A comprehensive study examines the attitudes of Jews in Israel regarding the question “Who is a Jew?”


The following diagram and its accompanying text monitors the response trajectories of five of the survey respondents. Their names have been changed, but the response trajectories are identical to those of five Israeli respondents who participated in the study. We deliberately chose as the point of departure five different answers to the question about the main component of Jewishness.

Each of the five respondents gave a different answer to the question, and from there the paths proceeded to diverge and unite at various points on the subsequent questions.

The percentages next to the arrows indicate the overall share of respondents who gave the same answer to each question as the specific respondent. In some cases, the respondents we track belong to the majority, while in other cases they give minority answers. Some give very similar responses throughout the survey while others are inconsistent, whether because they are asked different questions, or because they give different answers.

To be clear: The trajectories presented here are only part of the full survey trajectory. This is the part where the respondents sometimes split from different answers to different subsequent questions.

One Jewish Man: Shemi’s Trajectory

Shemi was born in Israel in 2000. He is secular, Ashkenazi, and votes for center-left parties. In the last round of elections he voted for Yesh Atid. In his opinion, Judaism is primarily a Culture. His culture. In this, he resembles 33% of secular Israeli center-left and left-wing voters.

His outlook on what defines this culture is atypical for respondents who chose Culture as the main component of Jewishness. He agrees with the majority opinion that Jewish culture means celebrating Jewish holidays (76%), and with the majority who did not choose leading an ethical life in the spirit of the Prophets as a meaningful component (72%), as well as with the majority who did not choose Jewish food as a meaningful component (79%). But he belongs to the minority who say that Jewish culture means speaking Hebrew (46%) and living alongside other Jews (30%). He did not choose (59% did) to characterize Jewish culture as studying Jewish texts and Jewish history.

Shemi is one of the relatively few respondents who feel that self-definition is what determines whether someone is Jewish or not (28%), with no need for an additional criterion. But among those who chose Judaism as Culture, this is not a minority, but rather a slight majority (52%). On the other hand, Shemi feels that a person cannot be Jewish and something else besides, such as Buddhist or Catholic. In this he belongs to a 7% minority of those asked that question. Shemi thinks that all those who self-define as Jewish are Jewish, but like the vast majority of respondents (75%) he also wants these people to have a sense of belonging to the Jewish faith, nationality, or culture.

Shemi’s view that conversion is not necessary for someone to become Jewish is shared by most of those respondents who define Jewishness as Values, Culture, or Nationality. By contrast, most of the participants who define Jewishness as Religion or Ethnicity believe that conversion is necessary in order to make someone a Jew. This relationship is shown in the following graph. Shemi also belongs to a small minority (13%) who feel that there is no need for a uniform standard of Jewishness. He sees no problem with someone being considered Jewish in one community but not Jewish in another community.

One Jewish Woman: Orit’s Trajectory

This is Orit: born in Israel in 1993, Mizrahi, right-wing, secular-traditional and a Likud voter. Orit believes that being Jewish is mainly a matter of Ethnicity. This is the most common view among the participants, though only 26% agree with her. Among those on the political right, like Orit, the percentage of respondents who see the chief component of Jewishness as Ethnicity rises to 40%. Basically, when we seek a correlation between definitions of Jewish identity and political views, the highest correlation is that of right-wing views and ethnicity.

The farther one moves from the right to the center and left, the lower the tendency to choose Ethnicity, by 10% per leftward step (from right to center-right, to center, to center-left, and to left).

Like a large majority of those who say Jewishness is mainly a matter of ethnicity (65%), Orit feels that ethnicity means having a Jewish mother. When she chose which of the fictional characters in the survey are Jewish and which are not, Orit was consistent, and identified as Jews only those with Jewish mothers.

Orit doesn’t think that one can be Jewish and also have another identity. On this issue she is in the minority. Of those who chose Ethnicity as the main component of Jewishness, only 30% agree with Orit on this point. On the other hand, if we focus exclusively on those respondents who, like Orit, feel that Jewishness is established solely by having a Jewish mother, then she moves from this smaller minority to a larger group of respondents (44%) who agree that one cannot be a Jew and something else besides.

Orit accepts only Orthodox conversion as valid. This is the opinion shared by most respondents of her type (61%), that is, those who feel that Jewishness is a matter of ethnicity. And in her view, Orthodox conversion is conversion accepted by the Chief Rabbinate. This puts her in line with the largest group of respondents (45%) to the conversion question.

