Hiddush Analysis:

The AJC-JPost surveys of American & Israeli Jews on pluralism in Israel

A significant development in the arena of religion and state is a recent study conducted by the Jerusalem Post and the AJC of U.S. and Israeli Jewish public opinion, which was published last Friday. Following is Hiddush's analysis:

As we have reported in the past, there is significant growth in attention and engagement on the part of American Jewish leadership regarding the challenges of religious freedom and equality in Israel, and regarding the matters of freedom of marriage and worship at the Kotel in particular. A significant development in this arena is a recent study conducted by the Jerusalem Post and the AJC, which was published last Friday.

Upon reviewing the findings of these recent polls we offer a few further observations to those included in the JPost account. We wholeheartedly agree with the AJC and Dr. Steven Bayme both with regards to the challenge of religious pluralism being of key importance to US Jewry’s relationship with Israel and the corollary: “Having a pluralistic Israel is positive in deepening attachment between Israel and world Jewry.” We wonder to what extent this unresolved challenge is connected to AJC’s Lawrence Grossman’s observation: “Yes, the great majority of American Jews want to reform the religious status quo in Israel, yet they are far less concerned with Israel and far more peripheral to Jewish life than the Orthodox minority that disagrees.” Shouldn’t we see the two as closely connected? Namely, non-Orthodox Jews – who are aware that Israeli government policies assign them an inferior status, discriminated against and regularly demonized and ridiculed by Israeli public officials – find it difficult to develop the same strong bonds as Orthodox Jews do. Isn’t it obvious that being labeled as 2nd class Jews greatly contributes to eroding non-Orthodox Jews’ affinity with Israel and viewing her as “very important part of my being a Jew”!?

Moreover, as Dr. Bayme rightly underscores the critical importance of Peoplehood, shouldn’t we note not only Israel’s clear contributions towards that goal, as evidenced in programs such as Birthright and Masa; but also the role Israeli governmental policies play in undermining Peoplehood? Israel’s government asserts that only the Orthodox Jewish minority in Israel and around the world are deemed fully legitimate, while most children growing up in the US Jewish community are not! This is particularly grievous knowing that the majority of world Jewry and Israeli Jews do not agree with Israel’s government and its policies on these matters!

In comparing public support for Israel’s establishing marriage freedom and a pluralistic Western Wall prayer plaza at the site of Robinson's Arch, a consistent trend is seen among non-Orthodox respondents who support both of these measures. Whereas support among non-Orthodox Jews for the pluralistic Western Wall plaza ranges from 68% (Conservative) to 88% (Reconstructionist), their support for Israel's legal recognition of non-Orthodox weddings, divorces and conversions is even higher, ranging from 74% (Conservative) to 94% (Reconstructionist).

Interestingly, the strongest support among all groups was expressed for “securing legal recognition of equality for all streams of Judaism” (47% among Conservative Jews and 48% among Reform) in response to the question: “What do you consider the most important change necessary in Israeli Judaism?” However, when it comes to 2 specific aspects of that recognition, namely – a pluralistic worship alternative at the Kotel and the establishment of civil marriage and divorce – 11% of Reform Jews viewed the Kotel as most important compared to 13% who felt similarly regarding civil marriage and divorce (Among Conservative Jews, the reverse is true: 9% - Kotel and 7% - civil marriage and divorce).

[Among Israelis, the difference in the importance attached to the Kotel worship compared to freedom of marriage is far more pronounced; a 2016 Hiddush survey revealed that 71% of Israelis attach importance to addressing the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage & divorce, whereas only 11% (only 3% of which are secular Jews, who are Reform and Conservative Judaism’s major target population) attach importance to the Western Wall prayer arrangements.]

Civil marriages in Israel, albeit not yet legally recognized, are often infused with Jewish content, symbols and spirit; and that both the Israeli Reform and Conservative Movements have endorsed civil marriage and divorce.

With regards to the overall gap between the desire for equal recognition and the importance attached to the Kotel and civil marriages, it seems that the respondents reacted naturally by expressing support for the option that “has it all”, rather than the particulars. This leaves open the question regarding the best strategy for change, given the multifaceted nature and complexity of the overall equality challenge and tactical need for focus and priorities. Furthermore, given that the question listed “civil marriage and divorce,” compared to another question, which listed “legal recognition of non-Orthodox weddings, divorces and conversions” (supported by 74% among Conservative Jews and 80% among Reform), the civil marriage support rate may reflect unease, particularly among Conservative Jews, regarding civil marriage and divorce. We wonder what the response would have been had the respondents been more aware of the fact that civil marriages in Israel, albeit not yet legally recognized, are often infused with Jewish content, symbols and spirit; and that both the Israeli Reform and Conservative Movements have endorsed civil marriage and divorce with the understanding that this may be more readily attained, and that couples who marry civilly would be free to seek non-Orthodox religious ceremonies once the State’s legal requirements have been met.

