Israel’s Druze, Muslims, Christians more likely than Jews to believe in God, Pew study finds
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Israel’s Druze, Muslims, Christians more likely than Jews to believe in God, Pew study finds

Jews proud of their heritage, but conflicted as to what is essential to being Jewish, with the category earning the broadest support being 'remembering the Holocaust'

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

A Jewish and an Arab man outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, December 10, 2014 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
A Jewish and an Arab man outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, December 10, 2014 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

When it comes to Jewish religious observance in Israel, what you see is often not what you get. Beyond the stereotypes of deeply religious Jerusalem and avowedly secular Tel Aviv, Israelis often confound with their diverse religious practice — whether it’s the firm nonbelievers who nevertheless eschew pork and never miss a Passover seder, or the strictly observant who pray daily but secretly admit they don’t believe in God.

A Pew Research Center in Israel study released Tuesday captures some of the complexity of Israeli religious life among its Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze. The survey conducted 5,601 face-to-face interviews with Israeli adults between October 14, 2014 and May 21, 2015. (The margin of error among Jews was +-2.9%, among Muslims, +-5.6%, among Christians +-9.1%, and among Druze +-10.7%)

It found that nearly half (46%) of Israeli adults raised Modern Orthodox will no longer identify as Modern Orthodox by adulthood, while the vast majority of those brought up within ultra-Orthodox and secular society will remain within their original social-religious framework.

The two groups with the highest retention rates are also the most fiercely opposed to intermarriage between themselves, with 93% of secular Jews and 95% of ultra-Orthodox Jews expressing opposition to their children marrying Haredi or secular partners, respectively. A whopping majority of Jews in Israel object to marriage outside the faith, but abhorring intermarriage across religious lines is not merely a Jewish preference, as the survey finds that some 82% of Muslims, 88% of Christians, and 87% of Druze would be uneasy with their children marrying Jews.

Immigrants from Ethiopia learn the Jewish customs of Passover in an early Seder night at the absorption center for new immigrants in Safed. March 14, 2007 (Haim Azulay/Flash90)
Immigrants from Ethiopia learn the Jewish customs of Passover in an early Seder night at the absorption center for new immigrants in Safed, March 14, 2007 (Haim Azulay/Flash90)

Not only are Israel’s main religious and social groups reluctant to intermarry, however, but they also rarely forge friendships beyond their social lines. This was found to be especially true of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and secular communities, where 89% and 90% said all or most of their friends were members of their community.

The poll also examines specific practices of observance, such as how frequently Israelis pray and mark certain customs, and how much they valued religion in their lives. It found that Jews overall described themselves as less religious than their Muslim, Christian, and Druze counterparts. Among Jews, there were no significant differences in religious observance among younger and older Israelis, but among Muslims, the younger generation was found to be less religiously devoted. Jewish men said they valued religion slightly more than women, but Muslim women were reported to pray more and value religion more than Muslim men.

Israelis — proud of heritage, but not necessarily religious

The survey breaks down Jewish groups in Israel as follows: 49% identify as secular (hiloni), 29% as traditional (masorti), 13% as Modern Orthodox (dati) and 9% as ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). The survey uses the Hebrew terms throughout.

Overall, Israelis are exceedingly proud of their heritage, with 93% of Jews, 94% of Muslims, 96% of Christians, and 93% of Druze expressing pride in their respective identities. Jews, however, were conflicted as to what is essential to being Jewish, with the category earning the broadest support being “remembering the Holocaust” (65%).

Essential characteristics of Jewish identity (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Essential characteristics of Jewish identity (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

Just 30% of Jewish Israelis say religion is very important in their lives — a figure largely influenced by the ultra-Orthodox (96%) and Modern Orthodox (85%) — while 26% say it’s somewhat important. Meanwhile, a majority of Muslims (68%) and Christians (57%) and nearly half of Druze (49%) classify religion as “very important.”

Christians, Druze largely certain about God's existence (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Christians, Druze largely certain about God’s existence (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

Half of Jewish Israelis say they believe in God with absolute certainty, and 27% say they believe in God, but are less certain. By contrast, 79% of Christians and 84% of Druze expressed certainty of God’s existence.

Muslims were not even asked the question “due to cultural sensitivity over the very idea that God’s existence potentially be denied,” the report said, but instead were asked whether they believe in the Islamic shahada declaration of faith.

Some 97% responded that they did.

File photo of Muslim worshippers outside the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan in 2011. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)
Muslim worshipers outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan, 2011. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

‘Retention’ of Jews in their religious groups

“About one-in-ten Jewish adults (9%) were raised Datiim and are no longer Datiim, while approximately 2% now consider themselves Datiim after being raised in another group,” the report said.

While the ultra-Orthodox and secular enjoy high (over 90%) retention rates, the Modern Orthodox and traditional Jews were more dynamic, with some 46% of those raised Modern Orthodox and 33% of those raised tradition flocking to another group as adults. Most Modern Orthodox Jews who no longer identified as such classified themselves as traditional (35%), and those who left the traditional lifestyle were most likely to identify as secular (25%).

