Commentary Magazine

Religion in Israel

To the Editor:

Milton Himmelfarb’s comments on my Ammot article, “Political and Social Attitudes in Israel” have just reached me [“How Many Israels?,” January]. I am, of course, a bit pleased, though also puzzled, by his statement that “reading the study, one becomes interested in Antonovsky.” But even if we assume that my slip does show, I put the data in the hands of the reader. Mr. Himmelfarb rightly wants his slip to show, but this leads him to misreport and misinterpret. Rather than polemicize, I think, the reader might best be served if I present the entire section of my article on which his comments were based. My article, incidentally, was originally written in English, although the translation had my approval.

Let us start with two items bearing on the issue of the role of religion in Israeli society. How religious is the Israeli population? Obviously the answer to this question depends on how it is asked. Because this is so controversial an issue, let me cite the precise wording of the question. The interviewer read it and the four alternative answers, and the respondent was asked to select the one which was most appropriate to him.

Do you observe the religious tradition?

  1. I definitely observe all its commandments;
  2. I observe religious commandments for the most part;
  3. I observe traditions to some extent;
  4. I am not at all observant; completely secular.

The reader—particularly if he has never engaged in social research—will probably find some arbitrariness or imprecision in the alternatives as they are here stated. I find sufficient comfort in the fact that only 4 of the 1,470 people were unable to answer the question as posed, a number far smaller than on most other questions.

In the total population, we find that 30 per cent can reasonably be called religious (equally divided between 1 and 2). The third alternative contains the largest group—46 per cent—and 24 per cent of the population is completely secular.

The first item relates to quasi-public reporting of personal behavior. Since norms operating in both directions are equally acceptable—i.e., it is entirely legitimate to be either completely religious or completely secular, albeit in different segments of Israeli society—there is no reason to believe that actual, behavior varies considerably from what is reported. Our second item is more political: Should the government, we asked, see to it that public life be conducted in accordance with Jewish religious tradition?

The most significant aspect of the replies is a tendency toward polarization. The near-secular are now the smallest and not the largest group: only 16 per cent answer “probably not.” The anti-clerical group (“definitely not”) is now the largest (37 per cent), while 23 per cent take the extreme opposite position (“definitely”), and 20 per cent say “probably yes.” Four per cent did not reply.

If we consider the responses to the two questions jointly, we get the following picture:

22 per cent—clerical (those who take only a pro-religious position on both questions.

49 per cent—anti-clerical (those who take only a pro-secular position on both questions).

19 per cent—those who though personally near-secular or secular favor a religious public life.

6 per cent—those who though personally religious are op posed to a religious public life.

Aaron Antonovsky
The Israel Institute of Applied Social Research
Jerusalem, Israel



Mr. Himmelfarb writes:

Misreport and misinterpret? Dr. Antonovsky has presented his text. It does not justify his treating the partly observant as secular (ist) or his using the good-guy and bad-guy terms clerical and anti-clerical. Having read the text, can anyone tell me—can Antonovsky tell me—how an average “anti-clerical” is apt to feel about, say, the toda’ah yehudit (“Jewish consciousness”) program in the Israeli schools, or the Purim hoopla in the streets of Tel Aviv?

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