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

The “who is a Jew” question is inextricably intertwined with that of “what is Judaism.” Some also link who is a Jew with the question of whether Judaism entails practices, faith, or a specific mode of conduct. That is, some feel that a connection to Judaism does not presuppose a content component, while others feel that it does. In this section we will discuss the content component, seen as necessary by the latter group. Accordingly, we will ask questions like:

1. Is Judaism a religion whose adherents must fulfill its ceremonial obligations?

2. Is Judaism a nationality whose members must face common challenges together?

Sub-questions will be derived from each of these questions:

1. How many of the obligations must be fulfilled in order to be considered Jewish?

2. What about those who do not meet their Jewish quota?

3. How about those who act contrary to the requirements?

4. What aspects of the activity/behavioral quota (if such a thing exists) are more or less important?

Many of these questions are hard to answer clearly, let alone in a manner that represents a consensus. But a process of gradual clarification enables us to map some of the contours of how Jews (in Israel) understand this thing that they call Judaism.

Secular Jews: Holidays and Torah

We found no common element that all Israeli Jews, or even a large majority of them, agree is indispensable – a specific belief that one must share, or a specific action that one must perform, in order to be Jewish, with those who do not share the belief/engage in the action being considered less Jewish. Of all the options we offered, it turned out that even things that most Israeli Jews feel should be done, such as remembering the Holocaust, are not prerequisites for membership in the Jewish community. In the case of Holocaust remembrance, for instance, only half of Israeli Jews say that those who do not remember the Holocaust are less Jewish than others (50%). This is the category that gained the highest share of agreement, followed by celebrating the holidays, circumcision, and leading an ethical life, each of which earned 47% agreement.

Of course, the overall share of those who agree in each category does not give an exhaustive picture of public attitudes. It is true that an identical percentage feel that circumcision is important and that leading an ethical life is important, but this percentage comes from different population groups in each case. Basically, there is one group that diverges from the others – the secular. In all the other groups, circumcision is a Jewish obligation that enjoys the highest degree of consensus; only among the secular is circumcision a matter of relatively low consensus (25%), with two other categories (living ethically and celebrating holidays) getting higher levels of agreement.

Moreover: the secular tend, as a rule, to choose fewer categories of obligation. That is, they have a harder time identifying faith or any particular activity as adding to, or detracting from, a person’s Jewishness. For many of them, a person is Jewish as such, without added criteria of continuing obligation. The sole category that most secular Jews see as binding is that of remembering the Holocaust (57%). By contrast, there are several categories for which their disregard is unequivocal and obvious compared with the other groups. This is naturally true of the categories pertaining to religious practice, such as fasting on Yom Kippur.

If we try to draw an overall conclusion from the data, we find that there are groups that more easily identify what Jewishness is in their opinion, while others find it harder to say precisely what it is that they share. This is what stands out among the secular in particular. Most secular Jews view Judaism as a culture or a nationality (together 60%). When we look at what they mean when they choose these definitions, we find that holiday and festival observance is a dominant marker of Jewishness for those who chose culture.

The widespread secular choice of a Jewishness of culture, (which is also the choice representing the widest gap on the political views scale – see the following graph), illuminates another intriguing characteristic, one relating to definitions and the way in which they are interpreted by respondents. Note the gap: when we asked whether Torah study is something that all Jews need to do, only 3% of secular participants responded in the affirmative. In general, Torah study does not enjoy a high level of consensus. Among the ultra-Orthodox the percentage is quarter to a third. By contrast, when we asked those who chose Judaism as a culture, whether they meant by this, the study of Jewish texts and Jewish history, nearly 60% of the secular population who had chosen that category gave an affirmative answer.

This means that there are many more secular Jews who view the study of Jewish texts as a meaningful component of Jewishness, and many fewer secular Jews who view Torah study as a necessary component of Jewishness. Of course, this is not a precise comparison of identical categories, as the questions were worded differently and were directed at groups of differing characteristics. Still, such a large gap between the answers raises suspicions that the word Torah, which has religious connotations, is what repels the secular, who essentially believe that the study of Jewish texts is actually an important identity element.

Over a quarter of the secular respondents chose Nationality as the chief component of Jewishness. This selection also sheds light on interesting differences vis-à-vis similar but not identical questions. When we asked whether all Jews are obligated to love Jews (especially), 13% of the secular participants responded in the affirmative. When we asked those who had answered Nationality if they were referring to a sense of connection to all Jews whoever and wherever they are, 63% said Yes. Again – there is a difference between the questions, from which we can learn something about the way in which secular Jews prefer to relate to their Judaism. The first question talks about obligation to all Jews. The secular, in general, feel less comfortable with obligation. It is no coincidence that they are also called chofshiim (free) in Hebrew.

