One-in-five Jews in religiously fractured Israel say they don't believe in God

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

PRINCETON, N.J. (Christian Examiner) – Israelis are united in their belief that their nation is a safe haven for Jews, but their society is religiously fractured, even among the various branches of Judaism, a comprehensive survey from the Pew Research Center has found.

Much like the New Testament world where Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots inhabited the same land, Israel is now made up of four different Jewish communities: Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews), Dati (religious Jews), Masorti (traditionalist Jews) and Hiloni (secular Jews). The four seldom interact, according to the survey.

When asked, 'What is your present religion, if any?' virtually all Israeli Jews say they are Jewish – and almost none say they have no religion – even though roughly half describe themselves as secular and one-in-five do not believe in God. For some, Jewish identity also is bound up with Israeli national pride. Most secular Jews in Israel say they see themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second, while most Orthodox Jews (Haredim and Datiim) say they see themselves as Jewish first and then Israeli.
- Pew Research Center

"Although they live in the same small country and share many traditions, highly religious and secular Jews inhabit largely separate social worlds, with relatively few close friends and little intermarriage outside their own groups. In fact, the survey finds that secular Jews in Israel are more uncomfortable with the notion that a child of theirs might someday marry an ultra-Orthodox Jew than they are with the prospect of their child marrying a Christian," a summary of the survey said.

"The vast majority of Jews (98%), Muslims (85%), Christians (86%) and Druze (83%) say all or most of their close friends belong to their own religious community."

Also, while Jews in Israel are united in their belief about the benefits of democracy in a Jewish state, they are somewhat diverse in their opinion about whether or not religious laws should take precedence over civil law, as well as what constitutes "Jewishness." The definitions provided by the groups for the term "Jewish" ranged from the religious, to the ethnic, to nationality and family and culture.

"When asked, 'What is your present religion, if any?' virtually all Israeli Jews say they are Jewish – and almost none say they have no religion – even though roughly half describe themselves as secular and one-in-five do not believe in God. For some, Jewish identity also is bound up with Israeli national pride. Most secular Jews in Israel say they see themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second, while most Orthodox Jews (Haredim and Datiim) say they see themselves as Jewish first and then Israeli," the survey authors concluded.

There are, however, more than just Jews in Israel. The survey digs into the remaining religious communities, including Muslims, Christians and Druze. Druze are an Islamic sect which originated in the 12th century, but which is now considered heretical by both Sunni and Shia Muslims.

All three minority groups, which also have strong opinions about religion and democracy, claim that democracy should take precedence over any type of religious law – and, therefore, all people should be treated equally.

However, among Israel's Muslim population – predominately Arab Israelis – there is serious doubt that Israel can continue to deepen its identity as a "Jewish state" and remain a democratic society for religious minorities. That assumption is not without support, as Israeli Arabs are frequently the focus of discrimination, the survey said.

According to the survey, most Jews (79%) believe Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews. Among the Haredi, the level of support for preferential treatment rises to 97 percent. Among Dati, or religious Jews, it is 96 percent. The Masorti – traditionally religious Jews – support the assertion at 85 percent. Even among the Hiloni, or secular Jews, 69 percent believe Jews should be treated preferentially.

Those numbers have historically been high, but they may have risen in recent years in proportion to the growing number of Jews who are reconnecting with their faith and claiming they are "religious" or "very religious" – up from 51% in 2002 to 56% in 2013, according to the Israel Social Survey.

Being religious, though, does not necessarily translate to belief in God. In fact, being both "Jewish" and atheist or agnostic, according to the survey, isn't impossible.

Only about half (47%) of Israelis who received their highest level of education at a secular institution are absolutely certain God exists. Nine out of 10 of those who attended religiously-based schools claim to believe in God.

Belief in God is significantly higher among Christians and Druze than among Jews. According to the survey, 99 percent of Druze – a community of about 120,000 in Israel – believe in God. Ninety-four percent of Christians in the survey said they believed in God, but only 79 percent were absolutely certain. Christians make up just over 2 percent of Israel's population.

The Druze, who live the area of the Golan Heights, voted some time ago to accept Israeli citizenship and to fall under the protection of the Israeli military. The group exercises all of the rights and privileges of citizenship.

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