Worried about Jewish pluralism in Israel? So are Israelis, poll shows

65% of Israelis surveyed by liberal group by Hiddush want Reform and Conservative Judaism to have official standing equal to Orthodoxy

A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Oct. 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Oct. 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

JTA — For non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews worried by the Israeli government’s unfriendly policies toward them this year, a new poll has some good news.

The 2017 annual survey by Hiddush, a nonprofit advocating religious pluralism in Israel, offers indications that the Israeli Jewish public is as supportive as ever of religious pluralism, if not more so. Few are happy with how the state handles religion, and a record number would like to disentangle Judaism and politics.

“When you look across the years, there is a consistent high level, and on many issues a growing level, of support of freedom of religion and equality,” said Hiddush CEO Uri Regev. “As a result, the gap between the public and the political leaders is growing.”

The Rafi Smith Institute in July conducted the survey for Hiddush, based on a representative sample of 800 Israeli Jewish adults. The margin of error is 3.5 percent. Hiddush has commissioned a version of the survey since 2009.

Many of this year’s findings are in line with those of previous years. Notably, 65% of Israeli Jews support giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal official standing to Orthodox Judaism. Among secular Jews, who account for some 40% of Israeli Jewry, the number was 92%. Such a radical move would amount to dismantling the Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical authority, which controls marriage and other Jewish services in the country.

Also, 84% of Jews agree Israel should uphold the freedom of religion and conscience promised in its Declaration of Independence, 67% support state recognition of non-Orthodox marriage and 50% would personally prefer it.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew tries to prevent a group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Women of the Wall movement members from bringing Torah scrolls into the Western Wall compound during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the same time, the survey reveals a significant spike in support for separation of religion and state. Fully 68% of Israelis Jews embrace this principle, which Regev said they interpret as entailing a depoliticization of religion rather than a more complete American-style division. Support is up 5% from last year and 13% since 2010.

Zooming in on recent government policies on religion and state, the Hiddush survey found 73% of Israeli Jews oppose the new conversion law, which grants the rabbinate a monopoly over officially recognized Jewish conversions in Israel. Were the government-backed nation-state bill to pass, for the first time enshrining in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state, 65% want it to explicitly protect religious freedom for all.

The survey did not ask about the agreement to enhance an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, which the government retreated from in June, outraging many Diaspora Jews and inspiring petitions now being considered by the Supreme Court. But a June survey by Hiddush found 63% of Israeli Jews oppose the government’s action.

In general Israeli Jewish support for separation of religion and state and pluralistic policies is correlated with secularity and voting for more left-wing and less religious parties. Voters for ultra-Orthodox political parties overwhelmingly oppose both.

Despite recently escalating political rhetoric and legislation aimed at weakening the Supreme Court for its alleged disregard of Israel’s Jewish values, the survey found widespread support for the principles underlying many of its recent rulings and, at least relative to other government institutions, for the court itself.

Ultra-Orthdox Jewish men in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem walk along side an Israeli soldier. June 6, 2008. (Lara Savage/ Flash 90)

The Supreme Court last week broke the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification and struck down legislation from 2015 meant to delay efforts to increase the rate at which ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are drafted into the military.

According to the survey, public support for opening the kashrut market to competition with the state acting as a supervisor continued to rise, to 80% of Israelis Jews. Among secular Jews, the number was 95% with 80% backing the introduction of non-Orthodox certification. As in previous years, 83% think yeshiva students should be required to do military or national service, though a third would settle for national service and 14% are OK with some exemptions.

Asked for the first time this year which institution they most trust, a plurality of Israelis, 39%, chose the Supreme Court over the government, the Knesset, the rabbinate or the rabbinical courts. The least trusted institution is the government followed by the rabbinate.

Pie chart showing results of Hiddush survey September 18, 2017. (Hiddush)

The survey indicates that the state’s handling of issues of religion and state is one cause of its lack of public support. A large majority of Israeli Jews, 78%, are dissatisfied with the current government on such issues. Only a majority of voters of the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox political party Shas are satisfied.

According to Regev, there is growing frustration in Israel with political kowtowing to the ultra-Orthodox parties. After their opposition led to the suspension of the Western Wall deal, the parties in July pushed through a law allowing state-run mikvahs, or ritual baths, to bar non-Orthodox Jews from entry. In September, they brought to a sudden halt Shabbat repair work on train tracks across the country by threatening to bolt the government over the issue, wreaking havoc on the workday commutes of tens of thousands of Israelis.

A Jewish couple stand underneath the ‘chuppah’ during their wedding in a synagogue in Paris France July 21, 2013. (Serge Attal/FLASH90)

However, Regev predicted, the ultra-Orthodox community will continue to call the shots as religion and state issues remain low on the priority list of most Israelis. A Channel 10 poll ahead of the 2015 election found that for most Israelis cost of living and social issues would be the main determinants of their vote, followed by security. Only 9% said they would vote primarily based on religion and state issues.

Hiddush chairman Stanley Gold called on Diaspora Jews to step in. The Hiddush annual survey found 55% of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in religion and state issues.

“Jewish Diaspora leaders concerned for the future of the Jewish people and concerned with strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must partner with Israeli organizations working in this field to bring about the necessary change: Full freedom of religion and conscience and total equality, regardless of religious identity,” he said in a statement.

Pie chart showing results of Hiddush survey September 18, 2017. (Hiddush)

Regev — who last week issued a statement signed by dozens leaders from across Judaism’s religious spectrum calling for sweeping reforms to Israel’s official religious establishment and its policies — suggested a shift in focus to those issues that most affect the daily life of Israelis. In a survey last December, Hiddush found that the rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel is by far the most important religion and state issue to Jews, while prayer at the Western Wall is by far the least important one. The same survey found that 60% of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in the marriage issue.

“There is dissymmetry between areas Israelis feel are important and the focus of many American Jews in the past few years,” Regev said. “But Israelis are frustrated with the status quo when it comes to marriage and so are more open to Diaspora intervention.”

There are reasons to believe religion and state issues will not remain on the Israeli political back burner indefinitely. According to Hiddush’s annual survey, Israeli Jews think the political conflict between ultras-Orthodox and secular Jews is among the most challenging in the country, at least as much so as the one between the political right and left. Seething secular anger has erupted at the ballot box before, notably with the rise of Yair Lapid in 2012 and his father Tommy Lapid in 2003.

“Politicians should be wary,” said Regev. “They don’t know when the hurricane is going to hit. It hit before, it will hit again, and it may be this time around.”

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