Clash of Jewish-Israeli Identities

Back in March a Pew survey of Israel, fittingly named “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society“, was published.

It had a lot of interesting information on a number of subjects of broad interest for most, such as the mutual attitudes between Israeli Jews and Arabs, degree of religious observance, attitudes towards religion and/or the state, and so on.

Among other things it revealed some interesting aspects of the Jewish secular segment, which might be of some surprise to some.

It also reveal an interesting and crucial disagreement about what it means to be “Jewish”, which can have challenging consequences for how the state of Israel is to relate being “democratic” with being “Jewish”.

In the survey 81% of the respondents identified as “Jews”. Out of these 81%, 40% identified as “Hiloni”, secular Jews. 23% identified as “Masorti”, traditionist Jews*. 10% identified themselves as “Dati”, religious Jews**. 8% identified themselves as “Haredi”, Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Interestingly, 1% of the respondents said that they have no religion. We don’t know if this 1% are of Jewish or non-Jewish background, but even so it does bring some interesting points into light. First and foremost, what do we mean, when we identify as “Jew”? Obviously the secular Jews see it more as a cultural or maybe even ethnic identity, having no particular religious connotations to the term. Yet, 21% of the secular respondents state that religion has importance in their lives, where 79% state that it’s not too important or not important at all. Considering that a fifth of the secular population seems to view religion as important, even though they are secular, is interesting.
Add to this that 20% of the secular Jews insist that they are Jewish before they are Israeli. Being Jewish matter, and religion has importance, even among a larger group of secular Jews.

That religion has an importance for the Jewish identity, even among the secular Jews, can be seen from what they believe being Jewish is connected to. Asked whether being Jewish is either a matter of religion, a matter of ancestry/culture, or both, 4% of the secular Jews said that it’s a matter of religion, whereas 13% said that it’s a matter of both. Sure, for the vast majority it’s a matter of ancestry/culture, but again almost a fifth gives importance to religion.

What I find curious here, is that almost a fifth of the secular Jewish population find religion important for them, crucial for Jewish identity, and insist on being Jewish before Israel. Being secular in this context does not seem to be non-religious, even if the majority most likely would define it this way.

Also, considering these numbers, making it seem that being Jewish is a matter of religion, at least in some sense and to some degree, why are only 1% defining themselves as having no religion?

Add to that, considering that Israel defines itself as “Democratic and Jewish”, what is meant by “Jewish”? For around 80% of the secular population this is something cultural, not religious. For the Traditionist Jews 41% said it is a matter of culture, which is also said by 16% of the Dati Jews. So should Israel be considered a “Democratic and Culturally Jewish state” or a “Democratic and Religiously Jewish state”?

Opinions seem to be split on this matter.

* Some would translate “Masorti” as “traditional”, but based on Yaacov Yadgar’s “Secularism and Religion in Jewish-Israeli Politics”, I’ve found a fondness for his translation of “Masorti” as “traditionist”. I will most likely write more about that later.

** I suppose from the broader context of the survey, that we are talking about national-religious, religious Zionist, and Modern Orthodox.

About the Author
Peter Kaltoft is from Denmark, and moved to Israel in 2010. He reads and writes about religion and society. Subjects for the blog will typically be focused on religion in Israel, Jewish-Muslim relations, religious identity, and fundamentalism
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