Once upon a time we looked to writers and artists to hold up a mirror to our societies, paint our collective portraits, and tell us about ourselves. Nowadays, we rely upon teams of pollsters to gather reams of survey data, from which we try to discern our collective psychology and behavior. Statistics cannot lie, or so we are led to believe, and so we now turn to them and trust them to tell us what we think and who we are.
The release of the Pew Research Center’s study of Israeli society is, therefore, an important event. Based upon face-to-face interviews in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian with 5,601 Israeli adults between October 2014 to May 2015, the survey provides one of the most comprehensive and detailed portraits of Israeli society (or more accurately, Israeli societies), and its findings will be pored over, dissected, and discussed for years to come. Taken together with its earlier, groundbreaking study of American Jews, published in 2013, Pew has presented us with two portraits of the largest and most important Jewish communities in the world that account for around eighty percent of the world’s Jewish population. The portraits are not flattering, especially that of Israeli Jewish society. When set side-by-side they are a study in contrasts.
What has most caught the attention among commentators so far is Pew’s finding that almost half of the Israeli-Jewish public (48%) favors the removal, whether by expulsion or “transfer,” of Arabs from Israel (although, crucially, which Arabs they have in mind is not clear). While many have rightly taken issue with the ambiguous wording of the question, and some have also correctly noted that support for expelling or transferring or whichever euphemism you wish to use has been lower in other surveys, the fact remains that this is a shocking statistic. It is further evidence that the future of Arab-Jewish coexistence within Israel cannot be taken for granted, and that profoundly illiberal, if not undemocratic, attitudes are widespread within Israeli-Jewish society (also indicative of this is the finding that nearly 80% of Israeli Jews believe that Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel). Whether or not this is evidence of racism among Israeli Jews or simply a result of decades of fear and suspicion due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it highlights the deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel and the danger this poses to the country’s future.
Nor is this the only finding that will alarm many American Jewish supporters of Israel. The study is filled with them. Take for instance the fact that most Israeli Jews no longer believe that a future Palestinian state could coexist peacefully with Israel; only 43% believe this, compared with 61% of American Jews. This confirms the declining support for a two-state solution among Jews in Israel (the decline is even more dramatic among Arabs in Israel), while most American Jews continue to pin their hopes on it. For American Jewish advocates of a two-state solution, especially those on the center-left of the American Jewish political map, this is really bad news. Not only does it make them seem out of touch with Israeli opinion, but also it makes it harder to claim to be ‘pro-Israel’ when you disagree with the opinions of most Israelis as well as their government’s policies.
What will also be disconcerting to many American Jews is the fact that most Israeli Jews do not think that their ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, with all its attendant violence and insecurity, is even their biggest problem (only 38% thought that it was, although this was before the upsurge in Palestinian attacks that began last fall). About the same number of Israeli Jews thought that the economy was Israel’s biggest problem. Most American Jews, by contrast, think that security threats/violence/terrorism is Israel’s greatest long-term problem (66% felt this way when asked by Pew in 2013; the figure would probably be even greater today).
Politically, there is a gulf in opinions and attitudes between Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States. The latter (especially younger American Jews) are more dovish in their views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more skeptical of the sincerity of the Israeli government’s effort to make peace (only 38% of American Jews thought the Israeli government was sincere, compared with 56% of Israeli Jews). On the controversial issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, American Jews are more likely to think that they undermine Israel’s security, whereas Israeli Jews are more likely to say that the settlements help Israeli security (42% of Israeli Jews thought this compared with just 17% of American Jews). Even among Orthodox Jews in Israel and the United States—two subgroups that have much more in common—there is a significant difference of opinion about the settlements, with 60% of Orthodox Jews in Israel saying that settlements help the security of Israel, compared with only 34% of Orthodox Jews in the United States. When it comes to U.S. government support for Israel—another controversial topic in recent years—Israeli Jews and American Jews also disagree. Israeli Jews tend to think that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel, while a majority of American Jews (54% in 2013) said that U.S. support for Israel is “about right.” About the only thing that Israeli and American Jews agree on is their mistrust of the Palestinians—very few believe that the Palestinian leadership is making a sincere effort to achieve peace.