Retention rates among Jewish groups in Israel (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Retention rates among Jewish groups in Israel (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

Everyone hates intermarriage

The survey concluded that secular Jews would rather their children marry Christians than ultra-Orthodox Jews, though opposition to marrying Christians remained high (80%). Among secular Jews, 93% said they said would be “not too/not at all comfortable” with their child marrying a Haredi person, 83% expressed some discomfort with their child marrying a Modern Orthodox person, and 45% were against their child marrying a traditional partner. The feeling was fairly mutual among the ultra-Orthodox, with 95% expressing discomfort with their child marrying a secular person, 88% with regard to someone traditional, and 58% with someone Modern Orthodox. The Modern Orthodox and traditional Jews were more tolerant in this regard, but 81% of the former were uncomfortable with getting a secular son- or daughter-in-law, and 69% of the traditional Jewish Israelis were opposed to having an ultra-Orthodox one.

Ultra-Orthodox, secular are opposed to their children marrying each other (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Ultra-Orthodox, secular are opposed to their children marrying each other (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

The report noted that intermarriage across religious lines was negligible in Israel (98% of Jews in Israel are married to other Jews). And all groups frown on it. Some 97% of Jews are opposed to intermarriage with Muslims, and 89% with Christians. Muslims, Christians, and Druze also expressed discomfort with their children marrying Jews (82%, 88%, 87%, respectively) as well as members of other religions.

Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze in Israel frown upon intermarriage (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze in Israel frown upon intermarriage (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

Moreover, Jews were also the most socially isolated, with some 98% saying all or most of their friends are other Jews, while 14% of Christian and Druze and 12% of Muslims say they have some friends of other religions.

Once again, two groups stood out in this regard: some 89% of ultra-Orthodox Jews and 90% of secular Jews say all or most of their friends are within their own circle.

Vast majority of ultra-Orthodox, secular have most friends within their own circle (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Vast majority of ultra-Orthodox, secular have most friends within their own circle (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

A complex secular, traditional Jewish identity

Some 79% of secular Jewish Israelis say religion is not important in their lives, 80% say they never pray, 44% say they don’t believe in God, 95% say they travel on Shabbat, 89% say they never study Jewish texts, and 88% handle money on the day of rest. And half of secular Israelis told the pollsters they do not observe any of the Jewish tradition.

But over half (54%) say they light Shabbat candles always or sometimes. One-third keep kosher in their homes, and 21% keep kosher outside as well, while 67% say they don’t eat pork. Some 80% light Hanukkah candles always or sometimes, and 87% attended a seder last Passover. Thirty percent fasted for the entirety of Yom Kippur — and half did not fast at all. A majority (54%) said giving their children a Jewish religious education was “very” or “somewhat” important.

A secular Jew talks to an ultra-Orthodox man about the Green Line in front of City Hall in Jerusalem, June 5, 2013. (Lucie March/Flash 90)
A secular Jew talks to an ultra-Orthodox man about the Green Line in front of City Hall in Jerusalem, June 5, 2013. (Lucie March/Flash 90)

Even more varied than secular practice was that of the masorti, or traditional, Jews, who make up over a quarter of Israelis.

Over 95% of them say they believe in God, with 70% saying they believe with absolute certainty. Roughly one-third (32%) say religion is very important to them; 51% say it’s somewhat important. On Shabbat, 40% will handle money (53% won’t) and 53% will travel (41% won’t). But 86% keep kosher at home, and 69% say they keep kosher at all times. Some 95% won’t touch pork. The traditional Israeli Jews nearly universally light Hanukkah candles (90% always or usually; 7% sometimes), and attend a Passover seder (97%). The vast majority also fasted the entire Yom Kippur (83%).

Israeli backpackers light shabbat candles in India on January 20, 2010. (Serge Attal / Flash90)
Israeli backpackers light Shabbat candles in India on January 20, 2010. (Serge Attal / Flash90)

When it comes to attending synagogue, 32% say they go weekly or more often, while 55% say they go monthly or yearly. One in five people reports praying daily, while 47% say they pray weekly, monthly, or seldom. They are also split on studying Jewish texts, with 21% saying they do so at least weekly, 31% monthly to yearly, and 47% saying never — and 89% saying Jewish religious education for their children is very or somewhat important. Most masorti men (57%) say they do not wear any sort of head covering, while 18% wear a crocheted color kippah, 9% report wearing a black knitted kippah, 8% a large black kippah, and 4% a small black one.

Asked whether they keep Jewish tradition, 57% say they observe most customs, 38% say they observe some, and 4% say they don’t observe any.

The ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox

The poll also found slight differences between the ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox religious practices, with the former reporting praying, attending synagogue, and learning Jewish texts more frequently.

Some 85% of ultra-Orthodox Jews say they attend synagogue at least weekly; 74% of Modern Orthodox Jews report the same. Meanwhile, 76% of Haredim say they pray daily, while 58% of Modern Orthodox say they do (7% of Haredim and 9% of Modern Orthodox respondents report that they never pray.) Some 76% of Haredim say they study Torah at least on a weekly basis, while 57% of Modern Orthodox participants say they do. And 96% of Haredim and 85% of Modern Orthodox Jews say religion is very important. Regarding Shabbat, keeping kosher, the Passover seder, fasting on Yom Kippur, there were no differences, with both groups observing these practices nearly universally.

An illustrative photo of yeshiva students in Israel (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of yeshiva students in Israel (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
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