Religion and state in Israel: What do American Jews think?

Differing perspectives on religion-state matters are already exacerbating tensions between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.

By LAWRENCE GROSSMAN
September 16, 2016 16:08
4 minute read.
Haredi man

Haredi man [Illustrative]. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Controversy over the role Judaism should play in the State of Israel, a staple of political life since Israel achieved independence, continues to roil the country.

What do American Jews think about it? The question is an important one for the future of the Jewish people since differing perspectives on religion- state matters are already exacerbating tensions between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.

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Each year, the American Jewish Committee conducts a survey of American Jewish opinion to gauge the views of American Jews on matters of concern.

This year, AJC in cooperation with The Jerusalem Post, included five questions that measure American Jewish attitudes toward religion and state issues in Israel.

The results provide valuable insights on American Jewish perspective and specifically on divisions between the Orthodox and the rest of the community. The full survey is available on the committee’s website.

The secular, liberal values of most Jews in America – where separation of religion and state is constitutionally guaranteed – emerge clearly from the survey data. But so does the emphatic dissent of a large majority of one American Jewish subgroup – the Orthodox, who constitute 9 percent of the 1,002 respondents. The majority identified themselves as Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or “just Jewish.”

On the appropriate role of religion in Israel, 37% of respondents called for separation of religion and state, another 22% said that religion should play less of a role in the country than it now does, 24% prefer maintenance of the status quo, and 11% want religion to play more of a role. However, among the Orthodox, 45% want religion to play more of a role, 25% prefer the status quo, and only 4% want religion to play less of a role. Interestingly, almost a quarter of the Orthodox favor a separation of religion and state in Israel.



Asked about the effect that Orthodoxy’s legal monopoly on Israeli Judaism has on relations with American Jews, almost half of the full sample said it weakens ties, only 6% said that it strengthens them, and 39% said that it has no effect, a hardly surprising finding given the largely non-Orthodox makeup of the American Jewish community.

Within the Orthodox subgroup, however, 21% said that Orthodoxy’s official recognition in Israel strengthens ties, and 45% that it has no effect. Once again, 23% – close to a quarter of the Orthodox – agree with a plurality of the larger community and say that Orthodoxy’s power in Israel weakens ties with American Jewry.

Ending the Orthodox legal monopoly has strong support among American Jews, with 74% favoring the extension of the right to perform weddings, divorces and conversions to non-Orthodox rabbis. Just 14% want to keep the present system of Orthodox control.

The situation within Orthodoxy is almost the reverse, 70% wanting to keep the present arrangement and 18% favoring recognition of the non-Orthodox streams.

Respondents were also asked to designate “the most important change necessary in Israeli Judaism.” The leading answer – chosen by 41% of the full sample – was securing equality for all streams of Judaism. Twenty-seven percent felt that no change was necessary. In striking contrast, 60% of the Orthodox respondents said no change was necessary, and just 20% wanted to secure equality for all streams of Judaism.



The divergence between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is graphically illustrated in the responses to a question about setting aside an area for mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. Currently, services at the Wall are allowed only in accordance with Orthodox tradition: men and women separated by a barrier.

Overall, 70% expressed support for the change and 16% opposed it. Within the Orthodox community, though, the result was reversed. Seventy-seven percent were opposed and 17% in favor.

These results will cheer those Israelis who seek to change the religious status quo, reassuring them that most American Jews are behind them, with dissenting views largely confined to the Orthodox sector. Yet they must also confront another, more sobering picture arising from the survey. It contained three vital questions that measured Jewish identity and connection to Israel. On all three, the Orthodox demonstrated far deeper commitment.

Asked how important being Jewish was in their lives, 99% of the Orthodox answered “very important,” and the other 1% “somewhat important.” That extraordinary, virtually unanimous affirmation stands in stark contrast to the responses of the overall sample of American Jews: 44% said being Jewish was “very important,” 35% “somewhat important,” 11% “not too important,” and 10% “not important at all.”

Given the statement “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” 70% of the Orthodox agreed strongly, another 12% agreed somewhat, 4% disagreed somewhat, and 6% disagreed strongly. This breakdown was very different from the views of the full sample, of which 47% agreed strongly, 26% agreed somewhat, 16% disagreed somewhat, and 10% disagreed strongly.

Since the most tangible American Jewish connection to Israel is visiting the country, the survey findings about such visits are particularly revealing: 85% of Orthodox Jews report that they have been to Israel, an astounding 79% more than once. In contrast, 52% of the full sample has never been to Israel, 21% say they have visited once, and 27% more than once.

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.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.

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