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Op-Ed: Understanding Pew- Factoring in Israeli culture

The Pew Research Center survey of the Israeli public’s attitudes, titled “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” provides a wealth of data on Israelis of all stripes, haredi (ultra-Orthodox), hiloni (secular), dati (National Religious) and mesorati (traditional, whose religious observance is selective), Muslim, Christian and Druse concerning religion, politics, identity and values. But the survey’s interest goes beyond the data that 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 comparison.

One reason the data is so fascinating is that fundamental questions arise as to its meaning.

It deploys concepts and terms such as “democracy” and “religion” whose meanings we take unthinkingly for granted. Questions especially arise when we compare data relating to different questions with each other and when correlate the Israeli data to that collected in America.

One finding, that 48 percent of the Jewish Israeli public support “expulsion and transfer of Arabs from Israel,” drew international media attention. This finding is inconsistent with those from other surveys, as Pew itself points out. For example, a 2015 University of Haifa survey found only 32% of Israelis agree that “Arab citizens should leave the country and receive proper compensation.”

But the questions get even thornier when one compares this finding with the responses to other questions, such as that 76% (from all sectors) of the Israeli Jewish population agree that Israel can both be Jewish and democratic.

How is the support for democracy compatible with supporting transfer and expulsion? Similarly, how is support for democracy compatible with another finding – that 79% support “preferential treatment for Jews”? The interpretation of this data should be alive to the fact that the term “democracy” bears several meanings. Currently, a fierce debate is raging among Israeli policy makers and academics about civics education, and whether the “people” vis-a-vis “democracy” (rule of the people) refers to individuals bound in a social contract or to a national, historical collective entity such as the Jewish or French people. It could very well be that this is a debate stretches far beyond the academic and public policy realms.

The 46% who have a gut antipathy to “expulsion of Arabs” understand democracy in basically individualistic and universal terms, while those who endorse it on a gut level, understand “democracy” as the rule of the Jewish people understood as a collective national entity. Similar debates are emerging in Europe today.

A less incendiary issue, perhaps, is religious observance among Israeli and American non-Orthodox Jews. To summarize a complex data set, Israeli non-Orthodox, including hilonim Jews, have higher levels of “religious beliefs and practices” but lower levels of “standard measures of religious commitment” than American Jews. Thus, in terms of beliefs and practices, twice as many non-Orthodox Israelis attend synagogue at least weekly (12%) as American non-Orthodox (6%).

A third (33%) of self-identified hilonim keep kosher as opposed to 22% of all American Jews, and 7% of Reform Jews.

Furthermore, 37% of non-Orthodox Israeli Jews believe in God with absolute certainty against 28% of non-Orthodox American Jews. (Over half of Israeli hilonim say that they believe in God in some fashion.) 87% of hilonim attend a Seder, which is much higher than for the general American Jewish population (70%). At the same time, in terms of religious commitment, almost no hilonim (2%) say that religion is very important in their lives while 16% American Reform Jews and 43% of American Conservative Jews do. (Among Israeli non-Orthodox as a whole only 13% say that it is very important.)

This difference suggests that when Israelis speak of being religious or secular they are not really talking about “faith” as an American would, but rather about the authority of the Orthodox religious tradition, both of religious institutions such as rabbis and synagogues and as an organizing principle of Jewish life.

Many of the early Zionists were men of deep faith (such as A.D. Gordon and Berl Katzenelson) but they revolted against the authority of the religious tradition. This revolt seems to be inherent in the very nature of Zionism itself. The attempt to reconstitute the Jewish people as national-political entity necessarily entails replacing religion as the overarching authoritative framework of Jewish life and collective identity with a political national framework.

The extreme polarization of the data regarding the Jewish and democratic character of the state might reflect this. 89% of hilonim say democratic principles should have priority over religious law in the case of a conflict, while the exact same percentage of haredim (89%) give preference to religious law. The hiloni position may reflect not only adherence to democratic principles but also the privileging of the national-political framework over the religious one. The haredim opposed Zionism on precisely this issue. They opposed the attempt to supersede religion as the organizing principle of Jewish life. The Israeli non-Orthodox are, thus, clearly not opposed to religion. They just wish to reduce its importance and subordinate it to the national-political framework.

At bottom, the Pew data is so rich, provocative and fascinating that one needs to bring to its interpretation the full weight of Israeli history and culture, and especially to take into consideration the splendid difference between Israeli life and life in other Jewish centers.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.