Surveys show sharp differences between Jews in US and Israel

A liberal Jewish woman in a kippah (yarmulke) listens to Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, call for Jewish unity during an American Jewish Committee event in an archaeological garden near the southern end of the Western Wall on June 13, 2018. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

JERUSALEM (RNS) – In January 2016, Mollie Shichman, a liberal Jew from Fairfax, Va., celebrated the Israeli government’s decision to create the first-ever government-funded pluralistic prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall.

“To me, being egalitarian is extremely important,” Shichman, a college student, said of the proposed mixed-gender prayer space.

But excitement turned to disappointment when, in June 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on the plan due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.

Mollie Shichman. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

In Israel this week (June 10-13) to attend the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum, Shichman, who wears a kippah (yarmulke), a head covering traditionally worn by Jewish men, recalled being “accosted” by an Orthodox woman at the Western Wall for what the woman considered Shichman’s “immodest” clothing at the Western Wall plaza, a plaza behind the men’s and women’s prayer sections that isn’t used for prayer.

“I was at the far end of the plaza and took off my skirt” after visiting the Western Wall. “I had my shorts on underneath, but she called me a ‘goy,'” Shichman said of the Hebrew word for non-Jew, which the woman hurled as an insult.

“It was very hurtful to me. I’m just as much of a Jew as she is,” Shichman said.

While most Israeli Jews recognize the Jewishness of their American counterparts, the majority do not share the Americans’ dreams to make Israel a more religiously pluralistic country.

Lack of full equality for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel “over time may weaken American Jewish support for Israel,” said Harriet Schleifer, chair of AJC’s Board of Governors.

Two parallel AJC surveys released Sunday revealed “sharp differences of opinion” between Jews in Israel and the U.S., and between religious and liberal Jews in both countries.

“Significantly, for both communities, the main factor predicting how people will respond is how they identify religiously,” said AJC CEO David Harris in a statement.

“The more religiously observant they are on the denominational spectrum, their Jewish identity and attachment to Israel is stronger; skepticism about prospects for peace with the Palestinians higher; and support for religious pluralism in Israel weaker.”

Religious pluralism is a cornerstone for Jews in the U.S., where some 85 percent of the Jewish population defines itself as non-Orthodox or religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center.

In Israel, where there is no separation between religion and state and where Orthodox Judaism is the only official, government-funded religious authority, 30 percent of Israeli Jews said that non-Orthodox Judaism “strengthens Jewish life in the diaspora but is irrelevant in Israel,” according to the AJC surveys.

A mere 26 percent of Israeli Jews thought the growth of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel can improve the country’s quality of life, compared with 43 percent of American Jews.

In another noteworthy gap, a strong majority of American Jews (73 percent) favored providing a space near the Western Wall for mixed-gender prayer, while 42 percent of Israeli Jews favored it and 48 percent opposed it.

A whopping 80 percent of American Jews vs. 49 percent of Israeli Jews want to end the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate’s monopoly on weddings, divorces and conversions.

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist whose work focuses on the American Jewish community,  attributes the “widening gaps” between the world’s two largest Jewish communities to both ethnic and cultural differences.

“They come from very different cultures,” Cohen said. Whereas most American Jews are descended from Jews from Eastern Europe, at least half of Israeli Jews trace their roots directly to the Middle East and North Africa, among other places. They tend to be more religiously conservative.

Cohen said Israelis are highly innovative and pluralistic when it comes to politics, but not religion.

Israeli society has more than a dozen political parties that compete for parliamentary seats, but it continues to allow only the Orthodox establishment to decide on religious matters.

In the U.S., where religion and state are separate, the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams are on equal footing.

American Jews “place a much greater premium on universalism and softening group boundaries,” Cohen said. That’s one of the reasons many Jews feel comfortable marrying someone of a different faith.

The high rate of American Jewish intermarriage is a concern to many Orthodox Jews both in the U.S. and Israel.

In his speech before the AJC this week, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, said the assimilation and potential “loss of millions” of American Jews into mainstream American society fill him with fear because eventually they might not consider themselves part of the Jewish people.

“If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s not Iran but the future of the Jews in America, and we have to fix this together,” said Bennett, the Orthodox son of American immigrants to Israel.

Jewish continuity and unity were central themes of the AJC’s closing ceremony, which took place in an archaeological park at the southern end of the Western Wall.

Standing next to an Israeli flag and an American flag, Dan Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, cited Korach, the Torah portion Jews will read this Sabbath morning.

Recalling how Korach tried to wrest control of the Israelites from Moses as they made their way from Sinai to Canaan, Shapiro said the biblical villain tried to divide the people.

