All the way over in the middle east, there is a small, totally-not-controversial, seriously everyone just loves them country called Israel. Officially the world’s only Jewish State, it has an extremely long and complicated political and cultural history which more often times than not riles extreme emotions for both the “pro” and “anti” sides. With many saying that it is the historical home of the Jewish people and thus has a right to exist, while others say that it is no better than apartheid South Africa.
While the history and nuances of the conflict would no doubt be an interesting – not to mention long and controversial – post, I want to instead focus on a certain demographic within Israel’s borders. Namely the Jewish demographics.
While Israel is touted as the world’s official Jewish state, as it indeed is the only nation with a majority of Jews, it is technically secular. Judaism is much more than a religion; it is also an ethnicity and a culture, depending on who you ask. As such, what it means to be Jewish to one person will be totally different to another. In general, there are 4 broad categories of Jews who live in Israel.
Disclaimer. I am not Israeli nor have I ever been to Israel. I just happen to find religious demographics of countries to be an interesting topic. I will be making generalizations in order to give the most – if ultimately surface – amount of information. While what I’m going to say is true, there are many, many subgroups within these 4 categories, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems. If I were to go over every single Jewish group in this country and go over every minute detail of their observance and contributions to their country, I would have to write a college thesis. And if there is one thing about me, I am not a scholar.
With that said, let’s start with:
Comprising of roughly 9% of Israel’s Jewish population, “Haredim” is a catch-all term for Jews who have a super-duper-mega-ultra strict observance of Torah and Halakha. Additionally, they stand out from the crowd because they have a way of dressing that separates themselves from the rest of Israeli society and are easily the most religiously observant group of Jews in Israel. With a whopping 95% saying that religion is very important in their lives, 76% who pray daily, and virtually none who travel on the Sabbath.
Haredim tend to be controversial in Israel for a number of reasons, but the most well known is their general refusal to serve in the IDF. You see, many Haredi groups are rather ambivalent to the State of Israel. This is for a number of reasons, but the two more common ones are because it’s secular and wasn’t established by the Messiah. Plus there is a general belief that their prayers for the country do more good than joining the military. At the time of the establishment of Israel, the Haredi population was given exemption from military service. However, given their extremely high birth rates, they’re slated to be around 10% of Israel’s population soon. This conscription exemption has built a lot of resentment from other Israelis and in 2014, there was a legislative vote to end the exemption and there has been a – how do I say – strong reaction from Haredim.
As far as I’m able to tell, this is still an ongoing debate in the government, and I will be the first to admit my ignorance on this subject.
Of course, there are Haredim who do enlist in the IDF, and there is a fair amount of diversity within the Haredim, especially when it comes to the Hasidic groups.
Up next are the Datim, who make up roughly 13% of Israel’s Jewish population. Like the Haredim, they are a very religious group, but there are significant differences.
To begin, they are far more integrated into Israeli Society. While the Haredim are likely to be found studying Torah for the majority of the day and having large families, Datim are more likely to have secular educations and career. Yet, they are just as likely to be observant of Torah and Mitzvot. I suppose the closest North American equivalent would be Modern Orthodoxy.
With that said, there is a bit of a spectrum among the Datim. While most would fall in the Modern Orthodox category, there is a group of Datim who are socially or theologically closer to the Haredim called Chardalim (which means mustard, btw). Likewise, there are Datim who call themselves “Orthodox”, but will drive to Shul on Saturday or use electronics.
Datim are also more likely to identify as Zionists than the Haredim. They, by in large, serve their IDF conscriptions and as a result, sometimes have the label of “National Religious” given to them.
The Masortim are an interesting group. Comprising of about 29% of Israeli Jews, they are what would be called “traditional.” Which basically means that they comprise any of the grey area between Orthodox and secular. At first, I thought the Conservative Movement here in the US was an accurate equivalent, but Israelis have told me that is not correct.
The level of observance and belief among the Masortim are probably the most diverse of all the Jewish groups in Israel. To give you an idea, a Masortim who may not believe in God will still follow mitzvot, because it is culturally important to do so. While a Masorti who does believe in God may not find religion to be that important in their lives. About Half say that religion is somewhat important to their lives. While around 30-ish percent say it’s very important, and 16% say it’s not important at all. About 21% pray daily, 32% attend weekly synagogue, and 41% don’t travel on the Sabbath.
In recent years, there has been a somewhat slow decline in those who identify as Masorti, but this may be due in part to the polarization of religious belief in recent decades.
By far the largest group of Jews in Israel are the Chilonim, who in simplest terms are “secular.” They more or less see their Judaism as a part of their ancestry and culture, while very few see it as a part of their religious life.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all Jews who identify as Chilonim don’t believe in G-d. Many Secular Jews do believe in a higher power, or even in God, but it’s not necessarily a huge part of their lives. In fact, only 2% of Secular Jews say that Religion is important in their lives at all. Despite this, over 80% of Secular Jews in hold Passover seders and a little over half at least light Sabbath candles.
Chilonim are the only Jewish group in Israel who Israel identity came first before their Jewish Identity (around 59%). Nearly all Chilonim drive or travel on the Sabbath, and the majority (94%) do not think that public transport should be closed on the Sabbath. Just like the Haredim and Datim are likely to marry within their own groups, so do the Chilonim have higher rates of marriage with other secular Israelis.
So there you have it: a quick rundown of the 4 Jewish demographics in Israel. Like I said earlier, this wasn’t really meant to be all-encompassing or super detailed, but more or less a general introduction. Being that I myself am an aspiring Jew and find things like population demographics interesting, I hoped it was satisfactory. Who knows? If you’re ever at a dinner party and the Topic of Israel comes up, maybe this will give you enough information to fake a conversation.
Maybe in the future I’ll do one for American Judaism?