Pew Report: The War Between the Jews in Israel Has Already Started

It's no surprise that religious and secular Jews in Israel have little common ground, but the depth of their disengagement from each other forces us to question whether such a divided society can endure for very long.

A gay pride parade participant hands flowers to a right-wing activist in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, June 8, 2007.
Tomer Neuberg / JINI

Reacting to the recent Pew Report on Israeli society, a friend, a former American now residing in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, responded that the researchers who put together the report are “unaware of the fundamental, iron clad unity of Israeli Jews in time of need.”  He meant, he explained, that in “every war, every terrorist attack, every time we Jews need each other for something important,” we come together.

His conviction, no doubt, deeply felt, however seems difficult to square with the Pew findings. While there are surely aspects of life that unite Israeli Jews (such as the belief that all Jews should have the right to citizenship in Israel; 98% of those surveyed agreed), no one who has spent any time in Israel can deny that there are deep divisions not only between Jews and Muslims, but among the Jews themselves. 

Even before the release of the Pew findings, we have seen Israelis conflicted about whether or not schools should censor books, Reform Jews should be accorded the same rights as the Orthodox, gay rights should be enforced as much as religious ones and that no Jew, regardless of his way of life, should be denied equal protection under the law, the left should be tolerated no less than the political right, and so on. 

The Pew report simply reveals the multiplicity of these positions and where the lines dividing people fall.  It reveals the truth of the cliché: two Jews, three positions. It reaffirms the oft-heard prediction that when the war between the Jews and the Arabs is finally resolved, the war among the Jews will break out. Sadly, we see that the latter has not waited for the former to be resolved.  That may be the biggest news of the Pew survey.  

Looming large in the poll results is the divide between the so-called religious and secular sectors. Beyond this undeniable division, there are deep differences based on political outlook, social class, ethnic origins, and even those who live in Tel Aviv and those in Jerusalem. There are differences about what it means to be Jewish in a world where the majority are not, whether it requires insularity and separation from other cultures or that Jews can be like everyone else and participate fully in the world outside the Jewish one. 

Pew tells us that “Most of the ultra-Orthodox say “being Jewish” is mainly a matter of religion, while secular Jews tend to say it is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture.” Pew has shown us that these differences among Israelis are projected on what they believe should be the role of government and even on what if any limits on democracy and individual choice should be endorsed.  

And even on the idea of citizenship for all Jews, there is that undercurrent of grumbling about some of those Jewish immigrants who have claimed that citizenship. The old truism that Israel loves Aliya [immigration] but not so much the olim [immigrants] is frequently experienced not only in absorption centers but in the experience of Jewish immigrants.  This is in spite of the fact that Pew reports that most Jews say that Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews (albeit the difference between the secular and the religious on this point is significant, with fewer of the former agreeing with this than the more identifiably religious).

The religious vs secular divisions are striking over a huge range of issues: from whether public transport should be shut down on the Sabbath to whether Jewish law (halakha) should be state law or not.  They are reflected in the fact that in Israel there are few close friendships or marriages occurring outside their groups. While these may exist, they are rare and point to the development of two broadly separated sectors of Jewry – to say nothing of the divisions among Jews and non-Jews.  

Can a society so separated long endure? Is it only to be united by the attacks upon it by its enemies?  Moreover, if these divisions are based upon religious beliefs and identities, and the society is becoming more religious, can even those attacks be enough to protect Israel from the culture war within? The signs are that it cannot and has not.  That “iron-clad unity” of which my friend is so assured seems to this observer to be less a matter of fact than a hidebound hope. 

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.