More broadly, American Jews and Israeli Jews have very different political ideologies and identities. As Pew summarizes it: “Most Israeli Jews describe their ideology as in the center (55%) or on the right (37%) within the Israeli political spectrum. Just 8% of Israeli Jews say they lean left. American Jews, meanwhile, generally describe their ideology as liberal (49%) or moderate (29%) on the American political spectrum, while about one-in-five (19%) say they are politically conservative.” Although being a liberal in the United States is not quite the same as being a leftist in Israel, the small number of Israeli Jews who “lean left” means that American Jewish liberals lack a sizeable ally in Israel to push for political change. Instead they must make common cause with a small minority of Israeli Jews.
It is not just when it comes to their political identities and beliefs that American Jews and Israeli Jews differ considerably. Their Jewish identities, and religious beliefs and practices are also distinct. In the words of the Pew report: “Although they share the same religion, Israeli Jews and U.S. Jews often do not practice Judaism the same way.”
In general, Israeli Jews are more religious and more observant than American Jews. They are much more likely to attend synagogue, light Shabbat candles, keep kosher, attend a Passover Seder, and fast on Yom Kippur. A greater proportion of them also say that religion is very important in their lives, believe in God with absolute certainty, and believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people (61% of Israeli Jews, including 31% of secular Jews, said they believed Israel was given to the Jews by God, whereas only 40% of American Jews believed this). Of course, a major part of the reason for this is the fact that the percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is twice as large in Israel as in the U.S. (22% of Israeli Jewish adults are Orthodox, including the ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, compared with 10% of American Jewish adults).
On the highly charged issue of religious pluralism in Israel—an issue that directly concerns most American Jews—Israeli Jewish opinion is very different to that of American Jews. A majority of Israeli Jews (54%) is opposed to allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct weddings in Israel, and 47 percent oppose permitting women to pray aloud at the Western Wall. Non-Orthodox Judaism has a tiny presence in Israeli-Jewish society, with only 2% of Israeli Jews identifying as Conservative and 3% as Reform. By contrast, a far greater share of American Jews identify with the two main non-Orthodox movements (35% identify as Reform and 18% identify as Conservative). If non-Orthodox Judaism faces a difficult and uncertain future in the United States, it faces even greater challenges in Israel.
It’s not just American-style Judaism that is foreign to Jews in Israel. So too is American Jewish identity. Remembering the Holocaust is the only thing that most Jews in Israel and the United States regard as essential to their Jewish identity. Otherwise many of the things that American Jews commonly associate with being Jewish such as “working for justice and equality,” “leading an ethical or moral life,” intellectual curiosity, and humor are just not seen as essential to being Jewish by Israeli Jews.
Given the stark differences revealed in the Pew studies between the political views, religious practices, and Jewish identities of American and Israeli Jews, what is most remarkable in these surveys is the strong sense of connection that they feel toward each other. Three-quarters of Israeli Jews feel they share a common destiny with American Jews, and about two-thirds of Israeli Jews say they have either “a lot” (26%) or “some things” (42%) in common with Jews in the United States. Just over two-thirds of American Jews in the 2013 survey said they were either very (30%) or somewhat (39%) attached to Israel, while an overwhelming 87% said that caring about Israel was either an essential (43%) or important (44%) part of what being Jewish meant to them personally. Three-quarters or more of Jews in both countries say they feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (88% in Israel, 75% in the U.S.).
This strong sense of connection between Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States, a result of history, culture and collective memory, will surely be tested in the years to come if, as seems likely, the two communities continue to develop—politically, culturally, and religiously—in very different ways. There is a high chance that they will grow apart and become increasingly estranged from each other. If this happens, the longstanding belief that Israeli Jews, American Jews, and Jews elsewhere are one people would be seriously undermined. To avoid this, they just have to refrain from talking about religion or politics!