On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Haaretz has tried to unravel some of the intricacies of Israel’s “yearning Jewish soul,” mentioned in the country’s national anthem, "Hatikvah." A Haaretz-Dialog poll seeks to decipher the beliefs of Israeli Jews, their religious customs and their views on some of the hot-button issues in which religion plays a major role. The results are fascinating and perplexing at the same time. Their interpretation, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
Most Israeli Jews believe in God. Among Western democratic countries, Israel’s only competitor for the heavyweight God-fearing title is the United States, hitherto recognized as the most puritan of democracies.
The figures for the two countries are identical enough to be spooky. They put Israel and the United States squarely in the lead in terms of belief in God, with Western European countries far behind. At a time when Jewish settlers and evangelical Christians seem to be running foreign policies in both Jerusalem and Washington, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that religion has assumed a more pivotal role than ever in the special relationship between the two countries.
According to our poll, 54 percent of Jewish Israelis believe in God, and another 21 percent accept the existence of an undefined superior power other than God. A poll published by Pew Research a few months ago found that 56 percent of Americans believe in the original God of the Bible and another 23 percent in a superior force.
The closest Western European countries in terms of belief in a classic God are the Catholic threesome of Italy (46 percent), Ireland (39 percent) and Portugal (36 percent). Lagging far behind – or ahead, depending on your point of view – are Sweden and Belgium (in both 14 percent believe in God) and Denmark (17 percent).
In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, Israel and the United States would be on the lower end of the believer standings, but not at rock bottom, which belongs to Estonia and the Czech Republic. The Eastern European country with numbers that closely resemble those in Israel and the United States is, surprise surprise, Hungary, home of Benjamin Netanyahu’s newfound soulmate, Viktor Orban.
Here is another backdrop to the rapidly warming relations between Israel and Eastern European countries in which religion plays a central role, usually in tandem with nationalism and ethnocentrism. The tense political relations between both Israel and the European Union, and recently between the EU and Washington as well, can also be delineated by religious beliefs. Israelis and Americans view Europe as godless and decadent, but for the Brahmins in Brussels, Israel and the United States are drifting into fundamentalist Crazyland.
Religious outlooks, or a lack thereof, also mark the deep fissures within Israeli Jewish society. They differentiate of course between ultra-Orthodox, religious-Zionist and traditionalist Jews, but also mark secular Jews, who constitute in our survey 56 percent of those polled, as a breed apart on most, though significantly far from all, issues.
Religious beliefs are also a reliable marker for political views. The right, which enjoys a clear majority of 51 percent in this poll, is far more religious. The left, which is down in our poll to a measly 17 percent, is largely secular, and the center, as its name suggests, is somewhere in the middle, with a slight tilt toward the nonbelievers.
The gaps are striking: 78 percent of right-wingers believe in the biblical God, compared with only 34 percent of centrists and 15 percent of leftists. Forty-five percent of Israeli Jews claim to keep a fully kosher home (another 17 percent keep “partially kosher”). Among right-wingers, 69 percent keep kosher, compared with only 27 percent of centrists and 6 percent of secular Israelis.
On the rare occasion that leftists may decide to stretch out their hand and invite a right-winger to dinner, they’ll have to stock up on paper plates, plastic cups and kosher food from the local deli to make it happen.
Slightly more than half of Jewish Israelis believe that their rights to the Land of Israel derive from God’s divine covenant in the Bible and 56 percent believe that the Jewish people are chosen people. (Our question in Hebrew was about “a” chosen people rather than "the” chosen people, so let’s give the Jews the benefit of the doubt.) Seventy-nine percent of right-wingers believe that God singled out the Jews, compared with just 13 percent of leftists. Seventy-four percent of right-wingers believe that Israel holds a divine deed for its land, compared with only 8 percent of leftists.
This is the ominous subtext of the bitter political debate over territories, peace and the Palestinians, which is ostensibly focused on issues of security and realpolitik. Under the surface, as the poll results suggest, a religious war is raging. But when blind faith clashes with enlightened skepticism, the results as they stand in Israel today are easily foretold and potentially dangerous.
Religious differences also divide Israel geographically. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to a lesser extent the south are relatively devout while Tel Aviv, Haifa, the central region and to a lesser extent the north are avowedly secular. The stark differences between holy Jerusalem in the Judean Hills and hedonist Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, which have been stereotyped to death, are borne out in the poll.
Eighty-five percent of Jerusalemites believe in God, compared with only 44 percent in Tel Aviv and the central region. Only a quarter of Israeli Jews fully keep Shabbat, but in Jerusalem it’s 66 percent compared with just 15 percent in Tel Aviv or Haifa. Thirty-seven percent don’t believe that humans and apes share a common ancestor – a disturbing finding – but in Jerusalem the anti-Darwinians enjoy an absolute majority of 81 percent while in Tel Aviv they're in a distinct minority of “only” 27 percent.
But perhaps the most startling gaps are generational. In Israel 2018, the younger the Jew, the more likely he or she is to be more religious, observant, conservative and willing to impose his or her beliefs on others. Sixty-five percent of the population would let supermarkets and groceries operate on Shabbat, but that position is supported by only 51 percent of people between 18 and 24, compared with 84 percent of those 65 and older.
Twenty-one percent of Israeli Jews believe, unfortunately, that the blessings of rabbis can influence reality, and another 25 percent maintain that the blessings can have a “partial” effect on the world. The belief in the rabbis’ magical words is far stronger among younger Jews and weaker among older ones, possibly because they’ve had enough time to have their own hopes dashed.