“Disunity can lead to tragedy,” Shapiro said, referring to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., an event the Jewish sages attributed to hatred within the Jewish community.

“Let us reinvigorate our relationship,” he said. “Let us embrace our diversity. Let us express our unconditional love for all our people.”

About the author

Michele Chabin


Click here to post a comment

  • It is sometimes said of the secular Israeli majority, “the synagogue they don’t go to is Orthodox.” The survey results sort of bear that out.
    Although the survey spoke of the egalitarian space as “adjacent” to the Western Wall for clarity, the truth is that it’s as much next to the Second Temple retaining wall as the ultra-Orthodox-run space considered the “real” Wall. The latter is more accurately the Western Wall Plaza. Before 1967, the whole thing was a back alley. It was later cleared out to make the Plaza but the Plaza is only slightly closer to where it is believed the Temple stood.
    It’s sad that I must advise the woman in the article to do what my female kippah-wearing friends and family do when in Israel or at least Jlem: cover your head in a more Orthodox way for your own safety.

  • When I read things like this I always wonder why the world would not be better off with the 6,000,000 (or so) Jewish people of Israel residing instead in the USA with the 6,000,000 (or so) Jewish people who are already here. Those two groups happen to be about 80% of the Jewish people in the world. Everyone could have skipped the confrontational and profoundly dumb idea of trying to found and base a nation on a religion.

  • Yes, often people who live in an existential battle for survival tighten up their beliefs.

  • That’s not much of a surprise. Freedom and equality are popular in free societies; they’re actively opposed (and oppressed) in theocracies.

  • Doesn’t Natan-Yahu mean “God has given”? Perhaps the conservative Jews in Israel think their Prime Minister is The First Coming.

  • The secular majority have not become more Orthodox, they’ve become more acquiescent. Orthodoxy has been the only game in town for over a century, but despite the best efforts of faithless backstabbers like Netanyahu and his ministers, pluralistic Judaism is slowly growing in Israel. And it’s not simply “synagogue plants” of North American institutions either.
    If you mean that the ultra-Orthodox have tightened up their beliefs in view of Israel’s existential battle for existence, then they should get off their tucheses and fulfill their military service obligations — and allow their sons AND DAUGHTERS to do so as well.

  • You might want to expound on your last paragraph since no one else is going to understand it.

  • Modern Zionism was founded on the idea that “enlightened” European nations, and by extension the United States, had not proven enlightened enough to give up on pogroms, ghettos, and show trials of uppity Jews. Their experience, including the Holocaust, proved them right tragically. Recent events in both Europe and the US have shown just as truly that Western democracy is a fickle thing. Attacks on synagogues. The Republican Party nominating N4zis and N4zi sympathizers for high office (not talking about the Orange Appeaser). The Jews cannot afford to place their fate solely in the hands of others. That — not “religion,” which most of Israel’s founders were ambivalent toward at best — is why Israel exists.

  • I am not a great fan of Jewish doctrine (or most “doctrines” for that matter), but I am a great fan of treating ALL people well in a freedom-of-religion country. I “wish” the Jews of the 19th Century could have come here in droves, found safety and a welcoming spirit HERE and skipped both the Holocaust and any need whatsoever for the re-creation of Israel. We have 40% of the world’s Jewish population here now. Coulda, shoulda been 80-90%

  • Somebody (Jewish, preferrably), please, confirm for me if Israeli MP Miki Zohar believed he was speaking for Jews in Israel and the US, both and alike, when he ranted this off about Jewish Supremacy:

    “The public in Israel is a public that belongs to the Jewish race, and the entire Jewish race is the highest human capital, the smartest, the most comprehending. … The Jewish people and the Jewish race are of the highest human capital that exists [because] we were blessed by God … I don’t have to be ashamed about the Jewish people being the Chosen People – the smartest, most special people in the world.”

    Source: Miki Zohar on Radio 103FM on Wednesday [June 13] and on Hadashot TV. Quotations from the Times of Israel; and from RT, June 15, 2018, “Israeli MP invokes the supremacy of ‘Jewish race’ in bizarre pro-Netanyahu tirade”.

  • Our ancestors coulda, shoulda been more welcoming 125 years ago, but they were not, and great misery was the result. We could and should be more welcoming of people fleeing violence in Central America and the Middle East today. They are a vexing problems and not likely to be solved while we as human beings are more interested in blaming the other side than we are interested in finding alternatives.

  • As a share of the population yes, but that doesn’t mean the hilonim are suddenly finding religion.