Survey: Record Number of Israeli Jews Believe in God

First comprehensive study in a decade also shows that 70 percent of Israelis believe the Jews are the 'Chosen People.'

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Some 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that God exists - the highest figure found by the Guttman-Avi Chai survey since this review of Israeli-Jewish beliefs began two decades ago.

The latest survey of the "Beliefs, Observance and Values among Israeli Jews" was conducted in 2009 but the results were released only on Thursday, after a detailed analysis had been completed. The two previous surveys were in 1999 and 1991.

Israelis praying at Wailing WallCredit: Daniel Bar-On

The study also found that 70 percent of respondents believe the Jews are the "Chosen People," 65 percent believe the Torah and mitzvot (religious commandments ) are God-given, and 56 percent believe in life after death.

Overall, the survey found an increase in attachment to Jewish religion and tradition from 1999 to 2009, following a decrease from 1991 to 1999, which was the decade of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union. Among other things, it found that less than half of Israeli Jews think that, in a clash between Jewish law and democracy, democratic values should always prevail.

The study, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute's Guttman Center for Surveys and the Avi Chai Foundation, is based on interviews with 2,803 Israeli Jews.

It found that only 46 percent of Israeli Jews now define themselves as secular, down from 52 percent in 1999, while 22 percent define themselves as either Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, up from 16 percent in 1999. The remaining 32 percent term themselves traditional, virtually unchanged from 1999.

This change in self-identification was also reflected in the proportion of those subscribing to traditional Jewish beliefs. For instance, 55 percent said they believe in the coming of the Messiah, up from 45 percent in 1999 but similar to 53 percent in 1991, while 37 percent said that "a Jew who does not observe the religious precepts endangers the entire Jewish people," up from 30 percent in 1999 but again similar to the 1991 figure of 35 percent.

The study's authors cited two reasons for the rise in religiosity. One is that immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who contributed to the drop in religiosity from 1991 to 1999, have now assimilated into Israeli society. Various studies have found that this process of assimilation has resulted in Soviet immigrants becoming more traditional. The second reason is the demographic change caused by the higher Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox birthrates.

The survey found that, even when individuals were asked about how their own attitudes had changed over the previous decade, the number of those that said they felt more religious and were more careful about observing the Sabbath and kashrut was higher than the number of those who said they had become more secular.

The rise in religiosity was also reflected in attitudes toward other issues. For instance, only 44 percent said that if Jewish law and democratic values clashed, the latter should always be preferred, while 20 percent said Jewish law should always be preferred and 36 percent said "sometimes one and sometimes the other."

The study also found an upswing in religious practice. For instance, 85 percent of respondents said that "celebrating the Jewish holidays as prescribed by religious tradition" was "important" or "very important," up from 63 percent in 1999, while 70 percent said they "always" or "frequently" refrained from eating hametz (leavened bread ) on Passover, up from 67 percent in 1999.

Fully 61 percent of respondents said the state should "ensure that public life is conducted according to Jewish religious tradition," up dramatically from 44 percent in 1991. But respondents also insisted on preserving their freedom of choice. For instance, between 58 and 68 percent said that shopping centers, public transportation, sporting events, cafes, restaurants and movie theaters should be allowed to operate on Shabbat (exact figures ranged from 58 percent for shopping centers to 68 percent for cafes, restaurants and movie theaters ).

Moreover, 51 percent responded "yes," "absolutely yes" or "perhaps yes" when asked if they favored the introduction of civil marriage in Israel. Those in the first two categories, at 48 percent, were down from 54 percent in 1999 but up from 39 percent in 1991.

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