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


The question of Jewishness and its nature can be discussed on several levels. It can be addressed through intellectual engagement with Jewish texts, with Jewish history and the Jewish ethos, with Jewish law and justice. It can be addressed through practical discussion regarding inclusion and exclusion, patterns of admission to, and participation in Jewish frameworks (which in the State of the Jewish people has additional meanings). It can also be addressed in the framework of public opinion research, which constitutes the bulk of the following discussion. Such discussion itself embodies the basic premise that Jews’ opinions on questions pertaining to their collective identity are important. That is, that the collective itself, at a given time and in the particular mood prevailing in it at that moment, has something to say about its identity – and that that statement is important and that an effort should, therefore, be made to understand it in depth.

This is a basic premise that can be defended in various ways to be discussed shortly, but it is not necessarily agreed-upon and shared by all Jews.

The idea that the viewpoints of all Jews are worth investigating as a significant element in the definition of the collective, entails the following assumptions:

1. Judaism is a living culture, whose typologies are established anew in every generation by those who identify themselves with the Jewish collective.

2. A living culture cannot exist in isolation from the desires and beliefs of those who are supposed to be maintaining it.

3. Large-scale global change is forcing today’s Jews to reorganize their thoughts about the framework that sustains their culture.

4. A group’s thinking about its identity is not an orderly, top-down process, but rather an evolving and chaotic process. Identifying emergent patterns of thought and potential conclusions within that process requires effort.

In order to organize our thinking about the needs to be examined in the framework of the process, we chose to address three major components, each of which constitutes the basis for a discussion in its own right within the general framework:

1. Flexibility – that is, the question of whether and to what degree Judaism is a culture of fixed foundations that cannot be changed, a given, in contrast to the opposite idea: that although Judaism is built layer upon layer in philosophical, literary, and historical terms, nevertheless each generation has a very high, perhaps unlimited, degree of flexibility to shape it.

2. Authority – that is, the question of who is authorized to set the boundaries of maneuverability for Jewish culture (permanence versus flexibility), and what interpretative tools are permitted for use by the authorized parties in the shaping of their generation’s identity.

3. Content – that is, what is the outcome of the process in which the authorized parties examine their identity in a given period, in light of the set boundaries of maneuverability.

In the present study, we will be devoting separate sections to each of these three questions, within (as noted above), the limited framework emphasizing public opinion – the viewpoints of Israeli Jews on the questions of:

• Flexibility – does Judaism change?
• Authority – who determines whether change happens, and how?
• Content – what changes?

Ideological investigation of these questions is of course also necessary, and many studies have indeed performed extensive investigations of this kind. We will occasionally mention the results of such inquiries as background to our main discussion, pertaining to the opinions of Jews themselves. However, our primary focus is on determining what those opinions are, not on how they clash with investigations of a theological, philosophical, or historical nature.

Our discussion may begin with the assertion that Israeli Jews, while they usually agree that their being Jewish is important and meaningful, nevertheless do not agree on the question of how their shared Jewishness is defined. The lack of such consensus can be discerned at the preliminary stage of analysis of a standard question posed to all of the participants in the new study.

Such a question appears in different versions in other studies in Israel and elsewhere and enables the research population to point to the main element of Judaism. That is, to say whether Judaism is mainly Culture, Religion, or Nationality – or other things.
There are studies that allow respondents to choose a combination of several components, which makes things easier for the respondents, but results in a somewhat less clear picture of Jewish attitudes.

There are studies that ask respondents to choose a single component. But even when only one component is at issue, there is still a variety of possible answers, both in terms of:

• Number – one component out of how many?
• Content – a single component of what?

Of course, the way in which the question is asked, and the response options, have a significant impact on the response distribution.

Here are some examples of studies that posed similar questions.

In a Pew Research Center study of Jewish Americans (2020)10 about half of the respondents (46%) chose different combinations of the Religion, Culture, and Ethnicity components. Of the other half of the survey respondents, a fifth (22%) chose Culture only, another fifth (21%) chose Ethnicity only, and a tenth (11%) chose Religion only. The question was posed thus: “Being Jewish is mainly about …”

This formulation, as we shall see, is not the same as that of our research question.
In a counterpart Pew Center survey of Israeli Jews (2015), three options were also presented.