In the second question the matter is not one of obligation, but of nationality, in which the secular have an interest. Furthermore: the first question asks about especially loving Jews, a statement that hints at the exclusion of other groups (loving Jews more than others). The second question asks about a fictive connection to all Jews, with no hint of preferring Jews to others. These differences seem to be what enables a much higher share of secular respondents to accept the second suggestion (connection to Jews) rather than the first (special love for Jews), even if these are actually very similar actions or tendencies.

Judaism as a Religion

One out of five Israeli Jews sees Religion as the main component of Jewishness. Among them the presence of religious and traditional-religious Jews stands out: a third of these latter groups chose Religion (32% and 35%, respectively). When we asked the participants who chose this category what the Religion definition means to them, we could again discern gaps between different groups.

Most secular respondents who chose Religion (12% of all secular respondents), said that they meant observing holidays and fasts. Although they chose the Religion pathway rather than the Culture pathway, the final destination was the same. Both groups of secular respondents were referring, above all, to holiday observance as the most important element of Jewish life. By contrast, most of the traditionalist and religious Jews (from traditional-not-so-religious to ultra-Orthodox) who chose Religion identified belief in God as a main component. For the traditional-religious, religious, and ultra-Orthodox respondents, this was the most commonly chosen component of Jewishness. The next-most-frequently chosen component was observance of all/some of the mitzvot (religious commandments).”33

The issue of belief in God appeared in two separate places in the questionnaire:

• As a binding demand “Only those who believe in God are Jews.”

• As a major component among an array of Jewishness components.

When we compare the two questions it is completely clear that a categorical demand for faith as a condition of Jewishness is rejected by a very large majority of Jews, including those belonging to groups whose members self-identify in very high percentages as believers. On the other hand, it is clear that belief in God is still a central element of Jewishness in the opinion of major Jewish subgroups.

Earlier studies, including JPPI studies, found that the percentage of Israeli Jews who believe in God is 80%, with most of these Jews saying they “believe with perfect faith” (58%34 ). Per JPPI research, the only group with a majority of non-believers, those who answered that they “believe there is no God” or “don’t believe in God, but sometimes I think maybe there is a God, even so” is the totally secular group. In all the other groups there is a substantial majority of believers, even among the secular-somewhat traditional, over two-thirds believe in God. Thus, it is not especially surprising to find that faith is still a meaningful component of identity in the opinion of many Israeli Jews, even if they do not feel that it is a necessary component.

Judaism as Values

A fair number of Jews include among their chosen Jewish identity components, the aspiration to uphold values that are important to them, such as justice, equality, concern for the disadvantaged, and the like. Half say that those who do not lead an ethical life are less Jewish than those who do. The ultra-Orthodox diverge slightly on this issue, with a smaller share of those who view Living Ethically as a binding category. A third of the Jews feel that “concern for the disadvantaged in society” is also a binding category and those who do not share such concern are less Jewish. On this question, the ultra-Orthodox also diverge from the other groups. However, when the participants were given the option to choose Values as the main component of Jewishness, only a minority (10%) did so, most of whom were secular. But note: even among the secular, those who choose Values are a small minority (16%); they are simply a larger minority than in the other groups (3% of the religious).

The Values category was deliberately included in the category set so that Israeli Jews could have an option that corresponds with a very meaningful aspect of Jewish identity in the American-Jewish sister community, the world’s largest Jewish community. Studies of this community repeatedly indicate that a large proportion of American Jews regard general humanistic values of concern for others, aspiration to justice, and more, as major components of Jewish identity. When the Pew Center offered for a second time, in 2020, a set of options to Jewish Americans, 72% chose “leading an ethical and moral life” as essential to being Jewish, while 59% chose “working for justice and equality in society.” These are much higher percentages than for the options of “continuing family traditions” and “caring about Israel” as central identity components.

What do (the mainly) secular Israelis mean when they say that Values are the chief element of Jewishness? Those who make this choice are, of course, small in number relative to the entire Israeli Jewish community, but they also exhibit a desire to adopt humanistic, sector-transcending, rules of behavior and ethics as an expression of Jewish identity. Thus, they ranked such components as “concern for the disadvantaged” and “concern for all human beings” much higher than “concern for all Jews.”

Judaism as Culture

Culture as a defining element of Jewish identity is the first choice of the secular public, and the second choice of the traditional-not-so-religious public. This is a choice that also has a clear political dimension and is distinctly associated with a large percentage of those on the left of the political spectrum. Among the ultra-Orthodox and the religious, only a few think of Judaism as primarily a Religion (0% and 3%, respectively), while among the non-mitzvah-observing Israeli subgroups, the proportions ranged from a fifth to a quarter.

