New Pew study finds “deep gulf” between secular and religious Israelis

Posted on: March 8th, 2016 by The Jewish Observer


Nearly 70 years after the establishment of the modern State of Israel, its Jewish population remains united behind the idea that Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people and a necessary refuge from rising anti-Semitism around the globe.

But alongside unifying themes, a new study by the Pew Research Center also describes a “deep gulf” between religious and secular Jewish Israelis over political values and the role of religion in public life. The study found that while they share some traditions and live together in a small country, “highly religious and secular Jews inhabit largely separate social worlds, with relatively few close friends and little intermarriage outside their own groups.”

Coming three years after a similar Pew study of American Jews, the new study also reveals important differences between U.S. Jews and those in Israel, which together account for more than 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population. On the whole, American Jews are less religiously observant, more liberal politically and more optimistic about finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The study, which was released on March 8, is based on 5,600 interviews with Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, between October 2014 and May 2015. It has a margin of error of 2.9 percent on questions asked of Jews and 5.6 percent for those asked of non-Jews.

Israel is 81 percent Jewish and 19 percent non-Jewish, according to the survey. Among the Jews, about half identify as secular (Hiloni) and half with one of three religious groups: 29 percent traditional (Mastori),13 percent religious Zionists (Dati), and 9 percent ultra-Orthodox (haredi).

These religious divisions “are reflected in starkly contrasting positions on many public policy questions, including marriage, divorce, religious conversion, military conscription, gender segregation and public transportation,” according to the study’s overview. “Overwhelmingly, Haredi and Dati Jews (both generally considered Orthodox) express the view that Israel’s government should promote religious beliefs and values, while secular Jews strongly favor separation of religion from government policy.”

The Pew study is available online at Some of its major findings include:


Nearly half of Jewish-Israelis want Israel to be Arab-free.

Forty-eight percent of Jewish-Israelis agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Slightly fewer (46 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed.

As might be expected, support for removal of Arabs comes largely from right-wing Israelis. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of self-identified right-wing Jews agreed that Arabs should leave Israel, as did 71 percent of religious Zionists and 59 percent of the haredi Orthodox. Among left-wing Jews, 10 percent said yes to forcible transfer.


Most non-Jewish Israelis don’t think Israel can survive as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

Sixty-three percent of Arab Israelis – including 64 percent of Muslims, 72 percent of Christians and 58 percent of Druze – answered no when asked if Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democracy.

This does not mean, however, that non-Jewish Israelis are secularists. More than half of both Christian and Muslim Israelis favor applying their own religious laws to their communities.


Jewish-Israelis are less liberal politically than Jewish-Americans.

While nearly half of Jewish-Americans call themselves “liberal,” according to a recent Pew survey of American religion, the figure for left-wing Jewish-Israelis is just 8 percent. More than one-third of Jewish-Israelis say they are right-wing, compared to just 19 percent of Jewish-Americans who called themselves conservative in Pew’s 2013 study.

Those differences are particularly apparent with respect to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Sixty-one percent of Jewish-Americans say “Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully,” according to Pew’s 2013 survey of American Jews, while only 43 percent of Jewish-Israelis feel similarly. Sixty-one percent of Jewish-Israelis say God gave Israel to the Jews, including  51 percent of non-Orthodox Israelis. Only 40 percent of Jewish-Americans agree. A plurality of Jewish-Israelis (42 percent) believes that settlements make Israel more secure as opposed to just 17 percent of Jewish-Americans.


Israeli Jews are more religious than American Jews.

Israelis vary widely in their religious observance. Most religious Israelis pray daily, while their secular counterparts can go years without setting foot in a synagogue. Overall, however, Israeli Jews are more religious in terms of belief and observance.

For instance, more than a quarter of Israelis attend weekly services compared to about one-tenth of their American counterparts. Half of Jewish-Israelis believe in God with absolute certainty compared to one-third of Jewish-Americans, and nearly half of Jewish-Israelis don’t handle money on Shabbat, while almost all Jewish-Americans do.

What’s more, some Jewish religious customs have gained something akin to a consensus following in Israel, even among those who call themselves secular. Nearly all Jewish-Israelis attend a Passover seder, for example, and almost two-thirds keep a kosher home, including one-third of secular Israelis. By contrast, only 22 percent of Jewish-Americans keep a kosher kitchen. 


Israel is getting more religious — but less Jewish.

Israel’s short history has been punctuated by successive waves of Jewish immigration from around the world, but even with those millions of newcomers, the country is proportionally less Jewish than when it was founded.

 In 1949, Israel was 86 percent Jewish and 13 percent Arab. Now it’s 81 percent Jewish and 19 percent Arab.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Jews are becoming proportionally more observant. Between 2002 and 2013, the percentage of Jewish-Israelis older than 20 who are Orthodox grew from 16 percent to 19 percent, according to the Israeli Social Survey. Haredi Israelis have far more children than secular Jews – 91 percent have more than three children, while half of secular Jews have two or less. More than a quarter of haredi families (28 percent) have at least seven children.


When it comes to religion, Arab-Israelis look more like the Orthodox than secular Jews.

Political analysts often group Arab-Israelis with secular left-wing Israelis due to their similar political leanings. But in terms of attitudes toward religion, Arab-Israelis look more like Israel’s Orthodox Jews.

A solid majority of Muslims and Christians in Israel say religion is “very important” to them, compared to just 2 percent of secular Jews. Forty-five percent of the Muslims say being Muslim is mostly about religion — similar to the 52 percent of religious Zionists who see Judaism as mostly about religion.

Similar percentages of Muslims and religious Zionists pray daily. And similar percentages of Muslims and haredim believe in God with absolute certainty. Nearly half of Muslims attend mosque weekly — fewer than the solid majorities of the Orthodox Jews in Israeli who go to synagogue every week, but far above the low rates of non-Orthodox attendance.

This story was compiled from reports by the Pew Research Center and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.