To say that deep fissures cut through Israeli society is a little like saying the San Andreas Fault is a hairline fracture. But the depth of those divisions — over the commitment to democratic principles, the role of religion in society, the meaning of Jewish identity and the prospects for peace and even coexistence with the Palestinians — comes into sharp relief in a major new Pew Research Center survey.
And the divisions the study documents between secular, “traditional,” “religious” and charedi Jews in Israel do not end at Israel’s shoreline.
Deep rifts also exist between Israeli Jews and American Jews — ones that liberal Jewish leaders here have been warning about for years — especially over lightning-rod issues like Jewish settlements in the West Bank. At the same time, the two groups share a strong sense of peoplehood and a common destiny. The study reveals as well that the gulf between Orthodox and liberal branches in America is creating a situation where the former is more in line with Israeli attitudes on a range of issues than with Reform and Conservative Jews in the U.S.
The 237-page report, which was released Tuesday and includes interviews with 5,600 Israelis conducted from October 2014 to May 2015, references some familiar, and well-publicized, issues when it comes to the country’s long-running secular-religious war: fights over public transportation on the Sabbath, gender segregation on buses, Orthodox control of marriage, divorce and conversion, and military service for the ultra-Orthodox.
The findings about the friction between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs also have a familiar ring, given the persistent charge by the country’s largest minority group (19 percent of Israel’s adult population) that its members are second-class citizens.
But the starkness of the divides on those and other issues revealed in the study points to the dizzying complexities of Israeli society and raises questions about whether the chasms can be bridged. And demographic trends are likely to calcify the problems.
The religious middle, so to speak, represented by the “Masorti” cohort — Israelis who hold moderate levels of religious practice — is in clear decline. In 1999, 45 percent of Israelis identified themselves as religiously middle of the road. By 2015, that figure had dropped to 34 percent. At the same time, the charedi population is on the rise, and those who identify as secular (“Hiloni”) Israelis, though their numbers have held steady over the last 10 years, have a higher percentage of those over age 50 (52 percent) than under 30 (44 percent). Secular Israelis make up 40 percent of Israeli Jews, Masorti, 23 percent, “Dati” (religious), 10 percent, and charedi, 8 percent.
The study’s lead researcher, Neha Sahgal, put the religious, political and social differences among segments of Israeli society in stark terms.
“Every society has divisions,” she told The Jewish Week on the eve of the survey’s publication. “But in Israel these divisions aren’t just on political topics. They’re on social topics, too. Israelis live religiously balkanized lives. They have no friends outside their circle. They don’t intermarry and they don’t want their children to intermarry. Secular Israelis find it more problematic for one of their children to marry a charedi Jew than to marry a Christian.”
Sahgal added, “We’re seeing evidence of further polarization in Israeli society across time.”
Israelis aren’t just polarized religiously, of course. On the central question of whether Israel can be both a democratic and Jewish state, there is a broad consensus across Israeli society that yes, in fact, it can. Three out of four Israelis say so.
But on what Sahgal refers to as a “where the rubber meets the road” follow-up question — If there is contradiction between democratic principles and religious law, which should take priority? — there is a gaping difference of opinion: Nearly 9 in 10 charedim and 65 percent of “Dati” (religious) Jews side with religious law, while nearly 9 in 10 secular Jews and 56 percent of Masorti Jews side with the principles of democracy.
“It’s a mirror image,” Sahgal said. “The religious in Israel want public life to be largely governed by religion. Secular Israelis want religion to be separate from the public square.”
When it comes to Israeli Arabs, nearly two-thirds say Israel cannot be both a democracy and a Jewish state at the same time. In another mirror-image finding, 79 percent of Israeli Arabs say there is a lot of discrimination in Israeli society against Muslims, while 3-in-4 Israeli Jews say they don’t see much discrimination against Muslims.
In addition, nearly half of Israeli Jews say Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, a figure that garnered headlines in Israel, though it came under fire; the divide in Israeli society is particularly evident here, with 71 percent of Datim agreeing and 58 percent of secular Israelis disagreeing. Israel Prize-winning sociologist Sammy Smooha, an authority on relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, criticized the expulsion/transfer question for its vague wording. Since the question doesn’t specify those who might be expelled, he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “this question can be understood in various ways.” He said he believed that “about a quarter of the Jews oppose coexistence with Arab citizens.”
