Compared with its large presence in the United States, the Reform movement plays a minor role in Israel. How minor, exactly, has been a matter of some debate, as Shmuel Rosner, who has looked into the matter, writes. Estimates of Israelis self-identifying as Reform have varied wildly, from three percent to eight percent to thirteen percent to one percent. What accounts for this, and what does it say about Israeli Judaism? Could it be that Reform in Israel functions as a political identifier and not a religious one?
Which is it? This question cannot be answered by mathematics but depends on definitions and expectations. When Israelis are asked about being Reform (or Conservative), their response is inconsistent; the way they decide whether to identify themselves as Reform Jews seems to depend even more than usual on the framework in which the question is posed.
In the course of one year, we asked the same people four times if they were Reform. My colleague Noah Slepkov found that not even one respondent answered this question affirmatively all four times. This suggests that “Reform” is an occasional identity. It may be that sometimes, when they feel like it, Israelis will say they are Reform, but at other times they will say they are “secular” and belong to “no stream.” Why would they even say they are Reform? With the benefit of anecdotal evidence, we are inclined to take a leap and speculate that the reason is mostly political: by saying they are Reform, they establish their antipathy to Orthodox Judaism, and even more so to the Orthodox Israeli establishment.
So is Reform Judaism a religious identity in Israel, or largely a political sentiment that carries no consistent commitment to an ongoing religious practice? The numbers suggest it’s the latter. And that suggestion carries two contradictory lessons. The first is that the Orthodox establishment being rigid and annoying is the main driver of Reform growth in Israel. The second is that the advantage of Orthodoxy will be hard to overcome with Reform troops of such low commitment.