Gabriel Abensour


So do Masortim amount to a fifth, a third, or a larger share of Israel’s Jewish population? Nineteen percent of Israeli Jews declaratively select this definition, but an even larger group, composed of the 21% who self-define as “secular-somewhat-Masorti” and of the 5% who self-define as “liberal-Dati” are also situated on the Masorti continuum. That is: nearly half of the Israeli Jewish public is fleeing the two orthodoxies that had characterized Israeli society throughout the 20th century: strict secularism and strict religiosity. Israelis now prefer to moderate those rigid identities with softening adjectives – “secular-somewhat-Masorti,” “Dati-lite,” or simply “Masorti.” In this case, a broad, supra-sectoral or multisectoral sphere has been created that includes up to 45% of Israeli Jews.

Additional data support the contention that Israeli Jews identify with Masortiyut more as an adjective than as a noun. For example, a 2014 study of the National Religious sector published by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) found that 24% of those who claim affiliation with this sector defined themselves religiously as Masorti-religious, and 9% as Masorti-non-religious.4 What this means is that 33% of the National Religious respondents described their approach to Judaism as Masorti, despite not having chosen Masortiyut as a noun but rather the “National Religious sector.” A survey conducted in 2017 by the Dialogue Institute found the opposite relationship: a third of Masortim self-defined as National Religious.5 Comparable data are obtained from surveys taking an in-depth look at the “secular” public’s attitude toward Jewish culture and various religious practices and beliefs.6 A large proportion of that public can unquestionably be subsumed under the “Masorti” umbrella.

More Masortiyut, less Masortim

Although all of the surveys show that a Masorti worldview is becoming more prevalent within the Israeli populace, Masortiyut as a self-definition has steadily declined over the past decade. An analysis of intra-Masorti trends indicates that this weakening began among those who self-define as Masorti-not-religious (from 28% in 2002 to 22% in 2019), while the share of Masorti-religious Jews remained stable.

Closer scrutiny of the data reveals that the Masorti identity has experienced great mobility, with a fair number of new affiliates and a fair number of dropouts. The CBS Social Survey for 2018 looked at religious mobility levels and found that only half of those who grew up in Masorti-religious or Masorti-not-so-religious homes continued to identify with those categories. However, most of the fluctuation has been between the “Masorti-religious” category and the “Masorti-not-so-religious” category. The creation of a “Masorti” category that encompasses both the earlier ones shows that 68% of those who grew up in Masorti homes maintain this way of life, with a substantial minority shifting to a secular lifestyle (23%), and an even smaller minority moving to a religious (6%) or a Haredi (4%) way of life. By contrast, 33% of those who grew up in religious homes have embraced a Masorti way of life, versus 13% of the secular and 3% of Haredim.7 This time as well, an examination of the data according to gender reveals that the share of women who grew up in Masorti homes and retained this lifestyle (70%) is larger than the share of men who did so (66%). The data indicate greater secularization, as the shift between the sectors is generally in the direction of more secular lifestyles. As we shall see, the move is usually to a soft and non-ideological secularism that retains a strong connection to Jewish identity and heritage.

On the relationship between Masortiyut and ethnicity

Why is there a steady decline in the number of Israelis who define themselves as “Masorti”? Rosner and Fuchs have suggested that this paradox is related to the fact that Israelis feel less comfortable with the “Masorti” definition because they perceive it as ethnic and outdated.8 Ethnicity certainly plays an important role in the Masorti self-definition. Is there a significant relationship between Mizrahiyut and Masortiyut? The CBS Social Survey only examines ethnicity for those who grew up abroad or those with a parent who grew up abroad. In the 2020 Social Survey, for example, 46% of those who self-define as Masortim are the children of Mizrahi fathers (hailing from North Africa or Asia), 14% are of European background, and 41% were born to Sabra fathers. According to a survey conducted in 2009 by the Guttman Center, 70% of Masortim define themselves ethnically as Mizrahim.9 However, in a survey conducted by Rosner and Fuchs a decade later, the share of Masortim who identify themselves as Mizrahim had dropped to 62%.10

Not only do a considerable share of Ashkenazim self-identify as Masortim, but this share is even higher among those who define themselves as secular-somewhat-Masorti (38% of non-Mizrahim and 20% of Jews of mixed background) and among those who self-define as “liberal-Dati” (50% Mizrahim, 17% mixed, and 31% Ashkenazim or Russians). At the same time, a fair number of Mizrahim also prefer a self-definition other than Masorti. Thus, 43% of the secular-somewhat-Masorti define themselves as Mizrahim, with the share rising among the liberal-Dati to 50%.11 From an ethnic perspective, Ashkenazim are indeed overrepresented at the totally secular end of the spectrum (54%, versus their 39% share in the total Israeli population) and at the Haredi end (58%), but Masortiyut has long since ceased to be the sole province of the Mizrahim. Furthermore, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim seem uncomfortable with the “Masorti” label as a noun but find it easier to embrace it as an adjective, along with an additional sociological affiliation.

Masortiyut and the education system

Another reason for the weakening of Masortiyut as an autonomous self-definition is, of course, the fact that Israel’s educational default is a choice between state religious schools and state secular schools. According to a study by Ariel Finkelstein for Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, based on a sample of 100,000 high school graduates during the period 1991-2018, 35% of the parents of graduates of high schools12 belonging to the state secular system self-defined as Masortim, as did 21.2% of the parents of graduates of state religious high schools. Not only are there no Masorti educational institutions, but Masorti children, and in particular those studying in state religious schools, will repeatedly encounter critical statements on the part of teachers and the school system regarding the Masorti identity. Masortiyut will be described as an intermediate identity and as being in flux, destined to become either secularism or religiosity. And while religious and secular parents receive support for their educational outlook from the school framework, Masorti parents have to act on their own, and in a certain degree of conflict with the formal education system, so that their children will maintain their parents’ identity.

Masortiyut and social mobility

But are people shaking off the “Masorti” identity merely because of its ethnic connotation, or because of its lack of associated institutions? The data point to at least one additional important reason: there is a strong relationship between Masortiyut and lower-class status. The education level of those who self-describe as Masorti is substantially lower than that of religious and secular Israelis. The highest educational qualification of 23% of the Masorti public is the high school matriculation certificate, while 17% have completed undergraduate degrees and 11% have earned master’s degrees. This is in contrast to the 25% of religious and secular Israelis who have earned undergraduate degrees, and the 18% who hold master’s degrees.14 The identification of Masortiyut with the lower classes has double the impact on Israelis’ self-definition. From a class perspective, it is better to identify as religious or secular, two sectors that enjoy great symbolic capital. Thus, not only do secular and religious Israelis whose worldview is close to that of Masortiyut prefer to differentiate themselves from it, but the children of Masorti families choose to distance themselves from it in order to improve their chances of social mobility.

Accordingly, Social Survey data indicate that only 45% of those who grew up in Masorti homes and earned academic degrees continue to define themselves as Masorti. This share rises to 55% among those who do not hold academic degrees.15 These data can also explain the fact that a third of those who self-define as “National Religious” also claim to have a Masorti lifestyle.16 The outer identification is the more advantageous one – the National Religious – while the inner identification remains Masorti.