A Shande Vor De Goyim: Israelis Are as Creationist as US Non-Jews

While exploring Israeli politicians’ views on evolution, and the similar rate at which the US and Israeli public rejects evolution, I wondered how the Israeli public would compare with Jews in the US. It seems more apt to compare the 5.4 million US Jews to the 6.1 million Israeli Jews (or 8 million Israelis) than comparing the US at large to Israel at large, after all.

Graph of poll responses from Israel, and from US Jews and non-Jews. Roughly equal numbers of Israelis and US non-Jews reject evolution, while US Jews are far more accepting of evolution than IsraelisWhat I found shocked me. Israeli attitudes on evolution look far less like those of American Jews than like those of American Gentiles.

The International Social Study Programme, whose data from a 2000 survey I drew on in my March 24 post, only sampled 24 Jews in the US, too little to draw any conclusions from. I turned to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007, which sampled over 35,000 people in the US, including 683 Jews.

The ISSP asked people how true they consider the statement “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals” (a standard question used by the National Science Foundation and other groups to measure acceptance of evolution). The Pew survey asked people how much they agreed with the statement “Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.” The questions are different, but they cover similar ground, and while the Pew question elicits slightly more support for evolution (compare the middle two columns in the figure to see the differences), the difference is not dramatic. For different questions administered by a different pollster seven years apart, that’s pretty good consistency.

What’s striking is how similar the attitudes of non-Jewish Americans are to those of Israelis (I graphed all Israelis here, but the same pattern holds for only Israeli Jews). American Jews are among the most accepting of evolution in the US, while Israeli Jews are basically as creationist as is your average American.

For a nation with developed economic, industrial, political, and academic systems, the US is (notoriously) unusual in its attitude toward evolution. Israel is a liberal democracy with a highly educated population and a large, vibrant economy reliant on high tech, so stands out as just as much of an outlier.

This result highlights that what drives creationist belief is not merely “religion” per se. Israeli Jews and American Jews are all Jews, yet one group is dramatically more resistant to evolution than the other. There’s something about American (Christian) culture that seems to be operating similarly in Israeli (Jewish) culture.

It cannot be simply attributed to the region: A 2013 global survey of Muslims (also conducted by Pew) found that 67% of Muslims in Palestine agree that “Humans and other living things have evolved over time,” the third highest rate of acceptance among the nations surveyed (another of Israel’s neighbors, Lebanon, had the highest rate of evolution acceptance). US Muslims were below the median of the 39 nations, with 45% accepting evolution. That contrasts with only 22% of US Evangelicals accepting evolution in the Religious Landscape Survey (using a different question).

My first thought is that the similarity of Israelis and US Gentiles may arise from the pioneer culture of both nations. In the US, creationism emerged from the pioneer mentality of America, just as the nation was emerging as a technological and world power. A desire for local control, an emphasis on local autonomy in governance (especially of schools), a schismatic and palingenetic approach to religion (at once wholly novel and yet deeply concerned with presenting itself as recovering a—largely fictional—religious tradition), and a sense that settling and developing the land was a divine command, all combined to give creationism fertile soil in the US of the late 19th and early 20th century. The mythology constructed around those ideas continues to fuel creationist attacks today.

And I suspect a similar dynamic fuels creationist sentiments in Israel as well. There, too, a notion of manifest destiny is part of the national culture, as is a frontier mentality; this may mesh nicely with education researcher Michael Ranney’s Reinforced Theistic Manifest Destiny model for the forces driving America’s distinctive attitudes on evolution. There is also a desire to craft a distinctly Israeli version of Judaism, purer in roughly the way that American fundamentalists of the early 20th century thought they were returning to (or creating) a more authentic Christianity than what their ancestors brought from Europe. A recent New York Times report highlighted this struggle over authenticity, which has made it difficult for some US Jews to have their marriages and conversions recognized in Israel:

Efforts by the Reform and Conservative movements to gain equal standing to the Orthodox in Israel went fitfully, in part because even secular Israelis saw those movements as American imports. So persistent was the sentimental hold of religious tradition even on such Israelis that their revealing joke went, “The synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.”

But while Israeli Jews saw themselves as pioneers, making the deserts bloom, American Jews did not. The Frisco Kid notwithstanding, American Jews weren’t major participants in frontier life. Jewish immigrants to America largely settled in, and remained in, cities, though certainly a few traveled to the frontier and played key roles there. Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey shows that, while the US population as a whole is about 29% urban, 50% suburban, and 21% rural, only 4% of American Jews live in rural areas, with 57% in cities and 39% in suburbs. It’s well-known that creationism is more common in rural areas, and in areas that are religiously homogeneous. Those are the communities where creationism and fundamentalism became a social movement in the US, and I’d be surprised if similar demographic factors weren’t in play in Israel, too. Certainly, Israelis who told ISSP that they live in a “big city” or “suburb of a big city” are less likely to reject evolution than those who living in small towns, villages, or farms.

In the end, then, the parallels between the anti-evolution sentiment of Israeli Jews and US non-Jews may make a certain sense. It’s still shocking and disturbing, a shande vor die goyim, to see the same dangerous dynamic at play among Israeli Jews that we American Jews have put so much effort into fighting. Luckily, Israel has not faced the scale of attacks on evolution education that we’ve seen in the US, though the education ministry’s chief scientist did denounce evolution a few years ago. There may be less conflict because the Israeli school curriculum is more standardized, while the balkanized US education system makes it easy for a small concentration of creationists to force changes in the classroom. Then again, Israel has a state religion and state-funded religious schools which have fewer requirements to teach evolution. That may defuse tensions arising from religious objections to evolution, a resolution that the US First Amendment wouldn’t permit.