The phenomenon of a younger generation that's more devout than its elders is of particular interest, in part, because notwithstanding the near-identical overall results, it stands in stark contrast to current trends in the United States and Western Europe, where millennials are ditching religion in droves. Take participation in religious services. Only 17 percent of Israeli Jews visit a synagogue at least once a week, compared with 36 percent in the United States. In Israel, however, younger Jews go to shul at twice the rate of their parents and grandparents, while in the United States and Western Europe the opposite is true. In other words, Israel is getting Jewier, at least for the time being.
There is a clear correlation, of course, between the enhanced religiosity of younger Israelis and their embrace of right-wing positions, also in contrast to the trend in the United States. The simple explanation is that ultra-religious Jews have many more children than secular ones, which means the proportion of believers in the general population is steadily growing.
A different though not necessarily contradictory view is that the fervent faith of the younger is inevitably replaced by skepticism born of experience, so that many of today’s believers are destined to grow into tomorrow’s agnostics, and the general division of the overall population will stay the same. It’s far more realistic, however, to see the poll as a warning that if you think Israel is religious, conservative and hawkish enough as it is, wait for the fundamentalist theocracy that's lurking around the corner.
Younger Jews, amazingly, also lead the pack in adhering to supernatural beliefs that are seen as primitive superstitions by the secular majority. Forty-four percent of all Jews believe in life after death, compared with only 35 percent who have accepted that death is the ultimate dead end. The belief in life after death is strongest among the ultra-Orthodox (100 percent), the religious-Zionists (83 percent), Jerusalem residents (71 percent) and people between 18 and 24 (58 percent).
This meshes well with the fact that only 44 percent of the public believes in the theory of evolution, but if Israeli schools continue to avoid teaching it, as recently reported, people soon won’t know about Darwin or his theories anyway.
A pro-freedom majority
But there's another side to this coin. Jews may profess their belief in God but they are reluctant to keep his directives and commandments, aka mitzvot. Sixty percent of Israeli Jews don’t keep Shabbat in any way, shape or form. Fifty-five percent don’t keep kosher. Forty-five percent don’t fast on Yom Kippur. Only 23 percent have read a passage from the Bible in the past week and only 17 percent went to synagogue to pray.
More incredibly – at least to this writer – only 48 percent of Israeli Jews want to be buried in a Jewish ceremony, including just 23 percent of secular Jews. Twenty percent prefer a civil burial, 10 percent would like to donate themselves to science, and eight percent prefer to be un-Jewishly cremated. Needless to say, the left-right divide continues postmortem: 73 percent of right-wingers will insist on a Jewish burial, compared with only 8 percent of lefties.
Much more significantly, especially when it comes to some of the burning issues that have recently split Israeli society, Jewish public opinion stands solidly with personal freedom and against religious coercion. Sixty-five percent want supermarkets to remain open on Shabbat, 67 percent oppose the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriages, 61 percent support recognition of same-sex marriages, and 73 percent support letting women enlist in combat roles in the army. And 58 percent believe religion is playing an oversize role in Israeli affairs. To each his own seems to be the common theme, at least in theory.
Given that secular Jews are automatically opposed to religious control and the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist steadfastly support it, the key group, the swing voters as it were, are those who define themselves as masortim, or traditionalists. They tend to be closer to the religious in terms of their core beliefs but lean toward the secular demand for greater separation between religion and state.
Their replies in our poll are the critical element that makes the clear-cut majorities in favor of the secular point of view. Forty-six percent of traditionalists don’t want supermarkets closed on their only day of rest, 58 percent support marriage outside the rabbinate and 53 percent favor recognition of gay unions.
The meeting of minds between secular and traditionalists is greatest on the issue of female service in the military: 89 percent of secular and 83 percent of traditionalists support combat roles for women, compared with only 37 percent of religious Jews and no ultra-Orthodox whatsoever. These numbers also translate into political positions but, in this case, counterintuitively: Only 59 percent of proudly patriotic right-wingers support full equality for women in the army, compared with 88 percent of wishy-washy centrists and 91 percent of those defeatist lefties.
Nonetheless, this is the only issue on which government policy reflects the public’s clear-cut positions. Elsewhere, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is willingly succumbing to the demands of the religious minority and ignoring the opinions of clear-cut majorities by closing stores on Shabbat and restricting the freedom to marry. The situation in the United States these days is similar, with Donald Trump’s administration ignoring the unequivocal liberal majority that supports, among other things, immigration, abortions and separation of church and state.
The difference is that Trump and his GOP could pay a steep price for this – as well as a host of greater transgressions – as early as November 6 in the congressional elections. Netanyahu, on the other hand, can defy the majority to his heart’s content, with full confidence that it can do him no harm.
For most traditionalists, and a great many secular Jews as well, issues of religious coercion, frustrating as they may be, are not as critical as the traditional existential challenges of peace and security, Arabs and Jews, Iran and Palestinians, patriots and so-called traitors from within. Israel may also be engaged in a culture war, but one that's mostly detached from the ballot box. There may come a time when the majority’s priorities change, but not before peace is achieved, security is guaranteed, domestic dialogue is re-established and incitement is banished from the public realm.
The problem, of course, is that Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox, religious-Zionist, Jewish settler and Jerusalem-centered allies in the governing coalition are well aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead, from their point of view, which makes the current standoff, with its constant external dangers and deteriorating domestic discourse, seem optimal. For religious and nationalist Jews, therefore, the status quo now seems godly as well.