Poll: Many Israelis see Jewish identity as being self-defined

The poll was conducted this month by the Geocartography Institute, using a sample of 500 Jewish Israelis aged 18 or over.

Ultra orthodox Jews wear shtreimels to a traditional religious wedding ceremony in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra orthodox Jews wear shtreimels to a traditional religious wedding ceremony in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Large portions of the Jewish Israeli population no longer view Jewish identity as being exclusively defined by being born to a Jewish mother, the traditional yardstick by which Orthodox Judaism defines a person’s Jewish status, a new opinion poll has shown.
A survey conducted for Bina, a pluralist organization that promotes Jewish culture and identity, particularly among the secular population, showed that while more than half the Jewish population still feels that being born to a Jewish mother defines one’s Jewish identity, more than a quarter feel that being Jewish is defined by one’s own personal perception.
The poll was conducted this month by the Geocartography Institute, using a sample of 500 Jewish Israelis aged 18 or over.
According to the results, 57.6 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that being a Jew means being born to a Jewish mother, whereas 26.3% feel that a person is Jewish if they define themselves as being Jewish and want to be thought of as such.
When broken down according to religious sectors, 86.3% of those defining themselves as haredi or national-religious believe that being Jewish requires being born to a Jewish mother, compared to 62.7% among those defining themselves as “traditional” and 43.5% among the secular population.
In terms of Jewish expression, fulfilling religious commandments is, as can be expected, greatly more important to the religious community than to the rest of the general public.
Some 65% those identifying as haredi or national-religious said that fulfilling religious commandments was the primary expression of their Jewish identity, compared to just 12.5% for those from the “traditional” public and 3.5% from the secular community.
For those defining themselves as traditional, 37.3% said Jewish culture and traditions were central to their identity as Jews, as did 27.5% of the secular respondents and 7.8% of the religious respondents.
Large proportions of the secular respondents saw their Jewish identity as intrinsically bound up with their Israeli nationality.
Some 43% of those identifying as secular said that the very fact that they lived in Israel, spoke Hebrew and served in the IDF were central components of their Jewish identity, as did 20.7% of the traditional community and 9.5% of the religious public. In total, well over one-quarter of the respondents (29.7%) said that their Jewish identity was expressed by these factors alone.
In response to the findings, Bina director Eran Baruch said he believed the survey showed that attitudes to Jewish identity and expression in the country were changing and becoming broader.
“The trend is toward greater pluralism and the realization that there are different ways to legitimately express one’s Judaism,” Baruch said.
“This poll we conducted for the new year expresses one the central ideas we believe in – that there is a range of paths to practice Judaism, and that observing the commandments and believing in God is not the only way,” he continued.
“We see how varied the Israeli public is in its perspectives on Jewish identity. There are national and cultural components as well as the defense of the state, together with a warm relationship to Jewish traditions like celebrating religious holidays with the family. All these express central components in Jewish identity of Israelis, and we encourage Jews in Israel – secular, traditional and religious – to develop their interest, to study and to connect, by choice, to Judaism in all its forms.”
The director of the Beit Hillel national- religious rabbinical association, Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, took a different perspective on the findings and emphasized the importance of historic Jewish values in the ongoing nature of Jewish identity.
He also warned that the dangers of creating new definitions of Jewish identity could lead to irrevocable divisions among the Jewish people.
“Jewish identity comprises the past, present and future. We cannot build our future as the Jewish people in the State of Israel without being faithful to the basic principles that have accompanied us for over 3,000 years,” Neuwirth said.
“Breaking frameworks and new definitions of who is a Jew are likely to bring about the danger of assimilation to the Jewish people, as has happened in many places around the world,” he continued.
“Moreover, new definitions could also split the house of Israel in two, something we have experienced in the past and which we have no desire to repeat.”