What the Demographics of Israel's Fallen Soldiers Reveal about the Country

Many on the Israeli right claim that the soldiers who fight and die for the country no longer belong to the old secular elite but to a rising national-religious one. Are they correct?

Soldiers mourn at the funeral of Israeli soldier Sivan Wail, who was killed in combat in the Gaza Strip, on April 1, 2024 in Ra’anana. Amir Levy/Getty Images.

Soldiers mourn at the funeral of Israeli soldier Sivan Wail, who was killed in combat in the Gaza Strip, on April 1, 2024 in Ra’anana. Amir Levy/Getty Images.

April 8 2024
About the author

Rafi DeMogge is the pseudonym of an Israel-based author and researcher who writes on political demography. You can follow him on Twitter @HeTows.

When I began writing this essay in late February, 236 Israeli soldiers had died in the war on Hamas (and the data to be analyzed below are based on this number). Depressingly, by the time I have finished the number is even more: 260 and counting. Who these soldiers are, and what they represent—the identity of those who give their lives for the nation—has been a subject of heated dispute since the war started.

What is the dispute about? On one hand, large segments of Israeli society hold deep resentment against haredi Jews, who, like Israeli Arabs, are exempt from army service and therefore don’t have to risk their or their children’s lives in war. This resentment is especially strongly felt by secular Jews, most of whom fall on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum.

Many on the Israeli right, on the other hand, have argued for years now much the opposite: that the people at the forefront of defending the state, and those who make the ultimate sacrifice for it, mostly belong to demographics associated with the political right. The seculars who tend to be the most bitter about haredi exemptions might not be draft dodgers, this argument goes, but they still tend to avoid the most dangerous combat roles, preferring technological and intelligence units that usually don’t end up on the front lines. To take one example, in a recent episode of the conservative intellectual Gadi Taub’s popular podcast Shomer Saf (“Gatekeeper”), it was noted that while during the Yom Kippur War kibbutzniks were around a fifth of fallen soldiers, today the secular elite they represented is no longer at the forefront of defending the Zionist project.

Taub’s guest, Shay Kallach, explained further that in his view this change signaled a wider changing of the guard in Israel. To belong to the country’s elite, he argued, means being at the forefront of its major sectors: the economy, academia, the technology sector, the media, and the art world. But in Israel, he added, there is a further institution with a central role in forming the country’s ruling ethos: the army. Historically, Israel’s ruling elite was overrepresented not only in the economy and in academia, but also in the IDF. This has gradually changed, Kallach claims, as that old elite is now withdrawing from service in combat roles. This means that the present situation is laden with tension. Elite status cannot be permanently decoupled from a form of public service as visible and central as service in the IDF’s combat units.

Therefore, Kallach argued, the old secular elite will soon be replaced by a more vigorous Religious Zionist elite, which is eager to risk its life for the nation and is losing soldiers well beyond its share in the general population. Others on the right have likewise claimed that among Israel’s fallen soldiers the share who belong to the so-called “periphery” demographics—meaning, roughly speaking, Jews from religious, Mizrahi, and poorer backgrounds, which tend to vote for the right these days—is also higher than that of the secular population.

How much of these narratives and arguments are true, and how much of them are folklore? In mid-February, the Channel 13 television network published some detailed data on the demographics of the soldiers who have died in the fighting since October 7 (not counting those who were killed in the massacre itself), which means we no longer have to rely on mere guesswork. What these data show is that the Israeli right’s narrative is at least partially correct, but also requires important corrections and qualifications.


The Channel 13 report defines 29 percent of fallen soldiers as religious and 65 percent as secular. (It seems clear that by “secular,” the report means “not strictly religious,” a definition that includes both fully secular and loosely traditionalist soldiers.) Religious Zionists make up about 9 percent of Israel’s total population, which means, if the 29-percent figure is correct, that they are slightly more than threefold overrepresented among Israel’s fallen soldiers. Perhaps surprisingly, the non-religious group also appears to be somewhat overrepresented, by about 35 percent, since it makes up less than half of Israel’s population, but, going by the Channel 13 report, 65 percent of its recent combat deaths. This should seem puzzling only for a moment. Once we remind ourselves that around 35 percent of Israel’s population and 40 percent of its conscription-age men are conscription-exempt Arabs and haredi Jews, it becomes clear how both religious and non-religious Jews can be overrepresented among the fallen. (It’s important to note that the Channel 13 data don’t give us a further breakdown of what it means by “secular” or “non-religious” Jews; we can’t gauge from them the relative balance of secular and loosely traditional Jews within that 65-percent figure.)

