The Avi Chai Foundation is an Israeli organization that works to promote cross-group understanding, particularly between Israeli Jewish religious and non-religious groups. They have just released the results of an extensive survey of religious beliefs and practices in Israel conducted in 2009. The entire report and a shorter profile report are available online. Similar surveys have been administered three times since 1991.
In terms of self-definition, there has been modest growth in the religious sector. Haredim account for seven percent of the population, up from five percent in 1999. Considering their birthrate, this is not a large bump and it would seem to provide support for those who claim that the number of people leaving Orthodox is quite large, but that was not specifically measured. The number of those who describe themselves as simply Orthodox has risen from 11% to 15%. Taken together, this means that 22% are self-described as Haredi or Orthodox, yet interestingly, only 14% say that they “observe meticulously.”
Thirty-two percent of the Jewish population considers itself “traditional.” In Hebrew this is called “masorti.” The Israeli Conservative movement is also called “Masorti,” but lacking capital letters, the Hebrew language does not differentiate the two. Israelis, however, know the difference. These “masorti” Jews are people who like and participate in lots of traditional behaviors but are not Orthodox…or “religious” as they would say in Israel.
Those who say they are secular constitute 49% of the population, down from 52% ten years earlier. However, 59% of those with a university education are secular Jews. Identifying as secular Jews doesn translate to disengagement from Jewish cultural practices, at least on Shabbat when a whopping 84% of all Israelis set aside family time and 69% gather for a special Friday night dinner. Afterward (and this has been my experience with many of my Israeli friends), many gather around the tube. The survey shows that 65% of all Jewish Israelis watches television on Shabbat. A majority also favors allowing retail to remain open, though only 16% go shopping on Shabbat. Sixty-eight percent favor allowing theaters, cinemas and restaurants/cafes to be open on Shabbat.
As for beliefs, it turns out that 80% of Israeli Jews believe that God exists. (On the first copy of the report it said that 80% believe that God “exits.” This was the best typo ever.) There were also high, but decreasing percentages who believe in divine reward and punishment, the power of prayer, life after death, and that the Torah was God-given. A high number also believes that the Jews are the chosen people. This would be more worrisome to me, but they didn’t really clarify what “chosen” means and I have no clue whether this is the unhealthy kind or just people parroting the Jewish mythos. As Tevye lamented, “Once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
I’m not really surprised that 80% believe in God, though I wish the number was lower. Still, the fact that 20% of Israeli Jews say that they do not believe in God at all is a most interesting statistic. It’s lower than in many European nations, but still twice as high as the number of Americans willing to admit to atheism.