These societal realities in Israel reach across the Atlantic, too, and affect attitudes among American Jews. (The figures for American Jews in the current survey, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” were culled from Pew’s 2013 study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”)
The study reveals a strong bond between Israeli and American Jews — 70 percent of American Jews say they are either very or somewhat attached to Israel, and more than 80 percent say that caring about Israel is either an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. Sixty-nine percent of Israeli Jews say the diaspora is central to Jewish survival.
But when politics enters into the equation, the differences between the two groups — and between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox here — begin to emerge, and in stark ways.
On the contentious issue of Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank, 42 percent of Israeli Jews believe continued construction helps the country’s security. For American Jews, that figure stands at 17 percent, with 44 percent saying the settlements hurt Israel’s security.(Thirty-four percent of Orthodox Jews say settlements help Israel’s security; 15 percent of non-Orthodox Jews say so.)
About whether Israel’s government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace with the Palestinians, the divides are also great. Fifty-six percent of Israeli Jews believe that Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is making a sincere effort, while only 38 percent of American Jews believe so. (Sixty-one percent of Orthodox Jews say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort.) In addition, 61 percent of American Jews think a two-state solution is possible, a view held by only 43 percent of Israeli Jews. (Only 30 percent of Orthodox Jews believe it is possible.)
And when it comes to American support for Jerusalem, there are yet more division
s. More than half of Israeli Jews (52 percent) think Israel should be getting more support from Washington, and 34 percent think the support is about right
. For American Jews, those figures are reversed: 54 percent say the support is about right, while 31 percent say U.S. support should be greater. (Fifty-three percent of Orthodox Jews say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel.)
“What stood out for me in the survey,” said Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department, “is the convergence of views between Orthodox Jews in America and Israeli society as a whole. American Jews are not convinced that settlements enhance Israel’s security. Yet only 16 percent of Orthodox Jews say settlements are a problem. … We’re talking about two planes of existence, a real divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.”
Bayme said he was also struck by the fact that only 29 percent of Israeli Jews have college degrees, compared to 58 percent of American Jews. “College tends to be a liberalizing experience,” Bayme said, “and it’s where we learn that the world is very different, and we learn to cope with that. Less than a third of Israeli Jews have that experience, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that they hold attitudes that are contradictory to democratic norms.”
In a “what planet are you on?” result, Israeli Jews identified their country’s most-pressing long-term problems as economic issues (39 percent) and security (38 percent). Nearly two-thirds of American Jews (66 percent), however, cited security — perhaps an indication of the type of coverage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to receive in the U.S. media — and a mere 1 percent said economic issues. About 15 percent of Jews in both countries said social, religious or political issues are the biggest problems facing Israel.
On issues of Jewish identity, Israeli Jews and American Jews part ways, too. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. Jews say living an ethical and moral life is key to their Jewish identity; 47 percent of Israeli Jews say so. And 56 percent of American Jews say working for justice and equality is central to their Jewish identity; in Israel 27 percent of the Jewish population thinks so. Nearly half of American Jews say intellectual curiosity is part of what it means to be Jewish, while 16 percent of Israeli Jews think it is. The gulf is even wider on whether having a sense of humor is important to one’s Jewish identity, with 42 percent of American Jews and only 9 percent of Israeli Jews saying it is.
But nearly twice as many Israeli Jews as American Jews see observing Jewish law as essential to being Jewish (35 percent to 19 percent). And 53 percent of Israeli Jews say providing a Jewish education to their children is central to their Jewish identity.
Asked if there was one figure from the poll that surprised her the most, Sahgal, the study’s lead researcher, thought for a moment and said, “We asked Muslims in Israel about the experiences they had facing discrimination because they were Muslim — getting stopped and questioned by security forces, that kind of thing. Seventeen percent said they had.”
Sahgal continued, perhaps finding a data point out of the hundreds in the survey that was a metaphorical bridge across a fault line. “But 26 percent said they had a Jewish person express sympathy for them.”