In Israel, God Has Almost Nothing to Do With Religion

Almost all Israelis are believers, but at the same time an overwhelming majority wants movie theaters and restaurants to be open on Shabbat. In Israel, it seems, God has been privatized.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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70 percent of Israeli Jews and 98 percent of Arab Israelis believe in God.
70 percent of Israeli Jews and 98 percent of Arab Israelis believe in God.Credit: Leo Atelman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Soccer star Eran Zahavi walks onto the field, covers his eyes with his hand and with great devotion calls out “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear, O Israel”). And when the Maccabi Tel Aviv forward scores a goal, he points to the heavens in gratitude. Other soccer players have also adopted the gesture.

When Israel Defense Forces Col. Ofer Winter is about to go into combat, he also recites the same verse to his soldiers, and orders them to fight the enemy “that abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of the forces of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog like to say “God willing,” and even Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid recently went to secretly consult with the Almighty during a visit to the Western Wall.

Some Israelis are disturbed by God’s presence in the public space, which causes them deep depression and anxiety – artist Yair Garbuz, for example, who dubbed the “mezuzah kissers” as “fools” back in March. But only a tourist, or a citizen who has been in a coma for the past two or three decades, is allowed to be surprised at the results of our survey: 70 percent of Israeli Jews believe in God, as do 98 percent of Arab Israelis.

It's true that among Jews – as opposed to members of other religions in Israel – we can see a weakening of faith among older people and the well-educated. But the bottom line is clear: Look around and you’ll see fewer and fewer atheists. And if there’s nobody around, we recommend that you check out Google or a public library.

There is no recent Israeli poll or study that doesn’t show the profound belief in God. Worthy of mention are the comprehensive periodical polls of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys and Avi Chai Foundation, which indicate that belief in God is becoming stronger. According to their latest poll, which was published in 2012 (with data from 2009), 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in God.

Maccabi Tel Aviv's Eran Zahavi points to the heavens after scoring a goal. August 19, 2015Credit: Reuters

It's tempting to arrive at simplistic conclusions with such figures. But the data from surveys relating to belief in God cannot explain – certainly not alone – the place of Judaism and Yiddishkeit in Israeli society, or the place of the religious public in Israeli politics. The same survey that found that 80 percent are believers also found that 68 percent are in favor of opening movie theaters and restaurants on Shabbat.

Furthermore, belief is not necessarily a “Jewish” thing, and certainly is not limited to an Orthodox religious definition. It represents a human tendency to believe in a higher force, and God appears in different contexts for different people: Sometimes He is a tribal and political entity; sometimes He defines individual identity; sometimes an intimate spiritual search. There's God and there’s God, and He has a large number of separate and different agents. God has been privatized.

The new Haaretz survey also recognizes another issue – namely, the continual decline in identifying secularism with atheism. Almost half of those who define themselves as secular also declare that they believe in God. That should definitely stimulate debate about the optical illusion that secularism comes in a package deal with atheism and anti-religious views, a la writer and essayist Micah Joseph Berdichevsky. There were secular Jews such as poet Haim Nahman Bialik, statesman Theodor Herzl and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, for whom God was present in some way. Perhaps the present generation of secular Israelis is now ready for a new manifesto of its own, although it’s not yet clear what it should be, or who should write it.

This summer, Haaretz and Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet acceded to the request of the Abraham Fund Initiatives to publicize the start and end times of the Ramadan fast on a daily basis. At the same time, Haaretz also published the times of the Jewish fast days on the 17th of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av.

One would imagine that very few Muslims who observe Ramadan actually used the daily service in the Hebrew media, but the act was of symbolic value. Religion, tradition, God – all of them are also situated at the crossroad in our national conflict. And there are some, let’s call them naive, who have been able to dismiss them as a tiny bridge to the bottom corner of the back page.

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