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Poll: Who is a Jew?

A vast majority of Jews in Israel (70%) don't accept that someone can be Jewish by patrilineal descent, according to a newly released poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). The poll is the IDI's biennial statistical report on religion and state and comes ahead of an annual conference. It serves as an in-depth look at the balance between religion and state that is so central to Israel and Israeli society.

In addition to focusing heavily on the role of Shabbat in Israel, a considerable part of the report focused on questions relating to Jewish identities, such as who should be defined as a Jew and conversion.

Who is a Jew?

Judaism traditionally holds that the Jewish identity can only be passed down through one's mother, which is referred to as matrilineal descent. If only one's father is Jewish, which would be patrilineal descent, then they are not usually counted as being Jewish.  

This, in turn, is something that most Jewish Israelis agree with, with 70% saying patrilineal descent is not valid for conferring Jewishness. By contrast, 26% of Jewish Israelis do consider patrilineal descent as valid, while 4% don't know.

What do Jewish Israelis think of non-Orthodox conversions?

Most non-religious Jewish Israelis (67%) consider non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as valid Jews. However, this does not hold water with the majority of Jewish Israelis in the country. 

Specifically, 44% of Jewish Israelis do not view non-Orthodox converts as valid Jews, with 40% disagreeing and 16% being unsure. However, a wider majority of Jewish Israelis (69%) fully trust the Orthodox conversion carried out by the IDF.

Right of return in Israel

Both of these factors relate to Israel's Law of Return, which allows Jews to have citizenship in Israel. 

According to the Law of Return, patrilineal descent is a valid way to claim Jewishness and citizenship, as the law only requires a minimum of one grandparent being Jewish. However, these olim will not be considered Jewish by the Rabbinate, which controls several important institutions such as marriage, which can therefore cause problems for patrilineally descendant Jewish immigrants to Israel.

Conversion is also a factor, as many of those who have converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox streams are also eligible for aliyah should they convert in Israel, but that does not necessarily mean they are accepted.

Do Israelis trust rabbinic institutions?

Israelis have mixed feelings regarding the Jewish religious institutions in the country, with no single institution having a majority of support.

The two institutions with the most trust are the Hevra Kadisha burial societies (45%) and municipal rabbis (38%). By contrast, the Chief Rabbinate has just 34% and Rabbinical Courts have just 32.5%. Religious Councils are even lower, at just 28%, and only a mere 14% of Jewish Israelis trust the Religious Services Ministry.

This is a stark contrast to Israel's Arab sector, which holds its religious institutions in far higher esteem and trust than Jewish Israelis.

How do Jewish Israelis feel about burial?

The majority (65%) of Jewish Israelis are in favor of Jewish religious burials, which are typically traditional ceremonies. However, some (12%) prefer a civil burial and 5% even prefer cremation - the latter being absolutely forbidden under Jewish law.

Overall, the secular Jewish Israeli public was far more diverse in their opinions.