Israel’s Religiously Divided Society
10. Religion, politics and public life
Israeli law defines the country as a Jewish and a democratic state, and there is widespread agreement among Israeli Jews that their country’s Jewish identity is compatible with democratic principles. About three-in-four Jews – including majorities of all four Jewish identity groups – say the country can be both a Jewish and a democratic state.
But there are wide gulfs among Jews on what it means to live in a Jewish state and the role religion should play in public life. For example, most Haredi adults say if there is a contradiction between Jewish law (halakha) and democracy, halakha should take precedence. The vast majority of Hilonim, by comparison, say democracy should take priority over halakha if there is a contradiction between the two.
Haredim consistently favor regulating public life in accordance with Jewish beliefs and practices, while Hilonim are consistently opposed to this. For example, the vast majority of Haredim are opposed to having public transport operate on Shabbat, while Hilonim heavily favor running public transportation on the Jewish day of rest.
Arabs in Israel generally think the principles of democracy and those of a Jewish state are incompatible. Majorities of Muslims, Christians and Druze in Israel say Israel cannot be both a democracy and a Jewish state. And if there is a contradiction between the principles of democracy and those of Jewish law, large majorities of these groups say democracy should be favored.
Jews say Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state
Haredim are less likely than other Jewish groups to say Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state. Nevertheless, a majority of Haredi adults (58%) say democracy and the Jewish character of Israel are compatible. By comparison, 79% of Datiim, 80% of Masortim and 76% of Hilonim say this.
Comparing the results of the current survey to a similar question asked in the 2009 Guttman-Avi Chai survey shows stability over time in Israeli Jews’ views on the compatibility between democracy and the Jewish state. About three-in-four Jews in 2009 (73%) said Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state, roughly the same proportion who take this position today (76%). Roughly one-quarter of Jews continue to say democracy and the Jewish state are not compatible (or do not take a clear position on the issue).
The 2009 Guttman survey used slightly different question wording – “In your opinion, can Israel be both a Jewish state that observes halakha and a democratic state?” The current survey does not make a reference to observing halakha in the question wording. (For full question wording, see the topline questionnaire.)
Arabs disagree sharply with Jews on whether Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state. A majority of Arabs in Israel (64%) – including most Muslims, Christians and Druze – say Israel’s Jewish character is incompatible with the principles of democracy.
While most Israeli Jews say their country can be Jewish and democratic simultaneously, the survey also asked whether Jewish law or democratic principles should take precedence in the event of a hypothetical conflict between the two. A majority of Israeli Jews (62%) say the State of Israel should give preference to democracy in such a scenario, while roughly a quarter (24%) say Jewish law should take priority and 13% say it depends on the situation or volunteer another response.
But there are major differences on this question among Jews from different religious identity groups. Very few Haredim (3%) and just 11% of Datiim say democracy should be given preference over halakha. Meanwhile, about nine-in-ten Hilonim (89%) say democracy should be the priority. On this question, Masortim fall in the middle of the spectrum; 56% favor democracy and 23% favor halakha, while 17% say “it depends” or give another response.
Russian-speaking Jews heavily favor democracy over halakha (74% vs. 5%), but nearly all Yiddish-speaking Jews in Israel say halakha should take precedence over democratic principles if there is a conflict.
Israeli Jews with a college degree are more likely than those with less education to say the State of Israel should give preference to democracy over halakha in the case of a conflict between the two. And those who received their highest formal schooling from a secular institution are far more likely than those with a religious education to say this.
Arabs in Israel are more likely than Jews to say democracy should be given preference over Jewish law in the event of a hypothetical contradiction between the two (81% vs. 62%). Among Arabs, just 9% say Jewish law should be given priority, while about the same proportion do not provide a clear answer to this question.
Large majorities of Muslims, Christians and Druze in Israel say the state should give priority to democracy over Jewish law.
Most Jews say religion should be kept separate from government
Six-in-ten Israeli Jews say religion should be kept separate from government policies, while roughly a third (36%) say government policies should promote religious beliefs and values in Israel.
