Identity

WHO IS A JEW? VIEWPOINTS OF ISRAELI JEWS

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

WHO IS A JEW? VIEWPOINTS OF ISRAELI JEWS

We are living in an exceptional period in Jewish history.” With these words, which still apply, we chose to begin an earlier comprehensive report of the Jewish People Policy Institute, which addressed questions pertaining to the collective identity of the group known as the Jewish people.4 The report was based on a series of dialog encounters with Jews around the world; an effort was made to describe some of the challenges faced by Jews seeking to forge a shared identity for themselves.

At the heart of that report is the recognition that, a century ago (or a little more) it was quite easy to define and identify members of the Jewish collective. Ethnic affiliation was the chief deciding membership factor. Jews were nearly always regarded as those born to a Jewish mother or, in much rarer cases, those who converted in accordance with Halacha (Jewish law). By contrast, as discussed in the earlier report, although ethnicity still remains decisive for those who identify as Jews, it is now eroding as the primary factor.

More and more people whose self-identity is Jewish have non-Jewish parents, and as family members of Jews, no longer see a need to convert. At the same time, in an age that elevates the importance of the individual’s self-determined identity, people sometimes choose to self-define their identity as they see fit, and not always based on rules set by an amorphous collective that lacks institutions with the authority to decide on the matter.

The earlier report, again, was concerned with all Jews around the world, and was based on information gathered via conversations with selected groups, and on questionnaires administered to those groups. The report yielded important and fascinating conclusions, but the information analyzed in it – as noted in the study itself – did not claim to represent, nor would it have been capable of representing, the opinions of all Jews.

This study differs from the previous report in several aspects. Two major points are:

1. It deals solely with Jews in Israel and their approach to the questions raised in the study. We will also occasionally offer comparisons to studies of Jewish attitudes in other places.

2. The report is based on information gathered and quantitatively analyzed. Meaning, it can answer the question of what Israeli Jews think about the relevant issues, if we ignore (and we must ignore) the methodological problem arising from the study’s attempt to determine Who are considered Jews, based on the opinions of Jews, as though the question the study is attempting to address is already answered.

Other differences between the previous study and the present one:

The fact that the present study was conducted in Israel and with Israelis makes it possible to focus on questions relevant to the Israeli arena (which includes institutional and legal features), in which Jewishness plays a different role from that played by Jewishness in the Diaspora.

The online questionnaire’s presentation in a game format, and with the backing of a major media outlet, made it possible to collect information from a very large group of respondents who answered a relatively large number of questions, including background questions that facilitate weighting and characterization of the respondents.

The study’s reference group is Israeli Jews. Their affiliation with the collective was determined, as is common in studies on these topics, by what the respondents said about themselves. In the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Annual Assessment, we present yearly estimates of the number of Jews worldwide that combine objective and subjective definitions of group belonging. Regarding Israel, the JPPI Assessment estimates are based on halachic criteria. The numbers are clear and absolute. The state records the number of Jews. In the case of reporting on the number of Jews in most other countries, the data is based on self-definition measured via surveys and research studies.

The halachic definition is what determines the size of Israel’s Jewish population from the perspective of the Central Bureau of Statistics.

On Rosh Hashanah Eve 2022, Israel was home to 7,069,000 Jews, per the definitions employed by CBS. These Jews constitute 74% of the total Israeli population. Most Jewish population growth comes from natural increase. A fifth of the population designated as Jewish and Other, comes from migration. CBS explicitly tracks the share of those born to Jewish mothers (73.8% in 2020), who constitute nearly all the Jews in Israel.

In addition to them, 5% of Israeli citizens are designated as Others and are not classified by religion in the Population Registry. Most of these are descendants of Jews (though not the children of Jewish mothers), mainly from the FSU immigrant community. By Rosh Hashanah Eve 2022 this number had reached approximately half a million (498,000). Their population share is gradually increasing, with the arrival to Israel of immigrants with Law of Return eligibility, most of whom, in recent years, have not been Jewish as legally defined. Of the immigrants who arrived during the decade 2010-2019, only 14% were recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate.5

It must be said, however, that some of those who came on the basis of Jewish descent, claim, or feel that they are Jews, and this will be their self-definition. The CBS will not include them in the Jewish population group but rather in the Others category, but in our study, for both technical and substantive reasons, they are classified as Jews.6

Earlier studies indicated the importance of Jewish identity to Israeli Jews, including the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Israeli Judaism study, according to which “a very large majority of Israeli Jews feel Jewish. Or at least they say they feel Jewish.” On one of the study’s rating scales, over half of Israeli Jews stated that they feel Jewish at a level of ten out of ten, while the rest rated their sense of Jewishness at a high level.7

“This is true of a substantial majority of religious and secular Jews, a substantial majority of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, a substantial majority of city and rural-area dwellers, of those on the right and on the left, of Orthodox Jews and those unaffiliated with any religious stream, of synagogue attendees and those who go shopping on Shabbat, of those with many children and those with fewer.”8 The behaviors of Israeli Jews are diverse, the self-definitions are similar: nearly all feel Jewish. Nearly all (87%9 ) also say it is important that they are Jews. For nearly all (86%), it is important that their children will also be Jewish.

PreviousNext