46. Is Israel Becoming More Religious?

For the first time in its history, Israel has a Prime Minister who wears a kipa (the skullcap of Orthodoxy). Is this an outward sign of a inward demographic shift toward a more religious public, if not religious domination?

No. Naftali Bennett's rise is a function of the vagaries of Israeli politics, not a rise of religiosity. Some observers claim that Israel's population is becoming more religious because Orthodox families have more children. But while religious families are indeed larger, there is no apparent demographic shift.

In perspective, modernizing societies -- like Israel -- usually become more secular over time. Israel is not immune to these general trends; the larger size of Orthodox families is countered by the forces of secularization.

In a 1979 survey, 42 percent of Israelis identified themselves as "secular," 41 percent as "traditional," and 17 percent as "religious" (Orthodox) or “haredi” (ultra-Orthodox). (In the Israeli context, "traditional" refers to those observing religion more as custom than as law, primarily people of Middle Eastern background.)

The figures in a similar 2020 survey had hardly shifted: 43 percent secular, 35 percent traditional, 11 percent religious, and 10 percent haredi. Apart from the pressures of secularization, these numbers also reflect the immigration of largely-secular Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Clearly projections based on fertility rates alone are misleading. A Taub Center study shows a steady rate of transfer from the state religious schools, and from the independent haredi schools, to secular schools. A survey of the Pew Research Center has shown that only half of Jews raised as "religious," and two-thirds of those from "traditional" homes, remain identified as such.

Israel has not escaped the reality that challenges to strict observance abound in every sphere of modern life: mass culture, cosmopolitan cuisines, social and recreational activities, and the general penetration of Western models and values.

Is the haredi community, with the largest families, an exception to this? It now constitutes 10 percent (12-13 percent by some estimates) of Israel. Based on family size alone, it could grow to 24 percent by 2040 and 40 percent by 2065.

But again experience has shown that the difference in the average number of children is only part of the picture. Were it totally determinant, haredi numbers would already be well above what they are now.

Israel is, and will remain, a deeply divided society. Former President Reuven Rivlin put this in colorful terms by describing Israel as divided into four tribes: secular, national religious, haredi, and Arab. The balance among the tribes may shift from time to time, but none are going away and secular Israel is holding its own.