The one chosen by the largest number of respondents was Ethnicity (35%). Religion was chosen by 22%, and Culture by 10%. The rest chose combinations of two of the three options, or all three.11

The questionnaire used in the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Israeli Judaism study (2018)12 gave respondents four options to choose from in two rounds, with no possibility of combination within each round. The respondents were thus able to rank the component of Judaism that they regarded as being of greatest importance, and then the second-most-important component – but they could not mix different components.

• In the first round 43% of Israeli Jews ranked Religion first.
• In the second round 40% of Israeli Jews ranked Nationality first.

Overall, nearly an identical share of Jews chose Religion (1) and Nationality (2), or Nationality (1) and Religion (2) as the chief components of Judaism.

It is interesting to compare these findings with those of the Pew Center’s Israel survey, in which far fewer respondents chose Religion than in the Israeli Judaism survey. This is, apparently, because many of the Pew respondents preferred a combined category that was not available in the Israeli Judaism survey.13

As seen by comparing surveys conducted on this topic in Israel within the space of just a few years, the wording of the question, the number of components available to choose from and the option (or lack of) to choose a combination of several components, all have a significant effect on the responses and the relationships between them.

The fact that the Pew survey does not contain a nationality component is meaningful, both because it reflects Pew’s basic assumption that regards Judaism as, above all, a religion, and because it omits a possible category to choose from.

The option of saying that nationality is a meaningful component as provided in the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Pluralism survey (201614 ) is also significant; we can see that, when such an option is given, over half of Israeli Jews avail themselves of it. However, they do this only when they are able to choose several components, and not when they have to select a single component. In the Pluralism survey they had to indicate, for each of four components, the degree to which it was meaningful. For this reason, the total obtained is much more than 100%.

The “Who is a Jew” project on whose data we rely in this study posed a question that differs slightly in several aspects from that posed in the earlier surveys. The differences are:

1. It allows respondents to choose one of five options (versus four and three, not including combinations, in earlier studies). The component added to the new study that does not appear in previous studies is Values, which was selected by a minority of the participants, though not an inconsiderable minority. This minority is important, as it is a characteristic and specific group for which a component such as Values provides an identity element that is better suited to its needs.

2. The wording of the question posed in the present study: “Of the following definitions, do you think that Jews are defined mainly in terms of …” is not the same as earlier wordings.

The definitional question in the present study was posed after a considerable number of earlier questions relating to Jewish identity, which could conceivably have influenced the respondents. There were also previous questions in other studies, but not the same questions, meaning that the effect, if there was one, might have been different.

Later, we will present a few instances where Israelis’ choices of various categories correspond to their responses to other research questions.
In the following graph, you can see five categories offered for selection to a representative sample of the entire Israeli Jewish population, as well as a breakdown into five sectors by level of traditional observance. For each of these sectors, we noted the exact percentage of those who chose the leading category for that sector.

We can see for the religious (Datim) (non-Haredi religious) and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sectors that Ethnicity is the main component selected, followed by Religion. This opinion, which is shared by slightly more than a quarter of Israeli Jews largely reflects a religious-halachic outlook, according to which Jewishness is a matter of birth.

For these respondents, the determining factor is almost always a Jewish mother, as we shall see below. The answer is the same for Masorti (traditional-religious) respondents, though with opposite weighting. Religion slightly overtakes Ethnicity. However, we can see that the weight given to Ethnicity and Religion as the main elements defining Jewishness declines significantly in the less-traditionalist groups, which are the largest groups in Israel, together accounting for two-thirds of Israeli Jews. This group gives greater weight to Nationality, the leading choice of the traditional-non-religious and to Culture, the leading choice of seculars.

As noted, this data should be treated with a degree of caution, as it is influenced by the wording and by the options available. We will draw a few conclusions from it later on, when we connect it to the answers to other questions that shed light on its meaning.

It is, after all, unclear whether all those who choose a component such as Ethnicity or Values are necessarily referring to the same thing. However, based on a rough breakdown, the data clearly points to a preference among half of Israeli Jews for the more traditional definitions of Jewishness (Ethnicity, Religion), while half choose definitions from a modern context (Nationality, Culture, Values). When we look at the definitions in light of the religiosity scale, we can also discern that the more traditional the subgroup (i.e., traditional-religious, religious, or ultra-Orthodox), the more strongly focused and homogeneous the choices of its members. In other words: in the conservative groups there is an understanding of Jewishness that is relatively uniform, while the less-religious groups exhibit a decentralized (some might say confused) understanding of the nature of Jewishness.