An overwhelming majority of Hilonim (88%) prefer religion and government to remain separate. But similarly large shares of Haredim (82%) and Datiim (80%) say government policies should promote religious values and beliefs. Masortim are about evenly split, with similar shares taking each position.
Israeli Jews with a college degree are more likely than those with less education to say religion and government should be kept separate. And those with a secular education are far more likely than those who received their highest formal education from a religious institution to say this (62% vs. 18%).
Majority of Jews oppose making halakha state law for Jews in Israel
A majority of Israeli Jews oppose making halakha the law of the land for Jews in Israel (64%), while roughly three-in-ten (29%) say Jewish law should be the official law of the land for Jews in their country.
Similar to other issues relating to religion in public life, there is a major secular-religious divide on this issue. Among Haredim, 86% favor making halakha the state law for Jews in Israel. Meanwhile, nine-in-ten Hilonim (90%) oppose this. Datiim are more in line with Haredim on this issue; 69% say they favor making halakha the official law for Jews in Israel, while most Masortim (57%) oppose this.
Somewhat more Jewish men (33%) than women (24%) in Israel favor making Jewish religious law the state law for Jews. The differences between men and women on this issue largely stem from a gender gap among Masortim; 38% of Masorti men favor halakha as state law, compared with 26% of Masorti women. No significant differences are seen between the views of men and women within other Jewish subgroups.
Muslims were asked whether they favor making sharia law the official law for Muslims in Israel, while Christians were asked if they favor making the Bible the official law of the land for Christians in the country. A slim majority of Muslims (58%) and 55% of Christians favor making religious law the official law for their communities.
Among Muslims, adults who pray at least once a day are more likely than those who pray less often to say they favor making sharia law the official law for Muslims in Israel (67% vs. 45%). This pattern is consistent with Muslims in other countries, according to previous Pew Research Center surveys that asked about support for sharia among Muslims worldwide.
Views on religion and public life
Shutting down public transport on Shabbat
Consistent with their overall views on religion and government, a majority of Jews oppose shutting down public transport on Shabbat (63%), while roughly a third (35%) say they favor shutting down public transport in the entire country during Shabbat.26
An overwhelming share of Haredim (96%) are in favor of shutting down public transport in observance of the Sabbath, while about the same proportion of Hilonim (94%) disagree.
The vast majority of Datiim (85%) support shutting down public transport during Shabbat. Masortim are divided on the issue, with 44% saying they favor shutting down public transport and 52% saying they oppose it.
Masorti men are more likely than Masorti women to favor shutting down public transport on Shabbat (49% vs. 38%). Older Masortim (ages 50 and older) also are somewhat more likely than younger Masortim to favor this policy (50% vs. 40%).
Allowing women to pray at the Western Wall
In Judaism, the Kotel, or Western Wall, is regarded as the holiest place where Jews are legally allowed to pray; Jews are not permitted to pray at the adjacent Temple Mount, which is now the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, was the ancient site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. Current regulations prevent women from reading Torah out loud at the Kotel, but the Israeli Cabinet recently approved plans for a mixed-gender prayer site at the Western Wall, which would be separate from the main Orthodox prayer site.
At the time the survey was conducted, Israeli Jews were about evenly divided between those who favor (45%) and oppose (47%) allowing women to pray out loud at the Kotel. Haredim are generally opposed to allowing women to pray out loud at the Western Wall (81%). By comparison, 55% of Hilonim favor allowing women to pray at the Kotel, compared with 35% who are opposed. Two-thirds of Datiim oppose allowing women to pray at the Kotel, while Masortim are closely divided on this issue (44% favor, 48% oppose).
Israeli Jewish men are more likely than women to say they oppose allowing women to pray at the Kotel (53% vs. 42%). This difference is particularly pronounced among Datiim and Masortim: Among Dati men, about three-quarters (76%) say they oppose women praying at the Western Wall, compared with a slim majority of women (57%). Among Masortim, about half of men (55%) are opposed to women praying out loud at the Kotel, compared with 41% of women.
