Secularism in Israel is on the rise. No, secularism is on the decline in the Jewish state.
That seeming paradox — which tells a generational story — is one of the key takeaways from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics’ annual pre-Rosh HaShanah report released last week.
Most commentators seized on the country’s growth (the population has reached 8.9 million, 74.4 percent of it Jewish and 20.9 percent Arab) and happiness stats (89 percent say they are largely satisfied with their lives).
Few mentioned that a whopping 44.3 percent of the Jewish population defined themselves as “secular,” while 21.4 percent identified as “traditional”; 12.3 percent as “traditional with religious leanings”; 11.5 percent as “religious” and 10.2 percent as “ultra-Orthodox.” In 2014, 40 percent of Israelis described themselves as secular.
Israelis, for the most part, aren’t worried about Israeli Jewish continuity, even among self-defined “secular” Jews, because what Israelis call secular is anything but.
For starters, “most Israeli Jews believe in God,” Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev said about a recent Haaretz-Dialog poll. “Among Western democratic countries, Israel’s only competitor for the heavyweight God-fearing title is the United States, hitherto recognized as the most Puritan of democracies.”
In the Haaretz poll, 56 percent of Jewish Israelis called themselves secular.
Although this didn’t surprise Shalev, something else did:
In Israel, “the younger the Jew, the more likely he or she is to be more religious, observant, conservative,” he said. While 65 percent of the population would allow supermarkets to be open on Shabbat, just 51 percent of people 18-24 support this, compared to 84 percent of their parents and grandparents aged 65 and above.
Israelis who follow these kinds of trends say they aren’t surprised to see even secular Israelis embracing some form of Jewish tradition.
“Secularism has been losing ground in Israel for 40 years,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman institute.
Halevi attributed this search for Jewish connection to the rise of the Likud party and the empowerment of Mizrachi Jews who were marginalized by Israel’s largely secular Ashkenazi leadership during the state’s first three decades.
If there is one counterbalance, he said, it is the 1 million-plus Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel, and who largely define themselves as secular.
Unlike the U.S., where the high rate of “secular” or “atheist” or “unaffiliated” Jews has spurred a wide range of communal initiatives to boost affiliation and combat assimilation, the Israeli response to its homegrown form of secularism has been much more muted.
The main exception: Under the direction of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the budget for NGOs that teach Jewish education in the school system has increased 70 percent since 2015, according to a study by The Marker.
Daniel Gordis, senior vice president at Shalem College, believes that young secular Israelis are seeking spiritual meaning in the absence of political meaning.
“I attribute it in some measure to the death of the peace process. If young Israelis don’t think this conflict will get resolved, they ask, ‘What am I doing here? Without some Jewish self-definition it’s very hard to justify” staying in Israel, he said.
Gordis, like Bennett, is more worried about diaspora Jewry.
In Israel and outside “some people will be secular and drift away,” Gordis said. “If they drift away in New York their children may have no connection to Jewish life. They often intermarry. In Israel there is a small amount of intermarriage, but in a country where you are surrounded by Jewish life, there’s always a road back in.”