The survey of positions of Israeli Jews presents a fascinating anomaly: While only 54% of Israeli Jews said that they hold as unacceptable the current reality in which most Israeli laws on matters of religion and state, such as marriage, divorce, conversion, etc., are based on an Orthodox/Haredi position, 62% support giving official legal recognition to the Reform and Conservative Movements to conduct marriages, divorces etc. in Israel! It should be noted that among Israeli secular Jews 87% support official recognition of Reform and Conservative and 82% find the Orthodox/Haredi dominance in the current state of the law to be unacceptable.

Another finding of the Israeli survey that requires further explanation is the tendency of younger respondents to hold relatively more traditional positions. Among young adults aged up to 29, 54% accepted Orthodoxy's influence on Israel's religion and state policies, versus only 43% of those aged 50 and over. This likely has to do in part with the significantly higher percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews among the younger generation of Israeli Jews. Unfortunately, this was not explored in the analysis. Another point of consideration is the survey category of "traditional" Jews, which the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics [CBS] has for years now broken down into “Masorti Dati” (traditional Jews who are religiously inclined) and “Masorti Lo Kol Kach Dati” (those traditional Jews who are not very religiously inclined). Hiddush makes this critical and telling distinction in its periodic polling on religion & state matters, and we wish it were incorporated into the AJC-JPost survey (and the Pew study a few months ago) as well. It would have helped us in a better understanding of the makeup of Jewish identity and views in Israel. What CBS and Hiddush surveys have indicated is that there is a marked difference in the reaction of these 2 sub-groups among Israeli traditional Jews with regards to questions of religion and state, with the latter (representing some 25% of Israeli Jews!) demonstrating views that are much closer to those of Israeli secular Jews.

The AJC-JPost survey poses some additional questions of great interest (and challenge) regarding the relatively high percentage of non-Orthodox respondents who don't feel that there is an urgent, compelling problem in Israel's religion & state arena. Nearly a quarter (24%) of all respondents said that Israel's current relationship between religion and state is best, including 30% of Conservative and 24% of Reform Jews, despite their denominations being disenfranchised by that very relationship. Further, more than a quarter (27%) responded that no changes were necessary in Israeli Judaism, including 31% of Conservative and 22% of Reform Jews. These respondents did not prioritize equal recognition for all Jewish streams, pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, nor civil marriage and divorce - for these 27%, Israeli Judaism's current state is satisfactory. While the majority of American Jews are indeed troubled by the current state of affairs in Israel and its impact upon them and the next generation of American Jews, this telling finding underscores the non-Orthodox Movements' ongoing challenge in conveying to their own members the facts, dire consequences, and urgency of the clash between religion and state in Israel to the future of Jewish Peoplehood and to the well-being of Israel.

Of particular interest and importance is the growing divergence of opinion among Orthodox Jews. While the majority of the Orthodox express views in line with the “Status Quo” concept, there is an encouraging and interesting segment of American Jewish Orthodoxy that departs from this line and supports greater pluralism, diversity and freedom of religion. Nearly one quarter (23%) of Orthodox Jews favor separation of religion and state in Israel and also believe that Orthodox Judaism's exclusive status according to Israeli law weakens Israel's ties with American Jews. Further, 30% of Orthodox respondents believe that securing legal recognition of equality for all streams of Judaism (20%) or establishing the option for civil marriage and divorce in Israel (10%) would be the most important changes necessary in Israeli Judaism.

We at Hiddush are aware of this trend in Israel as well, and in the upcoming release of the 2016 Israel Religion and State Index (on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, stay tuned!) we will be taking a deeper look into the breakdown of views among Zionist Orthodox Jews in Israel, having commissioned an expanded sample of this sector in Israeli Jewish population beyond the general sample. This indicates, once again, that the battle over religious freedom and equality in Israel does not separate Orthodox from non-Orthodox, but rather those who believe in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state from those who want to see Israel function as a theocracy.

Hiddush puts special emphasis on reaching out and cooperating with modern Orthodox groups and individuals who share a vision of an inclusive and tolerant Israel, even as each group maintains strong commitment to its own beliefs and practices. The recent events that showed the disdain with which Israel’s rabbinic courts and establishments treat modern Orthodoxy (see for instance the recent Rabbi Lookstein controversy or the refusal to recognize Rabbi Riskin’s conversions) further underscore this emerging phenomenon.

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