We get a similar picture from the soldiers’ educational background, which gives another way of discerning religious identity. Forty-four percent of fallen soldiers studied in the state-religious system, and 55 percent in the state system. (Secular and traditional parents typically send their children to the state system, while religious ones send them to the state-religious system. The same core curriculum is taught in both, but in the state-religious system it’s modified in certain respects to the needs of observant Jews, and there is much more emphasis on Jewish religious studies.) Since 14 percent of the total population went through the state-religious system, they are again around threefold (by 214 percent) overrepresented among the fallen. As above, the non-religious group is overrepresented as well: graduates of the secular state system, about 43 percent of the total population, are overrepresented by 28 percent. Just as above, the overrepresentation of both groups is made possible by the near-complete absence of fallen soldiers who studied in either the Arab or the haredi school systems.

The educational background data reveal a number of further interesting details. The share of state-religious graduates among the fallen is 44 percent, which is about 1.5 times the share of religious Jews among the whole population. This much is hardly surprising and is to be expected in light of the widely estimated 30–40-percent lifelong attrition rate from the Religious Zionist sector. (Meaning, around a third of children who grew up in Religious Zionist households become secular or traditional as adults). The more interesting detail in the school data is that it shows that at least 16 percent of fallen soldiers are yotsim bi-sh’elah, formerly religious Jews who abandoned the religious way of life. (I write “at least” because this calculation assumes that all religious Jews among the fallen were educated in the state-religious system. If some of them are ba’alei t’shuvah, Jews who started in the secular world and then became more religious, then the share of yotsim is even higher.)

Since the share of ex-religious Jews in Israel’s adult population is around 5 percent, ex-religious Jews appear to have the same overrepresentation among Israel’s fallen soldiers that currently religious Jews do. And this gives indirect support to a frequently voiced conviction that is difficult to test by empirical means: that formerly religious Jews are different in important ways from non-religious Jews who didn’t grow up Religious Zionists. According to this notion, there is something about the Religious Zionist mentality that stays with a person even after he takes off his kippah. The data about fallen soldiers confirms this idea. It also, somewhat strangely, means that the state-religious system is more reliable at producing combat soldiers than producing religious Zionists.

The same trend is apparent when we look at where the fallen soldiers lived. Settlers, of whom Religious Zionists form a major chunk, are 5.2 percent of Israel’s population but 16 percent of its fallen soldiers, which gives again a roughly threefold overrepresentation. However, this figure masks an even higher overrepresentation of non-haredi settlers among the fallen, since 37 percent of all settlers are haredi Jews. This means that compared to their share in the general population, non-haredi settlers are nearly fivefold overrepresented among fallen soldiers. (It’s important to note that not all non-haredi settlers are Religious Zionists; a significant minority are secular or traditional, and the 16 percent presumably includes some of them.)


So far, virtually everything I’ve written confirms the right’s narrative. Religious Zionists, settlers, and graduates of the state-religious system are indeed heavily overrepresented among fallen soldiers, though one must consider that non-religious Jews and graduates of the state system are also moderately overrepresented.

There is, however, a further detail that fits the right’s narrative less well. There is another group that is strongly overrepresented among fallen soldiers: kibbutzniks and moshavniks. Today, they make up 5.5 percent of all Israelis but 15 percent of fallen soldiers—a nearly threefold overrepresentation. Is this representation materially different from how it was the state’s earlier years, as the narrative we’re examining goes?

We know that in the Yom Kippur War, 18 percent of fallen soldiers were kibbutzniks, but only 2 percent of Israel’s population, a ninefold overrepresentation. We cannot compare this to the data from the present war with exact precision because we don’t know how many of the soldiers who fell since the start of the war were kibbutzniks and how many moshavniks. But we can say the following with a fairly high level of confidence: although kibbutzniks aren’t as overrepresented among fallen soldiers as they were half a century ago, they are still heavily overrepresented to about the same degree as Religious Zionists and settlers.