Most Jews favor drafting Haredi men into military
While military service is mandatory for all Jewish Israeli citizens, there are a few exemptions – including the Tal law, which has historically allowed full-time yeshiva students to defer their service. The vast majority of full-time yeshiva students are Haredi men, which effectively means that many Haredi men have been exempt from military service. A 2014 law would have changed that, but that law has been effectively reversed by the new Israeli government.
The survey asked respondents if Haredi men should be drafted into the military. Overall, roughly seven-in-ten Jews (72%) favor drafting Haredi men. This includes nine-in-ten Hilonim and seven-in-ten Masortim.
Haredim, unsurprisingly, stand out from other Jewish subgroups for their strong opposition to applying the military draft to men in their community; 83% of Haredim oppose this. Datiim are more divided; about half (54%) say Haredi men should be drafted into the military, while four-in-ten (41%) disagree.
Slightly more Jewish men (26%) than women (2o%) oppose a military draft for Haredi men – a pattern that largely stems from differences in opinion between Masorti men and women. Masorti men are more likely than women to oppose drafting Haredi men (30% vs. 19%).
Jews oppose enforcing gender segregation on public transport used by Haredim
Once again, Haredim stand out from other Jewish groups in their views on this issue; a majority of Haredim (62%) say they favor separating men and women on the public buses and trains used by members of their community. Majorities of Datiim (63%), Masortim (79%) and especially Hilonim (93%) oppose gender segregation on public transportation, even if it is used by Haredim.
Three-quarters or more of both Jewish women (80%) and men (78%) oppose gender segregation on public transportation, as do similar shares of older (ages 50 and up) and younger adults. And within each of the four major Jewish identity groups, there are no significant differences on this issue between men and women and Jews of different ages.
More than half of Jews oppose allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct marriages
Currently, only Orthodox rabbis are allowed to conduct marriages in Israel. More than half of all Israeli Jews (54%) favor the status quo, meaning they oppose extending this privilege to Conservative and Reform rabbis. But four-in-ten Israeli Jews support a change to this policy, saying non-Orthodox rabbis should be allowed to officiate marriages in the country. (See the sidebar below for more details on marriage and divorce in Israel.)
Few Israeli Jews identify with the Conservative or Reform movements. But Hilonim stand out from other groups for their support of Conservative and Reform rabbis being able to conduct marriages in Israel. Nearly two-thirds of Hilonim (65%) say they favor this, compared with very few Haredim (2%) and Datiim (7%).
Despite the fact that Masortim are sometimes compared with Conservative Jews in the U.S. (and “Masorti” is the Hebrew name of the Conservative movement in Israel), just 24% of Masortim favor allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to officiate marriages in Israel.
Jewish women are somewhat more likely than men to support allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct marriages (43% vs. 36%). This gap is driven largely by Masorti women, who are twice as likely as Masorti men to say they favor this change (32% vs. 16%).
Marriage and divorce in Israel
In Israel, marriage and divorce are officially conducted only within religious courts and according to religious law. This applies to all residents in the country – whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze. For Christians, there are several recognized ecclesiastical courts that are used by members of specific Christian denominations.27 No civil marriages are conducted in Israel, although civil marriages conducted in other countries are recognized.
All marriages between Jews in Israel are conducted by Orthodox rabbis according to halakhic law, as specified by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.28 This applies to all Israeli Jewish groups – Haredi, Dati, Masorti and Hiloni.
Interreligious marriages generally are prohibited in Israeli religious courts.29 Consequently, most interreligious marriages are conducted in civil courts outside the country. Marrying outside Israel also is common among some Jewish couples if one of the partners is not considered halakhically Jewish (for example, if only his/her father was Jewish).
When it comes to divorce, couples married within Israel who wish to end their marriage must return to the religious courts.30 According to halakhic law, divorce within Judaism requires what is called a gett, or bill of divorce that a husband gives to his wife. The gett originates from the Book of Deuteronomy within the Torah:
A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her and sends her away from his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1)31
A gett is a court procedure where a beit din – a court of three rabbis – is present, along with the couple and two witnesses. An official scribe of the court writes the gett in front of the court and the couple. Then the husband hands the document to his wife – thereby formally dissolving the marriage.
