservative Jews are. And one thing that is notable is that there aren't many similarities between the Reform and the Conservative Jews in Israel.

Politically, The Reform Jews are more center and even left-oriented (41.9% center, 19.4% left), while Conservatives tend to be on the right (66.7%) – for comparison, 55.5%  of the general Jewish population according to this study are on the right, 26.6% are in the center, and 17.9% are on the left (81.4% of Orthodox Jews are on the right). The larger group of Reform Jews in Israel expresses social-economic views more to the left (50%), while Conservatives tend to be in the center (46.4%).

Most interesting, though, is the division of Jewish streams according to definitions of religiosity.

40.0% of the Reform Jews define themselves as "traditional" with the exact same percentage saying they are "secular". 9.4% define themselves as "religious" (and quirkily – but that's the problem with statistics – 6.3% call themselves "Haredi").

For Conservatives the choice is much clearer: 66.7% of them are traditional, while 11.1% are religious and only 14.8% are secular.


Take a look at the table-




Jewish Public



















What do I think about these numbers? That's a topic for another article.



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