Yes, it’s true! 2.0 million Jews (around 33% of the Jewish population) identify themselves as secular
Surveys have shown that Israel – The Holy Land – has one of the highest proportions of non believers in the world! Zuckerman in a 1995 survey found a figure of between 15 – 37%; Greely and Jagodinsky found around 26% in 1991.
Extrapolating these figures to the present day, produces a figure of around 2.0 million. Israel’s non- Jewish population was included in the surveys but this is misleading.
Whilst a few Christians might be secret non believers, it is extremely unlikely that this would be true of Muslims. Consequently the true percentage, just for Jews, is higher. For the purposes of this article the quoted percentages will suffice.
What is Jewish Atheism?
“Jewish atheism is practiced by atheists who are ethnically, and to some extent culturally, Jewish. Because Jewishness encompasses ethnic as well as religious components, the term “Jewish atheism” does not necessarily imply any kind of contradiction. Based on Jewish law’s emphasis on matrilineal descent, Orthodox Jewish authorities would accept as fully Jewish an atheist born to a Jewish mother.
A high percentage of Israelis identify themselves as secular, rejecting the practice of the Jewish religion. While some non-believers of Jewish ancestry do not consider themselves Jews, preferring to define themselves solely as atheists, Judaism is arguably the paradigm example of the evolution of a culture and tradition that one can embrace without religious faith.”
Simply put, Judaism is more about actions; less about belief.
How does Atheism exist in Israel, in what many regard as a religious fundamentalist society?
The short answer is that it seems to exist very well. Contrary to the widely held concept, Orthodox Jews are a very small proportion of the population.
As of 2009:
- 8% of Israeli Jews defined themselves as Haredim (ultra-Orthodox)
- 12% as “religious”
- 13% as “religious-traditionalists
- 25% as “non-religious-traditionalists” (not strictly adhering to Jewish law)
- and 42% as “secular”
However, due to the vagaries of the proportional representational political system, few coalition governments have ever been formed without the involvement of religious parties.
Consequently they exert both political and social influence out of proportion to their numerical strength in the population. For example, until recently, civil marriage in Israel was not possible. Everything to do with marriage, divorce and other family matters had to pass through the religious authorities. A law was passed recently that permitted civil marriage, but ONLY between couples who could prove that they belonged to no religion.
In practice this is almost impossible. Whether this difficulty will be eased in the future, depends on how the courts deal with the new situation created by the famous writer Yoram Kanuik:
“In May 2011, Kaniuk petitioned the Israeli Interior Ministry to change his religion status from “Jewish” to “no religion.” He cited the fact that his child and infant grandson, because they are descended from a mixed marriage, are legally of no religion, and his desire not to belong to a “Jewish Iran ” or “what is today called the religion of Israel.” In October 2011, a district court judge approved his petition, meaning that Kaniuk is now considered a Jew by nationality, but not by religion. Hundreds of other Israelis intend to do the same; a new verb, lehitkaniuk (to Kaniuk oneself) was coined.”
What effect do Atheists have on the structure of this society.
In spite of the best efforts of the Orthodox Jews, Israel remains, essentially, an Open, Liberal and Pluralistic society. In the fields of Equality for Women, and Gay Rights, Israel is not only unique in the entire Middle East but is on a par with any country in the world. Gay pride events are held annually in major cities, INCLUDING Jerusalem. LGBT societies are active, and Tel Aviv is an internationally promoted center for Gay tourism. A substantial number of gays are secular.
Naked in the Holy Land
A major event which took place in September 2011 was a photo shoot organised by the well known American photographer and artist, Spencer Tunick, This involved 1200 Israelis volunteering to be photographed naked in the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea was nominated as one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. This activity was designed to give a boost to its application. The resulting international publicity was massive. Since the event took place on a Saturday morning (the Jewish Sabbath) and involved travelling to and from the location by bus, it is safe to assume that none of the participants was religious. ( full disclosure: I was one of them!). Of course, the other aspect of the event was that it could take place at all. Again, in this area of the world, such openness is ONLY possible in Israel.
It is said that Israel is one of the few countries in the world in which an Atheist can be elected President or Prime Minister. Could this happen, for example, in America? It has already happened here.
Prime Minister Golda Meir, when pressed on her belief in God, sidestepped the issue by saying: “I believe in the Jewish People; and the Jewish People believe in God”
The founder of Modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an atheist, as were many of Israel’s “Founding Fathers” including its first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. Indeed it would be true to say that, had it not been for a substantial number of non believing Jews, the State of Israel would not have come into being.
Now, is that a paradox or what!