Sunday, February 05, 2012

How Jewish are Israelis?

Stick an average alumnus of the Israeli public school system into a synagogue during morning prayers and chances are they'd be bewildered. Even if they could, what good would it do them to recollect an arid Bible class they might have been required to sit through?

Israel's secular founders were on the whole Jewishly literate. But for all their practicality they supposed that somehow through osmosis their progeny would be equally versed in the Jewish canon. Few secular politicians pushed for teaching Judaism broadly defined in the public schools. As for the Orthodox political parties, they are happy to direct monies for Jewish education to the network of parochial schools their children attend.

The result has been that what many Israelis know about Judaism and specifically the Jewish religion is refracted through the prism of ignorance, folklore and the handiwork of the taxpayer funded obscurantist religious establishment. Yet despite these self-inflicted wounds, the findings of the latest "Portrait of Israeli Jews" report, produced jointly by the Avi Chai Israel Foundation and the Israel Democracy Institute, confirms that Israelis appreciate in overwhelming numbers that the religion of Israel is a cornerstone of Jewish statehood. Media coverage of the report has spotlighted the findings that 80 percent say they believe in God; 56% believe in an afterlife; 51% in the coming of the messiah and, more curiously, 24% have sought spiritual solace at the graves of righteous figures.

On closer examination, and as the study makes explicit, the data is replete with internal contradictions. For one, secular Israelis are probably not becoming more observant. Of course, even carefully crafted surveys – this one was done in 2009 and released only now after thorough analysis – are only snapshots frozen in time; surveys taken in 1991 and 1999 revealed slightly different attitudes. Moreover, this survey was conducted before the latest swell in tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. Its nomenclature is necessarily imperfect; insular haredim and those who are scrupulously observant are basically lopped together under the rubric of "ultra-Orthodox." Demographically, the ultra-Orthodox and haredi population is growing while the numbers of secular Israelis is declining.

That said the 121-page survey profitably illuminates Israeli attitudes on identity, religious affiliation, ritual behavior and attitudes toward peoplehood. Among the findings, about half of Israelis of all ethnic backgrounds says their Jewishness trumps any other identity. Though there are sectoral divisions with secular Israelis attributing greater value to their Israeliness and haredim attaching virtually none. Those who define themselves as traditional attach the most importance to their Jewish identity. Broadmindedly, 92% of Israelis agree that level of observance does not equal being a good Jew. Despite cultural differences and a clear sense that Jews in Israel are a different nation, 73% of Israelis express a sense of common destiny with Diaspora Jews.

Unsurprisingly in a country where only state certified Orthodox rabbis can conduct weddings, half of the respondents want to see a civil marriage alternative. A majority also want non-Orthodox streams to enjoy equal status under the law. Most appear able to live with the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on conversions yet would not necessarily expect the converts to live Orthodox lifestyles – though this is precisely what is required by the conversion authorities. Some 48% would even accept Jews who convert through the liberal streams were this legal.

In terms of religious affiliation, 46% of Israelis including most immigrants from the former Soviet Union think of themselves as secular; though only 16% say tradition plays no role in their lives and a miniscule 3% are anti-religious. Seven percent said they were haredi; 15% Orthodox; and 32% broadly traditional. In practice, 14% assert they "meticulously" observe tradition; 26% say they do so "to a great extent" while 44% do so "to some extent."

Yet contradictions abound. Almost all Jewish Israelis attach value to religious life-cycle events from circumcision to Shiva. Similarly, 85% like that traditional Jewish festivals are observed even if they are selective in their own practice. For instance, Israelis cherish Shabbat as a day of rest though not necessarily in ways that are meaningful to the Orthodox. With school on Fridays and Sunday a regular workday, Shabbat is the weekend, so Israelis seem to favor a Golden Mean. Most watch television or listen to radio and dedicate the day to family; many have a special Friday night meal and light Sabbath candles. But they by and large don't want their cinemas and cafes shuttered on Shabbat or for public transportation to come to a halt, or have restrictions placed on cultural or sporting events.

Here's a further indication of Israelis' traditional bent: most eat only kosher food -- at home and outside -- and 72% never let pork cross their lips. This does not mean they approve of the rabbinate's policy of withholding kashrut certificates from technically "kosher" restaurants that are open on Shabbat.

What does all this add up to? It suggests that if we want Israelis to have a deeper appreciation for Judaism – as religion and as a civilization – greater investment is required. The Israeli advantage of Hebrew literacy does not offset a disturbing lack of Jewish learning. There is small comfort in knowing that most Israelis believe in God if they are woefully ignorant about the sacred history that should inform that belief. The good news is that most Israelis are Zionists and most want Israel to be both a Jewish and democratic state. One way to pull all these strands together and strengthen them is to rethink the way Israelis are exposed to Judaism. The survey found that Israelis are not fond of the country's either-or school systems of being forced to categorize their children as either "Orthodox" or "secular" from kindergarten. Many want the option of sending their children to integrated schools. The good news is that demand for pluralistic, traditional public education is real. Too bad, then, that such curricula receive precious little government backing.

A Portrait of Israeli Jews Asher Arian and Aayala Keissar-Sugerman, Avi Chai and Israel Democracy Institute.
Most Israeli Jews feel a sense of affinity to their country and the Jewish people.

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