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2019 Annual Assessment

The Jewish People Policy Institute’s Israeli Judaism project, mentioned above, made a significant contribution this year to our understanding of Israeli Jewish identity. Among other things, it illuminated the way in which major secularizing trends within Israeli-Jewish society and the Israeli-Jewish public sphere (e.g., a large number of people who do their shopping on Shabbat; religious observance abandoned at higher rates than it is adopted) interact with the demographic and political invigoration of religious subgroups. This study (see chapter, Israeli Jews: Tradition and Nationality) identified four main differences between the Jewish identity that is emerging in Israel, and that of most Diaspora Jews.

The first of these differences: Israeli Jews are not concerned with “Jewish continuity”; they are not worried about it, and do not fear that the next generation will not be Jewish. The second: Israeli Jews do not have to make an effort to be Jewish, to feel Jewish, to be active Jews. The third: Israeli Jews are indeed active Jews. The highly-detailed questionnaire on which the study was based found that, in Israel, hardly any Jews are entirely cut off from Jewish tradition. The fourth difference: For Israeli Jews, Israeliness is a central component of Jewish identity – so much so, that for many of them the distinction between “Israeliness” and “Jewishness” is blurred. For example, they agree that “to be a real Israeli you have to be Jewish.”

Of course, these are all generalizations. Neither the Israeli nor the Diaspora communities are monolithic. In both instances there are exceptions that prove the rule. Assuming, however, that these generalizations do reflect the average, we can say that most Israeli Jews feel that living in Israel is an important component (35 percent) or even the most important component (21 percent) of Jewish identity. Not only that, but half of Israeli Jews (54 percent) believe that “to be a good Jew” one must support settlement in the Land of Israel. It is therefore not surprising that two-thirds of Israeli Jews feel that Jewish life in Israel is more meaningful than Jewish life elsewhere (It’s not that they think one can’t be a Jew elsewhere; they understand and accept that it is possible).

Three out of four Israeli Jews (77 percent) believe that to be a good Jew “is to worry about other Jews, whoever they may be.” This is a question that refers to all Jews. Nine out of ten say they feel strongly connected to the Jewish people. This is also a general question about the “people” as a whole. Two-thirds of American Jews (63 percent) say they have a responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world. Jews “in need” are, of course, a more specific group, not the people as a whole, and the term entails additional questions: What constitutes being “in need?” What about taking care of Jews who aren’t in need? A substantial majority of US Jews say that caring about Israel is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them (87 percent). Israel is also a specific target. We may assume that caring for Israel means something different from caring for Ukrainian Jews, as Israel is the state of the Jewish people, a national project, while the Ukrainian Jewish community is small and shrinking. And, of course, yet another question presents itself: What exactly is meant by “caring about Israel?” It is altogether clear that “caring” does not mean agreeing with Israeli policy or supporting everything Israel does. On the other hand, the decisive majority – those who feel that caring about Israel is an important component of being Jewish – unquestionably do mean something by it.

Not all Israeli Jews feel connected to the Jewish people to the same degree and, accordingly, not all feel the same level of obligation to care for other Jews. The sense of connection/obligation is most pronounced among right and center-right voters and among the religious, and less pronounced among those who self-identify as secular. Nearly nine out of ten right-leaning voters (87 percent) believe that being Jewish means worrying about other Jews, whomever they may be, compared with four out of ten (41 percent) left-leaning voters. One out of five to ten secular Jews feels that concern for Jews in other places is a highly significant component of Jewish identity. Half of religious or ultra-Orthodox Jews hold this opinion.

A similar gradation exists regarding the question of whether being a good Jew means living in Israel. Those Jews who, more than others, feel that it is important for Jews to live in Israel, are actually the ones more likely to think that it is important to worry about Jews who don’t live in Israel.

When these findings are compared to the findings of studies on Diaspora Jewry and, in a more focused way, to the new study on Canadian Jewry released earlier this year, similarities and differences emerge. One similarity is that Jews the world over attach less importance to religious practice and tend to view their Jewishness as a matter of “culture” (half of Canadian Jews) or “ancestry/descent” (15 percent of Canadian Jews), though for the most part they view it as a combination of culture, ancestry, and religion (33 percent ). Slightly different responses were registered in the Israeli survey, and there was no “combination” option; but it is clear that Israelis, who rank “religion” and “nationality” as highest in importance, have a somewhat different outlook. Nevertheless they, like Canadian Jews, do not regard Torah and mitzvah observance as the essential elements of their Jewish identity. Two-thirds of Israeli Jews do not feel that “to be a good Jew is to celebrate Jewish holidays, ceremonies, and traditions.” But a third do feel that way, compared with only a fifth (22 percent) of Canadian Jews – reflecting the differences between a population in which Orthodox observance is low (17 percent in Canada), and a population with over double the percentage of Jews who self-identify as Orthodox (37 percent).

Identical percentages of Israeli and Canadian Jews say being Jewish is “very important” to them: 64 percent. The percentages of those who say that being Jewish is not important to them are also quite similar: 5 percent in Israel; 8 percent in Canada. But again, there are differences. Regarding, for example, the percentage of those who believe in God or in a higher power: 62 percent of Canadian Jews express such a belief, compared with 79 percent of Israeli Jews. Similarly, with regard to synagogue attendance: more Israelis attend synagogue frequently – but, at the same time, more Israelis never go to synagogue. Israelis can easily express their Jewishness without entering a synagogue, in contrast to non-synagogue-attending Canadian Jews who have a much harder time expressing their sense of Jewish belonging. When we look at home-based Jewish practices, such as lighting Shabbat candles, one finds a gradation in which US Jews (on average) do less (16 percent light candles every week), Canadian Jews do much more (34 percent light every week), and Israeli Jews even more (57 percent). Similarly, half of US Jews celebrate bar mitzvah (51 percent), compared to 62 percent of Canadian Jews, and a much larger percentage of Israeli Jews (78 percent). Nearly all adult Israeli Jews say they have celebrated or will celebrate their sons’ reaching bar mitzvah age (95 percent), or their daughters’ reaching bat mitzvah age (90 percent).

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