Article Library / 2016

2016 Annual Assessment

One of the landmark events of the past year in terms of Jewish identity was the publication of the survey of the religious and political values, attitudes, and identities of the Israeli population undertaken in 2014-2015 by the Pew Research Center. The survey, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” provides a wealth of data on Israelis of all stripes; Jewish Israelis : Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (Orthodox Religious Zionist),  Masorati (traditional with selective religious observance)1  and Hiloni (“secular” or non-observant), and Muslim, Christian, and Druse. But the survey’s interest goes beyond the data it provides. Crucially, it was conducted by Pew, a non-Israeli agency, which, in 2012-13, conducted a similar study of American Jews and thus affords a detailed, if not simple, comparison.

The survey was conducted by the Religious Research division of the Pew Research Center and the way that the survey was published and presented to the public highlights its character as a survey of religious attitudes, beliefs and behaviors – “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society.” We argue though, that what the survey measures and discloses is not so much “religion” and especially not religion in the American sense of individual beliefs and practices but rather alternative frameworks of Jewish collective identity or more precisely, the effects of the adoption of different frameworks of Jewish collective identity.

One can ask two basic questions of the Pew survey data: Do Jewish Israelis share the same basic conception and pattern of Jewish identity? Secondly: Do Jewish Israelis and Diaspora Jews share the same basic conception and pattern of Jewish identity? We shall see that the Israeli Jewish population contains two very different conceptions and patterns of Jewish identity – that of the “secular” population (Hilonim) and that of everyone else – ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Religious Zionist, and Traditionalist. Secondly, the secular conception of Jewish identity differs considerably from the conception of Jewish identity expressed in the discourse of Jewish identification promoted by the organized Jewish community in the Diaspora.

The different frameworks of Jewish collective identity that the Pew data reflect are the result of the Zionist Revolution. Zionism, especially in its formative decades before the Second World War, was more than a movement to found a Jewish state (though especially from the late 1930s on that was its core component). Rather, it was a movement to reorder Jewish life, especially its pattern of collective identity. This was particularly true of the movements that bore the brunt of Zionist realization in Palestine-Eretz Yisrael – the various Labor Zionist movements. These movements, like other branches within Zionism, attempted to replace religion as the overarching authoritative framework of Jewish life and collective identity with a political national framework. Especially among the “secular” Zionist movements, this move was accompanied by the attempt to base Jewishness upon the “immanent frameworks” of language, political collective, and (to a certain extent) calendar, not upon religious ideals, aspirations, obligations or messianic hope.2 Thus, if one lives in the State of Israel and is a Hebrew speaking citizen of it, and especially if one fulfills one’s citizenship duties in terms of military service and political participation, then one’s life is Jewish. One need not fill it with any further content. One might even say that for the products of the Zionist revolution being Jewish is a framework, not a set of contents. It is a matter of participation in certain – Israeli, Hebrew – frameworks and not others (French, German, Polish). This is different from the assumptions of the discourse of Jewish identification in the organized American Jewish community in which being Jewish is a set of contents – religious beliefs and practice, support for Israel, Jewish learning etc. We claim that the population group that calls itself Hiloni (generally translated as secular) is the group that carried out and underwent this revolution in the structure of Jewish collective identity.

This revolution, though, remained incomplete. Other, Haredi or ultra-Orthodox groups in the Jewish population of Palestine-Eretz Yisrael objected vociferously to this program, including the very attempt to establish a Jewish national-political framework. Other groups attempted to reinterpret Jewish nationalism and to assimilate it (in one fashion or another) into the traditional religious framework. Thus, the Pew data presents us with four identity categories – Hilonim, (“secular” or non-observant) Masoratim (“traditionalists”) Datiim and Haredim. Two of the groups represent the extremes – Hilonim and Haredim – and the other two represent the “means” or midway positions. Hilonim, who currently constitute 49 percent of the Israeli Jewish population, represent the population that actualized the Zionist Revolution, while the Haredim, currently 9 percent of the Jewish population, represent the group that opposed it. The middle groups – Datiim (13%) and Masoratim (29 percent) – represent groups who in one fashion or another reinterpret Jewish nationalism and assimilate it into the traditional-religious framework of Jewish identity. The detailed attitudes and values each group manifests, reflects the framework of Jewish collective identity they adopted. On many issues, Datiim and Masoratim side with the Haredim, but on others they are closer to the Hilonim. According to the Pew data, Jewish collective identity in Israel is dynamic; individuals may circulate among the various “stations” but the stations themselves remain stable.

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