Israeli Boundaries

In March, the Pew Research Center conducted a comprehensive study of religion in Israel. I was planning to write about the study then, but other weekly topics came to the fore. The Pew survey portrays a country with great religious diversity and robustness that is highly structured by strong social boundaries among Jews and between Jews and other religious groups. Here are several key findings in the survey of more than 5,000 Israelis:

Jews comprise roughly four-fifths of the country’s population. Within Israeli Jewry, the survey identified four major groups: Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), 9%; Dati (“religious”, modern Orthodox), 13%; Masorti (“traditional”), 29%; and Hiloni (“secular”), 49%.  The non-Jews include Muslims, with smaller groups of Christians and Druze. Nearly all are ethnically Arab.

Stick with our own. Groups are largely isolated from one another socially; there is virtually no religious intermarriage in Israel, and strong majorities of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze say all or most of their close friends belong to their own religious community.

Despite strong social boundaries among Israeli Jews, Israeli Jews feel strongly about their country, with nine-in-ten saying a Jewish state is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people and nearly all agreeing that Jews everywhere have the right to make aliyah and become Israeli citizens.  Three-fourths of Israeli Jews say Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state, and nearly 75% call themselves Zionists.

Israeli-Jew or Jewish-Israeli? Most secular Jews in Israel see themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second, while most Haredim and Dati'im say they see themselves as Jewish first and then Israeli.  Similarly, seven-in-ten Haredim and 52% of Dati'im say being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, while 83% of Hilonim Jewish identity is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture.

Security and economic issues top Israeli Jews’ concerns about the future. Equal proportions of Israeli Jews cite security threats, violence and terrorism and economic issues (social inequality, housing costs) as the biggest long-term problems facing their country.  A much smaller share of Israeli Jews describe other social, religious or political problems, such as racism, discrimination or religious divisions as the country’s leading problem. 

Together, Israel and the U.S. are home to about 80% of Jews globally, and there are strong bonds between the world’s two largest Jewish populations. Most Israeli Jews feel they share a common destiny with U.S. Jews and think U.S. Jews have a good influence on Israeli affairs. American Jews also harbor warm feelings about Israel with 69% emotionally attached to Israel.

Israeli Jews overall are more religious than U.S. Jews, partly because Orthodox Jews are a greater proportion of their population. But Israeli Jews also are more religiously polarized than U.S. Jews: They are more likely than U.S. Jews to say they go to synagogue either weekly or never, while Americans Jews are far more likely to attend synagogue on an occasional basis (e.g., a few times a year, Jewish High Holidays).

Perhaps the most controversial “headline” from the survey was that 48% of Jewish Israelis polled agreed with the statement that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel,” though the percentage ranged from 54% to 71% for those defining themselves as ultra-Orthodox, religious or traditional; and only about 36% of the secular community felt that way. The report pointed out, however, that its question had simply stated “Arabs” and not specified if they were citizens or not. It also noted that in response to a question from the University of Haifa’s Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in 2015, 32% of Israeli Jews agreed to some extent that “Arab citizens should leave the country and receive proper compensation,” with 64% opposed.

In addition, Israeli Jews and Arabs disagree on whether the country can simultaneously be a Jewish state and a democracy. About three-quarters (76%) of Israeli Jews believe this to be possible, but relatively few Israeli Arabs (27%) agree. Plus, a shrinking share of Israeli Arabs believe Israel and an independent Palestinian state could coexist peacefully (74% believed this in 2013, compared with 50% in the new survey). Few Jews (10%) say Palestinian leadership is sincerely seeking a peace settlement, while few Israeli Arabs (20%) think the Israeli government is genuinely pursuing peace.

Steven M. Cohen, a researcher of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who consulted on the study, compared the depth of differences between various Jewish communities in Israel to “having Oklahoma and Massachusetts joining neighborhoods in the same country...Jews have the sense of—we’re one people, we know each other, we care for each other,” he says. “And yet here is a snapshot of a Jewish society that is riven with crevices that are repeated on several levels—social, political, religious, to some extent even economic.”

I wonder what a Pew study in Israel ten years from now will say.

The Jewish Federation, in partnership with Kesser Israel and Jewish Family and Child Service, is continuing to raise funds for the Passover 4All/Maot Chittim Project -- guaranteeing some 120 families (350+ people) will have Passover meals. We are close to our goal of $5000 with four days remaining – make your donation today. A gift of just $36 will purchase a kosher chicken, eggs, matza, gefilte fish, potatoes, and wine for the holiday. Help us make Passover a celebration for all in our community.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation is pleased to present a Portland Mayoral Forum with Jules Bailey and Ted Wheeler this Monday at 7:00 p.m. at Congregation Neveh Shalom. The community is invited to learn more about these leading candidates for Mayor of Portland.

Good Deeds Day is around the corner on April 17, where our community comes together for volunteer activities and also the Hand to Hand Household Item Donation Drive. All projects are being held on the Schnitzer Family Campus. Register now and get that spring cleaning done in service of others! Any questions, please call 503-245-6449 or email

Shabbat shalom.



Add Comment