Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Be wary. Be very wary when reporting survey results, those microwave-ready story hooks -- perfect for slow news days -- that purport to provide objective data revealing, well, sometimes nothing. That goes double for polls that claim to measure religious beliefs and practices.

That's because all but the very best crafted ones fail to get anywhere close to the subtleties that turn generalized numbers into accurate snapshots of how beliefs and practices truly play out in individual lives.

Case in point: A recent WIN/Gallup International survey claiming to measure religious belief around the world. One of the nations surveyed was Israel, where religion is as politicized as it is anywhere, making it particularly difficult to label individual religious choices.

Take, for example, my Israeli-born wife's cousin, Ayala. She's a leader in her Jerusalem synagogue but would probably physically recoil if you called her religious because of the divisive social and political connotations the term carries in Israel.

Ayala speaks contemptuously of those theologically ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who consider themselves the only true practitioners of Judaism in Israel. Nor does she speak well of the politically right wing Orthodox Zionist hardliners who are the backbone of the West Bank settler movement.

Want to get into a sure fire argument in Israel? Just broach the subject of the thin divide (by U.S. standards, at least) between religion and state there. Here's a recent New York Times story on public bus service on the Sabbath that provides useful background.

We'll get back to Ayala and her husband Zvi. But first let's explore the WIN/Gallup poll a bit.

Mercifully, my Web search turned up hardly any coverage in English-language media of the survey's findings (.pdf here). (Read the disclaimer at the bottom of the link; WIN/Gallup International is distinct from what most would normally regard as an authoritative Gallup poll.)
I say mercifully because the survey appears deeply flawed. A shade less than 64,000 individuals in just 65 nations -- hardly global when the world has more than 190 fully independent nations -- were asked whether they are "either not religious or convinced atheists," regardless of whether or not they attend "a place of worship."

However, the poll did receive news coverage in Israel, probably because it claimed that 65 percent of Israelis said they are not religious or are "convinced" atheists, while just 30 percent said they were religious. Imagine that. The Holy Land -- where Judaism, Islam and Christianity have and still do compete fiercely for influence and real estate -- is majority secular. 

But hold on there. The survey is devoid of any follow up questions designed to dig deeper into what religious and non-religious means to those polled. Moreover, it does not identify whether those questioned were Jews, Muslims, Christians or something else. A casual reader might assume Israelis means Jews. They would be wrong because about 20 percent of Israel's population is Arab. Most are Muslim, but a goodly number are Christian.

Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Post, Israel's center-right English daily (except for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath), made that assumption. Here's the entire Post article. And here's a chunk of it that I find most pertinent.

WIN/Gallup International’s findings seem to directly contradict a 2009 study by the Israel Democracy Institute which found that while religious observance in Israel declined in the decade following the influx of Soviet immigrants after the end of the Cold War, it has since risen and “to a great extent” there was actually an increase in those who observe Jewish traditions.
More than 60% of respondents in the IDI’s study indicated that “tradition is ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ in their choice of a spouse,” while 80% affirmed their belief in God, either wholeheartedly or with occasional doubts.
Moreover, 67% answered that they believe that Jews are the “chosen people” while 65% deemed the Torah and its commandments to be God-given.
Ninety percent celebrate the Passover Seder, 67% are careful not to eat hametz (leaven) during Passover, 68% fast on Yom Kippur and 36% listen to the megila (the Book of Esther) on Purim. A majority of respondents (85%) said it is “important to celebrate Jewish festivals in the traditional manner."

So what does it mean to be a non-religious Israeli Jew when 80 percent say they believe in God all or most of the time, but far fewer say they adhere closely to Judaism's rabbinically instituted, traditional religious laws known collectively in Hebrew as Halacha?

Let's return to Ayala and Zvi to help us understand the complexity involved in answering that question, regardless of what a simple yes-or-no survey claims to reveal.

Ayala, a retired social worker, comes from a secular German Jewish background, while Zvi, a journalist (he's the dean of the Knesset, or parliament, press corps) comes from an Iraqi Jewish family that has lived for many generations in what is now Israel. Together, they revived a Masorti (the Israeli term for what Americans call Conservative Judaism) synagogue in Jerusalem. Zvi, the more biblically learned of the two, general presents a talk on the weekly Torah portion to the small congregation. At home, Ayala lights the sabbath candles, and Zvi says the prayers over the challah bread and wine. More often than not, their Friday night dinners are family gatherings.

But the meal they eat is not kosher, and generally that's also the case for the restaurants they frequent. They wouldn't use the term, but I think of them as closer to being what American Jews know as Reconstructionist Judaism, the newest and smallest branch of organized North American Judaism. Reconstructionists value tradition and Jewish culture, but need not believe in the traditional Jewish concept of God or adhere to Halacha in all its fullness.

So are they religious or not? I'd say they qualify. They're certainly not traditionally religious -- not in practice, anyway -- but there are millions of Israeli Jews like them. They may go to synagogue on Saturday mornings but then to a stadium football (soccer to us) match in the afternoon. They may eat non-kosher food and prefer the beach over synagogue, but they wouldn't think of eating leavened bread during Passover.

Ayala and Zvi are but one example of Israeli Jewish religious diversity. Likewise, Israel is just one example of how religious belief and practice are far more personalized than surveys usually convey. Remember that when generalizing about a religious community, any community in any nation -- no matter what a survey tells you.

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