Pew poll finds Jews in Israel more religious, conservative

Nearly half of Israeli Jews want to expel Arabs from the country.

That’s one of several findings from a new survey of Israeli attitudes on religion, politics and Jewish identity conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center.

Coming just three years after Pew’s much-discussed study of Jewish Americans, the Israel study depicts a country divided by religion and ethnicity, where Jews of opposing religious outlooks rarely associate and marriages that cross the Jewish-Arab divide almost never happen.

Palestinian women passing an Israeli police checkpoint in Jerusalem. photo/jta-getty images-afp-menahem kahana

Israel is 81 percent Jewish and 19 percent non-Jewish, according to the survey. Among the Jews, half are secular. The other half are traditional (29 percent), religious Zionists (13 percent) and haredi Orthodox (9 percent).

The study, released earlier this week, is based on 5,600 interviews with Israelis conducted between October 2014 and May 2015. It has a margin of error of 2.9 percent on questions asked of Jews and 5.6 percent for those asked of Muslims. Many of the findings confirm commonly held views about Israel, but here are six that may be surprising.

1. Nearly half of Israeli Jews want Israel to be Arab-free.

Israeli politicians often tout Israel’s Arab minority as proof of the country’s diversity and democracy. But nearly half of Israel’s Jews want to see that minority forcibly removed.

Forty-eight percent of Israeli Jews agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Slightly fewer (46 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Support for removal draws largely from right-wing Israelis. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of self-identified right-wing Jews agreed that Arabs should leave Israel, as did 71 percent of religious Zionists and 59 percent of the haredi Orthodox. Among left-wing Jews, 10 percent said yes to forcible transfer.

2. Israeli Jews are less liberal and more religious than Jewish Americans.

Across the board, Israeli Jews tack significantly to the right of Jewish Americans. While nearly half of Jewish Americans call themselves “liberal,” according to a 2015 Pew survey of American religion, left-wing Israeli Jews account for only 8 percent of the population. More than one-third of Israeli Jews say they are right-wing, compared with just 19 percent of Jewish Americans who called themselves conservative in Pew’s 2013 study.

Those differences are particularly apparent with respect to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Sixty-one percent of Jewish Americans say “Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully,” according to Pew’s 2013 survey, while only 43 percent of Israeli Jews feel similarly. Sixty-one percent of Israeli Jews say God gave Israel to the Jews, a view that even 51 percent of non-Orthodox Israelis endorsed. Only 40 percent of Jewish Americans agree. Forty-two percent of Israeli Jews believe settlements make Israel more secure, as opposed to just 17 percent of Jewish Americans.

Israelis are also more religious than Jewish Americans. More than a quarter of Israelis attend weekly services, compared with about one-tenth of the Americans. Half of Israeli Jews believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with one-third of Jewish Americans, and nearly half of Israeli Jews don’t handle money on Shabbat, while almost all Jewish Americans do.

Israeli Arabs protesting in Tel Aviv against home demolitions in 2015 photo/jta-flash90-tomer neuberg

3. Two-thirds of Israeli Jews keep kosher.

Israelis vary widely in their religious observance. Most religious Israelis pray daily, while their secular counterparts can go years without setting foot in a synagogue. One-quarter of Israeli Jews say they observe no religious traditions.

But some Jewish customs have gained something akin to a consensus following in Israel. Nearly all Israeli Jews attend a Passover seder and almost two-thirds keep a kosher home, including one-third of secular Israelis. By contrast, only 22 percent of Jewish Americans keep a kosher kitchen. Four-fifths of Israelis, including two-thirds of secular Jews, refrain from eating pork. Nearly half of Israel’s Russian-speaking Jews (47 percent) do eat pork.

4. Among Israeli haredim, 19 percent say you can believe in Jesus and still be Jewish.

On the whole, Israeli Jews maintain a broad definition of who is a Jew. Solid majorities believe someone can deny God’s existence, work on Shabbat, criticize Israel and still be Jewish. But an overwhelming majority draws the line at believing in Jesus as the messiah.

Only 18 percent of Israeli Jews — and 19 percent of haredim — say a Jew can believe in Jesus and remain Jewish. In the United States, fully one-third of Jews say belief in Jesus is compatible with being Jewish.

5. Israel is getting more religious — but less Jewish.

Israel’s short history has been punctuated by successive waves of Jewish immigration from around the world, but even with those millions of newcomers, the country is proportionally less Jewish than when it was founded.

In 1949, Israel was 86 percent Jewish and 13 percent Arab. Now it’s 81 percent Jewish and 19 percent Arab.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Jews are becoming proportionally more observant. Between 2002 and 2013, the percentage of Israeli Jews older than 20 who are Orthodox grew from 16 percent to 19 percent, according to the Israeli Social Survey. 


6. When it comes to religion, Israeli Arabs look more like the Orthodox than secular Jews.

Political analysts often group Israeli Arabs with secular left-wing Israelis due to their similar political leanings. But in terms of attitudes toward religion, Israeli Arabs look more like Israel’s Orthodox Jews.

A solid majority of Muslims and Christians in Israel say religion is “very important” to them, compared with just 2 percent of secular Jews. Forty-five percent of Muslims say being Muslim is mostly about religion — similar to the 52 percent of religious Zionists who see Judaism as mostly about religion.

Similar percentages of Muslims and religious Zionists pray daily. And similar percentages of Muslims and haredim believe in God with absolute certainty.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.