If we divide Israeli society into two groups based, say, on whether they travel on Shabbat or do not travel on Shabbat, i.e., clear categories of mitzvah observance and non-observance, we find that each of these groups has its own notable Judaism components. Sectors that do not generally travel on Shabbat (ultra-Orthodox, religious, and traditional-religious, most of whom still do not travel 35

(on Shabbat) largely prefer the Religion and Ethnicity identity definitions. Sectors that generally do travel on Shabbat choose Culture and Nationality (with a small number also choosing Values).

The breakdown is, of course, not exact. Here there are ultra-Orthodox who chose values, and there are certainly not a few secular Jews who chose Ethnicity. But the sector-typical nature of the breakdown presented in the graph testifies to the possibility that in Israel there are, in effect, two languages of Jewish identity.

• Conservative, based on the foundations of religion and ethnicity. The choice of Ethnicity is also essentially a religious choice, as religious precepts hold ethnicity to be the chief defining factor for belonging to the Jewish people.

• Modern, corresponding to the possibility of a Jewishness free from religious tradition and from the ethnic emphasis (which has connotations that do not accord with Western liberalism) via a national or cultural definition.

What is the cultural basket of those who selected Culture as the chief component of Jewishness? One of the advantages of the Culture component is that it is relatively easy to pack it with a wide variety of categories from different fields. Thus, it contains a holidays element that can be included (and which we did include, with slightly different wording, for those who also chose Religion).

It has an element of using Hebrew, which is unquestionably a marker of culture, but also a major element of the sense of nationality shared by Israeli Jews. And more: we included in the cultural category the option: “leading an ethical life in the spirit of the Prophets,” which a third of those who selected Culture marked as an element that expresses their outlook. This is an item that was taken from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and we can definitely argue that it relates more to Values than to Culture.

SECULAR VERSUS TRADITIONAL

Having stopped to examine the gap between the two non-Shabbat-observing groups within the Israeli Jewish population, we will now linger a little longer over the differences between them. In earlier studies, including ones by the Jewish People Policy Institute, we could already see large (sometimes very large) disparities between Israelis who self-define as secular (and even more so for the distinct definition of totally secular), and Israelis who are secular-traditional, or the category closest to it, traditional-not-so-religious.”36

These gaps were reflected in questions pertaining to:

• Faith, such as the share of believers and non-believers in God.

• Viewpoints. For example, which approach entails the definition Jewish.

• Jewish practice. For example, the share of those who light Hanukkah candles or who fast on Yom Kippur.

In the “Who is a Jew” questionnaire we also find interesting gaps between the two groups, making it possible to say, and not for the first time, that a secular-religious division is too crude, as there are major differences between different religious and secular subgroups.

A few questions illustrate the significant gap between two groups of Jews who travel on Shabbat:

• 25% of all non-religious traditional Jews feel that Jews are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur, versus only 4% of secular Jews.

• 64% of traditional Jews feel that Jews are obligated to circumcise their sons, versus 25% among the secular Jews.

• 33% of traditional Jews say that Jews should sympathize with other Jews, a similar proportion to that documented among religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews. 13% of secular Jews also feel this way.

• 66% of secular respondents believe that those who serve in the IDF and self-define as Jews – are Jews, versus only 36% of traditional Jews.

• A similar disparity can also be seen regarding the idea that those who have married Jews and who self-define as Jews are Jews. 66% of secular respondents agree with this suggestion, while only 33% of traditional respondents expressed this opinion.

These gaps are also observed regarding the content questions, on which the respondents take diverging paths. As mentioned above, the largest segment of the traditional-non-religious view Jewishness primarily as a nationality, compared with the secular, more of whom chose Culture.

However, of the traditional Jews who chose Nationality, the main emphasis is on connection to all Jews, while the secular placed less emphasis on this. Of the traditional Jews who chose Religion as the main component, about 53% feel that this means observing some of the mitzvot. And, as noted, there is also a very considerable gap with regard to belief in God being linked to the set of Jewishness components. A large majority of the secular respondents who chose Religion as the main component did not, thereby, signal an intention of introducing a faith element into Jewishness. By contrast, most traditional Jews (55%) say that when they chose Religion they meant, among other things, faith.

In many areas it is evident that the traditional-non-religious are closer on the religiosity scale to the religious groups (traditional-religious and above) than to the secular group. An example of this can be seen when we analyze the questions about the conversion tracks necessary in order to become Jewish.

Firstly, many among the secular (and almost solely among the secular) believe that Jewishness is a matter of self-definition and that there thus is no need for conversion at all in order to become Jewish; in their view, the individual’s decision is enough. But when looking at who responded to the conversion question (those who feel that conversion is necessary) and that self-definition is not sufficient to become a Jew (the most secular are conservative in this regard), we see that a large majority of the secular (73%) respondents to the conversion question feel that some kind of conversion is enough to become Jewish. By contrast, most traditional Jews (57%) do not accept just any form of conversion, but only Orthodox or Conservative conversion.

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