Israeli Jews tend to be more religious than American Jews, and even among secular Israelis, levels of observance are relatively high. Yet at the same time, Israeli Jews are more likely than their American cousins to skip synagogue entirely.
These are some of the findings of a new Pew Research Center report, published on Tuesday, that explores attitudes, beliefs and perceptions among religious groups in Israel. This first-of-its-kind report devotes a special chapter to comparisons between Jews in Israel and the United States. The data on Jews in the United States comes from a comprehensive study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013.
The new report found that the share of Orthodox Jews among the total is more than double in Israel than in the United States. Together, the ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox account for 22 percent of Israeli Jews, whereas in the United States, their share is barely 10 percent.
For more coverage of the Pew Research findings: Almost Half of Israeli Jews Back Transfer or Expulsion of Arabs | First Pew Study in Israel Finds Increasing Polarization Amongst Jews
By contrast, a far greater share of American Jews identify with the two main non-Orthodox movements. Among American Jews, 35 percent identify as Reform and 18 percent identify as Conservative. In Israel, only 3 percent identify as Reform and only 2 percent as Conservative.
Although nearly half of all Israeli Jews describe themselves as secular, when asked to name the international stream of Judaism with which they identify, half said Orthodoxy. In an attempt to explain this discrepancy, the report’s authors note in a footnote that “this concept is captured in a quote from Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri: ‘The synagogue I do not attend is the Orthodox one.’”
The report found that Israeli Jews are more likely to observe Jewish rituals and practices than their American cousins. A greater share of Israeli Jews attend synagogue, believe in God with absolute certainty, light Shabbat candles, keep kosher, attended a Seder last Passover and fast on Yom Kippur. A greater share also said that religion was very important in their lives and that they believed God gave Israel to the Jewish people. A smaller share of Israeli Jews reported eating pork and handling money on Shabbat.
Even among self-identified secular Jews in Israel, religious observance is greater than among American Jews overall. For example, one-third of secular Israelis said they keep a kosher home, compared with merely 22 percent of all American Jews, and 87 percent of secular Israelis said they attended a Seder last Passover, compared with 70 percent of American Jews.
“One possible explanation for the differences in levels of religious practice across the two countries,” the report notes, “is that Jewish observance is more ingrained in daily life in Israel than it is in the U.S. For example, many Israeli businesses close early on Friday afternoon before the start of the Sabbath, kosher food is more widely available in Israel, and major Jewish holidays are generally Israeli national holidays (whereas American Jews may have to miss normal business or school days to observe Jewish holidays).”
But in examining what the report describes as “standard measures of religious commitment,” Israelis fall behind. For example, one-third of Israeli Jews said they never attend synagogue, as compared with 22 percent of U.S. Jews. Whereas 35 percent of American Jews said they attended synagogue “a few times a year, such as for High Holidays,” only 14 percent of Israeli Jews said that they did.
The following are some of the other key similarities and differences between Israeli and American Jews, who together account for 80 percent of world Jewry.
In Israel, Jewish men show higher levels of religious commitment than women, whereas in the United States, Jewish women show higher levels. In Israel, 35 percent of men said religion was “very important” in their lives, compared with 25 percent of women. In the United States, 29 percent of women said religion was “very important” in their lives, compared with 22 percent of men.
Israeli Jews are younger and less educated than American Jews. The median age of Israeli Jews is 43, compared with 50 among American Jews. Among Israeli Jews, only one-third hold college degrees, compared with 58 percent of American Jews.
Both American and Israeli Jews feel overwhelmingly proud of their Jewish roots and a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Among Israeli Jews, 93 percent said they were proud to be Jewish and 88 percent felt a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Among American Jews, the respective figures were 94 percent and 75 percent.
Israeli Jews are far more likely to say that U.S. Jews have a good influence on the way things are going in Israel (59 percent) than a bad influence (6 percent).
American Jews tend to be more optimistic about the prospect of a two-state solution, with 61 percent saying they believed Israel and a Palestinian state could coexist peacefully, compared with only 43 percent of Israeli Jews. A smaller share of American Jews saw justification for the occupation, with only 17 percent saying Jewish settlements in the West Bank helped Israel’s security, as opposed to 42 percent of Israeli Jews.
Israeli and American Jews have sharply different perceptions about the key challenges facing the Jewish state. Two-thirds of American Jews described security threats and terror as Israel’s biggest problem, compared with only 38 percent of Israeli Jews, while 39 percent of Israeli Jews described economic difficulties as Israel’s biggest problem, compared with only 1 percent of American Jews.
Israeli and American Jews have very different ideas about what is essential to Jewish identity. While leading an ethical and moral life, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious and having a good sense of humor were far more prominent factors among American Jews, observing Jewish law was seen as more important among Israeli Jews. The only factor that a majority in both groups saw as essential to their Jewish identity was remembering the Holocaust.
Israeli and American Jews share similar views on what disqualifies a person from being Jewish. A majority in both groups would not rule out anyone who is strongly critical of Israel, works on Shabbat or does not believe in God. An overwhelming majority in both groups would, however, disqualify anyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah.
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