Under some interpretations of Jewish law, the wife’s consent also is required – but only after the husband initiates the request for divorce. Under current law in Israel, a Jewish wife may not initiate a divorce.32
Most Jews say consent of both parties should not be requirement for divorce
In Israel, a woman in a Jewish marriage must have her husband’s consent to obtain a divorce. A husband may or may not require his wife’s consent to end their marriage. (See above sidebar on marriage and divorce in Israel.)
About seven-in-ten Israeli Jews (69%) say a wife should have the right to divorce her husband without his consent. However, there are differences of opinion among Jews belonging to different subgroups.
Among Orthodox Jews, most Haredim (59%) say a wife should not have the right to divorce her husband unless he consents. And views among Datiim are mixed; 49% favor allowing a wife to end her marriage without her husband’s consent, while 43% oppose this.
Majorities of both Jewish men and women say a wife should have the right to divorce her husband without his consent, although women are more apt than men to say this (75% vs. 62%). This pattern holds across different categories of Jewish religious identity. For example, 34% of Haredi women say a wife should have the right to divorce without her husband’s consent, compared with 22% of Haredi men.
Depending on the Jewish school of thought, a husband may or may not need his wife’s consent to end their Jewish marriage. Overall, roughly seven-in-ten Jews (69%) say a wife’s consent should not be required for a husband to get a divorce – virtually identical to the share saying a husband’s consent should not be necessary for a wife to end her marriage.
Again, there are divides on this issue between Jews belonging to different subgroups, although they are not as large as the differences on the previous question.
Although most Haredim say a wife must have her husband’s consent to seek a divorce, they do not necessarily feel the same way about whether a husband needs his wife’s consent. About half of Haredim in Israel (51%) say a husband should be able to end his marriage without his wife’s consent, while one-third say a wife’s consent should be necessary for divorce.
Datiim look similar to Haredim on this question; roughly half (53%) agree that a husband should not need his wife’s consent to get a divorce, while 37% take the opposite view, saying that a wife’s consent should be necessary.
Among Masortim (62%) and Hilonim (80%), the majority view is that a husband should have the right to divorce his wife without her consent, just as they say a wife should have the right to divorce her husband without his consent.
About two-thirds of both Jewish men (69%) and women (68%) say a wife’s consent should not be necessary for a husband to get a divorce.
Arabs in Israel were also asked about the rights of wives and husbands to divorce without their spouse’s consent. Generally, Arabs are more likely than Jews to see the consent of both spouses as a prerequisite for divorce.
Overall, Arabs are about equally likely to say a wife must have a husband’s consent to get divorced (48%) and that a husband must have a wife’s consent to divorce (53%).
Muslim women are more likely than Muslim men to say a wife’s consent should be required for a husband to end his marriage (60% vs. 46%).
- Currently, most public transport in Israel does not run on Shabbat. ↩
- See May 1, 2014. “Focus on Israel: The Christian Communities of Israel.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ↩
- The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is recognized by law as the head of religious law and spiritual authority for the Jewish people in Israel. The rabbinate has jurisdiction over many aspects of Jewish life in Israel, including marriage and divorce, burials, conversion, kosher certification and supervision of the holy sites. ↩
- Sharia courts, however, do allow Muslim men to marry Christian or Jewish women. See “The Sharia Courts.” Israel Ministry of Justice. ↩
- For interfaith couples married abroad, divorce in Israel can be obtained through a civil process. See “Marriage Information.” U.S. Citizen Services, Embassy of the United States, Tel Aviv, Israel. ↩
- See “Ki Tetzei.” The Jewish Theological Seminary. ↩
- A rabbi may administer a “forced divorce.” There are specific circumstances referenced within the Torah that allow a rabbi to legally force a gett (if the husband has boils, leprosy, sterility or other ailments). ↩