One disclaimer to that estimate. Above I noted that not all non-haredi settlers are Religious Zionists. Here, I should similarly add that not all kibbutzniks and moshavniks are secular. Nonetheless, these types of communities are predominantly secular and heavily left-leaning.


What lessons can we draw from these data? The Israeli right’s dominant narrative consists of three claims. The first claim is that the “knitted kippahs”—the Religious Zionists—are now at the forefront of the Zionist project and give their lives for the country way out of proportion to their share in the general population. This is demonstrably true. The Channel 13 report is loud and clear on this score, and while many Israelis on the left don’t want to hear it, there is no point in disputing such an obvious result. Moreover, not only are Religious Zionists themselves overrepresented, so are people from several ecosystems that are primarily built around and by them: settlers and graduates of the state-religious system.

The right’s second much-repeated claim is that the old secular elite is no longer pulling its weight in the army, and if their children enlist at all, they flee from combat units, preferring technological and intelligence units. The Channel 13 poll doesn’t confirm this claim. The poll doesn’t distinguish between secular and traditional Jews, but the two groups together are moderately overrepresented among fallen soldiers, just not as much as Religious Zionists. Barring evidence to the contrary, it’s reasonable to assume that secular Jews do pull their weight in the fighting, and while they aren’t flocking to combat units, they aren’t fleeing from them either. Moreover, a small but historically important demographic that largely (though not entirely) consists of secular Jews, namely kibbutzniks and moshavniks, is still significantly overrepresented at a rate comparable to that of Religious Zionists.

The right’s third popular talking point is that Jews from the periphery do most of the fighting for Israel, while Jews from the center are quietly withdrawing from their duty to defend the country. One problem here is the vagueness of the words “periphery” and “center,” which have no well-defined meaning, only geographic, socioeconomic, and ethnic connotations. And the Channel 13 survey poll doesn’t give enough information to determine the breakdown of fallen soldiers between the two. However, we have some reason to suspect that at least in one important sense, soldiers from the “center,” defined here as those from a higher socioeconomic background, are well represented among the fallen.

First, we have some independent data on the correlation between the socioeconomic status of various precincts and their party preferences. The bottom of the socioeconomic scale—people living in localities ranked from 1 to 4 on a scale of 10—is primarily made up of haredi Jews and Arabs. Next, non-haredi coalition voters—those who voted for the current conservative ruling government—are on average of somewhat lower socioeconomic status than non-Arab opposition voters. Religious Zionists are at 5.21 and Likudniks are at 6.05, while Yisrael Beytenu voters are at 5.90 and Meretz ones at 7.67. Since Haredim and Arabs are almost completely absent from the army, we can therefore assume that most fallen soldiers belong to the middle and upper-middle classes.

Second, residents of kibbutzim and moshavim tend to rank highly on the socioeconomic scale. Since soldiers hailing from such places are highly overrepresented among the fallen, it follows that a portion of the center—of the middle to upper-middle class—is too.

I began this accounting with the often-cited view that public service, and the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the country, are part of what it means to belong to the elite—at least in the Israeli context, where the army continues to be the most trusted public institution and an essential part of the social fabric. What are we to think, then, of predictions of elite replacement? According to the story told by the aforementioned numbers, Religious Zionists indeed excel at a crucial aspect of public service: risking their life for the Jewish state. Religious Zionists also have a respectable presence in academia, in the internal security services (between 2011 and 2013, both the head of Shin Bet and Israel’s national security advisor were religious Zionists); and as many readers remember, in 2021–2022 Israel also had its first Religious Zionist prime minister in Naftali Bennett. Still, Religious Zionists are only a minority of fallen soldiers, and are about as overrepresented as kibbutzniks and moshavniks, a traditionally left-leaning demographic. And while the world of the kibbutzim may have waned in its significance since the Yom Kippur War, its old elite continues to be important and to lead by example. In other words, while Religious Zionists lack the demographic weight to replace the old secular elite, they are in a strong position to join it, and in some respects have already done so.

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics