Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture

ISSSC Website



Secular Americans

Understanding American "Nots"

Is Anyone
in Canada Secular?

Secularity in Great Britain

Läicité and Secular Attitudes in France

Secularism: The Case of Denmark

Secularism in India

The Secular Israeli Jewish Identity

Secularism in Iran: a Hidden Agenda?














The Secular Israeli Jewish Identity

By Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi


Secularized Jews were a European reality by the early 19th century, and a significant majority in western Europe by its end.  By that time, the process of secularization was making significant inroads into Jewish communities in eastern Europe. Most sociological Jews today are “assimilated” and far removed from historical Jewish traditions.  In most cases, they have little idea what those traditions are.  There is a minority of less than 10 percent of world Jewry that still preserves historical Judaism. 

The Zionist vision, created under the impact of the Enlightenment and European secularization, faces another kind of history among Israeli Jews. While about half of Israeli Jews is of European descent, another half is made up of individuals whose ancestors lived in the Islamic world. Because that world has not experienced the Reformation or the Enlightenment, European secularization has affected it to a minimal degree, and religion has remained more powerful than secular nationalism. Thus, we should expect Israeli Jews of non-European descent to be more religious than their European counterparts.

The State of Israel formally regulates the religious involvement of its citizens in many ways. The State maintains a list of recognized religions (16 at last count), and classifies all its citizens (and resident non-citizens) according to religious affiliation. Marriage and divorce can take place only within the (recognized) religious group. Religious conversions from one recognized group to another are registered and reported. Vital statistics are reported based on religion (e.g., “live births by mother’s religion”).

Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people, meaning about 13 million individuals, only about half of whom live in Israel. Jews are viewed by the State not only as a religious group, but as a national group as well, but joining this national group is done through a religious conversion. The boundaries of the Jewish group are kept by the system of religious courts, as well as by civil authorities. Attempts to have the State recognize an Israeli nationality have been rejected time and again by the courts, and this rejection is supported by a solid majority of the public.

Of all Israeli prime ministers since 1948, it was only Menahem Begin who ever attended synagogue services outside of official duty, and even that very rarely. It is important to note, also, that Israel’s intellectual, literary, scientific, and artistic elite is overwhelmingly non-observant. At the same time, we can see the political leadership showing reverence for traditional symbols of Jewish identity and especially identity boundaries. For example, the prime minister of Israel will not be seen, while on an official visit in Europe, to be driving on the Sabbath. The prime minister of Israel will not be seen driving on Saturday even in Jerusalem, though he will not be seen in a synagogue, either.

The State of Israel invests significant resources in the maintenance of historical Judaism. This is done by financing an expensive system of lifelong Talmudic learning, in which more than 100,000 individuals are involved. Such a large system is unprecedented in Jewish history.  In addition to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox educational systems, there is a system of rabbinical courts, where the judges enjoy the same salaries and benefits as civil judges, and other systems providing the services that provide ritual purity for those who desire it, at State expense.

A survey in 2004 showed that 81 percent of Israel’s population defined themselves as Jewish; 12 percent as Muslim; 3.5 percent as Christian (both Arab and non-Arab); 1.5 percent as Druze; 1.5 percent as atheist; and another 0.5 percent as followers of other religions. In terms of religiosity, among Israeli Jews aged 20 and over, 44 percent defined themselves as secular; 27 percent defined themselves as traditional; 12 percent as traditionally observant; 9 percent as Orthodox; and 8 percent as ultra-Orthodox.

The historical gap between the European Enlightenment heritage and the legacy of the Islamic world was clearly demonstrated in this survey. There was a particularly high prevalence of the secular label, 63 percent, among native Israelis of European descent, compared to 33 percent among native Israelis of Asian origin, and 25 percent of native Israelis of North African origin. Among Moslem Palestinians living in Israel, 11 percent defined themselves as very religious; 49 percent as religious; 21 percent as not so religious; and only 18 percent as not religious at all. 

In terms of income, secular Jews had the highest levels, followed by the Orthodox, the traditionally observant, and the ultra-Orthodox. Secular Jews also had the highest level of education, with 32 percent reporting higher education.

A recent survey, done by Ephraim Yaar for the Shmuel Neeman Institute for Advanced Study in Science and Technology at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, found that 41 percent of secular Israelis believe in God (compared with 52 percent who do not). Sixteen percent of secular Jews believe in heaven and hell, and 23 percent agreed with the statement that “nature is spiritual or holy.”

In terms of political attitudes, it is routinely reported that religiosity among Israeli Jews is correlated with hawkish-ness and conservatism, paralleling findings reported all over the world. Thus, an April 2004 survey of attitudes toward the Gaza Disengagement Plan showed that while 85 percent of the ultra-Orthodox opposed disengagement and so did 67 percent of those defining themselves as religious, only 38 percent of the traditional and 17 percent of the secular opposed it.


Hit Counter