A minority of Israeli Jews, about a third, feel that Jews in Israel and Jews abroad should have the same rules and the same entities deciding who is a Jew and who is not. But this is not the situation with Orit, or with most of those who want Rabbinate conversion as a condition for being recognized as Jewish. The 70% of those who chose the Rabbinate as the conversion authority, feel that all Jews around the world should have common rules and decision-making institutions for determining Jewishness.

The concept modeled below shows the flow of respondents via the questions about the type of conversions they recognize, which Orthodox conversions they recognize, and whether there should be standardized rules. We see, for instance, that 59% of those who recognize only Orthodox conversion want both a unified governmental body and the same set of rules, while this is true of only 32% of those who also recognize Conservative conversion. In slight contradiction of this, we find that 20% of those who recognize all types of conversion still say they want to see standardized rules.

The flow chart we have appended for Orit opens with the choice of a main component of Jewishness and follows her and those who responded like her (the light blue line) to the following links in the question chain. At the same time, it allows us to see how other groups of respondents diverged via the various options.

One Jewish Man: Benny’s Trajectory

This is Benny: he was born outside of Israel in 1952, self-defines as totally secular and identifies as a political centrist. He usually votes for leftist parties; in the last elections he voted for Blue and White. Benny feels that the main component of Jewishness is Nationality. This was the second-most-common response in our survey, chosen by 23% of the participants (27% among the secular, the second-most-common choice after Culture). Politically centrist respondents tend to choose Nationality as a main component of Jewishness (27%), and when asked what they mean by Nationality, Benny’s answer, like that of two-thirds of the respondents, was “connection to Jews whoever and wherever they are.” Benny, like most other respondents, does not believe that affiliation with the Jewish nationality necessarily means support for Israel (38% of those who answered Nationality chose support for Israel as an element of the Nationality criterion).

Like most of the study participants (63%), and like an even larger majority of those who view Judaism as a nationality (70%), Benny does not accept as Jewish those who simply identify as Jews, with no other conditions or requirements. He believes that a Jew is someone who has a Jewish mother, the most common view among the respondents, and especially among those who regard Judaism as primarily a Nationality (46%).

Benny accepts any type of conversion to Judaism, thereby agreeing with most of those who think of Judaism as mainly a Nationality (55%), but not with most of those who say that Judaism is primarily an Ethnicity. Only 27% of those who feel that Jewishness is mainly Ethnicity accept all types of conversion. To the question of whether the rules for establishing Jewishness should be standardized for all of world Jewry, Benny responds like most members of the Nationality group. He is in favor of standardizing the criteria for belonging to the Jewish Nationality, but not in favor of a single central authority for all Jews that would decide who meets the criteria.

One Jewish Woman: Aviva’s Trajectory

Aviva is an Israeli woman who self-defines as totally secular. She was born in 1972 and identifies as center-left, of mixed ethnic background. She votes for the Labor Party and belongs to a minority (13%) who said that Jewishness is mainly a matter of values (hereinafter: values-oriented Jews). Although secular respondents who identify with the left tend more than others to associate Jewish identity with Values, it is still an uncommon view even within this group. Only 17% of those who are secular and leftist make this choice.

There are a few obvious differences between values-oriented Jews and all of the other respondents. One is that 64% of them, including Aviva, feel that self-definition is the sole criterion necessary for a person to decide that s/he is a Jew. A large majority of Jews (70%) do not agree with this position.

We asked Aviva, and other respondents who said that Judaism is exclusively a matter of self-definition, if this would block anyone who simply calls himself or herself Jewish, regardless of whether they have Jewish parents or underwent conversion. Aviva and nearly all the other respondents (96%) said “yes – that is what they mean”. When we tried to clarify what is meant by self-definition:

• 18% said that it refers to declaration only.

• 76% said that there is a need for the person to feel a sense of belonging to Jewish Culture, Religion, or Nationality.

• 6% said that the person must also exhibit a Jewish way of life.

Aviva responded in accordance with the majority (sense of belonging).

Like most of the participants (71% – 75% of the values-oriented Jews), she feels that one can be Jewish as well as something else. In her case, Jewish and Christian, Muslim, French, Buddhist, or atheist. Aviva does not believe that one can be a Jew and a Scientologist. Interestingly, the number of respondents who said that one can combine Judaism and Scientology was the lowest (58%) of all the combinations.

Aviva said that, in her opinion, conversion is necessary for a person to become Jewish. This answer contradicts the idea that self-definition alone is needed, and it differs from the response of most values-oriented Jews (77%). However, Aviva agreed with those values-oriented Jews who feel that conversion is necessary by stating any type of conversion is acceptable to her (80%). Values-oriented Jews are twice as open to all forms of conversion as the other respondents to the conversion question, only 40% of whom accept all forms of conversion.