Benchmark survey of British Jews finds strong attachment to Israel and decline in Zionist identity

Image credit: My Jewish Learning

By Lianne Kolirin

Almost three-quarters of British Jews feel attached to Israel, with nearly one in nine having been there at least once in their lifetime, according to a landmark report published today. 

The wide-ranging National Jewish Identity Survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) paints a comprehensive picture of the identity and practice of Jewish life and how it has changed in the past decade. 

Almost 5,000 members of the UK community were polled on a range of subjects relating to their religious and cultural practices, as well as their identities as Jews, Britons and Zionists. 

Although the authors have said the report “provides a detailed and updated profile of how British Jews understand and live their Jewish lives”, it is crucial to note that data analysed was taken from research carried out between November and December 2022 — almost a year before the brutal attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7 last year and the subsequent conflict in Gaza. 

Most of the British Jewish community — the fifth-largest in the world — expressed an affiliation with Israel. However, the study found there had been a fall in those identifying as Zionist — from 72 per cent a decade ago to 63 per cent. 

Yet the impact of the past few months cannot be understated, not only for perceptions of Israel but also of antisemitism, another key area. The report said 32 per cent of all British Jewish adults “personally experienced some kind of antisemitic incident” in 2021.

A separate report, carried out by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish News at the end of last year, found 80 per cent of people felt less safe in Britain than before October 7, while almost 90 per cent said antisemitism is now a significant problem in Britain. 

Meanwhile, the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that provides safety, security, and advice to the Jewish community in the UK, reported a 534 per cent rise in “anti-Jewish hate acts” from October to December last year. 

In the introduction to the new report, Dr Jonathan Boyd, the JPR’s executive director, said it was important to note the study’s timing. The “barbaric attack” and the “war it prompted” loomed large over the writing of the report, he said, and it was “distinctly possible” that people’s Jewish identities may have shifted as “Jews around the world … are reeling both from the sheer scale and brutality of the assault and from public reaction to it”.

He told the Religion Media Centre: “We simply do not know yet how the October 7 attacks have affected people’s feelings of attachment to Israel or their associations with Zionism.

“It is distinctly possible that many Jews will feel more attached and engaged, but it is also possible that many will feel repelled by the scale and ferocity of Israel’s response. And … when the dust finally settles, we may well see little change at all. 

“As a general rule, Jews tend to revert to their pre-existing positions on these issues over time, even if they shift in the emotional turmoil of dramatic moments. It is of little scientific value to try to understand change in the midst of such moments, but we will be looking closely at this issue later this year and using these newly published data as the key benchmark against which to make an assessment.”

The study examined many aspects of Jewish life in Britain beyond these issues, among them religious belief and affiliation, traditions, observance and education. 

According to the JPR, Britain’s Jewish community is about 300,000, representing less than 0.5 per cent of the population. But while tiny, there is “tremendous diversity,” authors Dr Boyd and Dr David Graham, a senior research fellow at JPR, discovered.

Almost one in five (19 per cent) identify as Haredi or Orthodox, while a similar proportion describe themselves as Reform or Progressive (18 per cent) and non-practising (19 per cent). More than a quarter of respondents, 27 per cent, identify as “traditional”. 

More than half (56 per cent) of the Haredi group were aged under 40, compared with 22 per cent of the “traditional” Jews — perhaps unsurprising given the size of Ultra-Orthodox families. The study found there have been “small increases” in those identifying in all the above groups besides the non-practising, which has seen a “significant decline”. 

Interestingly a quarter of respondents said they do not believe in God, and 69 per cent felt such belief is not central to being a “good Jew”. 

This was perhaps reflected in the data surrounding synagogue attendance. Just over half (57 per cent) were found of respondents belong to a synagogue. Of those, 37 per cent do not believe in God. Nevertheless, attendance figures were found to be “largely steady” over the past decade, with the most common reason for attending being due to “a sense of belonging”. 

A third (34 per cent) of British Jews who married between 2010 and 2022 married outside of the faith — up from 24 per cent in the 2000s. 

Studying religious texts, keeping kosher and praying were found to be less important to most British Jews than remembering the Holocaust, combating antisemitism and feeling part of the Jewish people. That said, two religious rituals are still practised by the vast majority of British Jews: circumcision and funeral rites. 

Eighty-five per cent of British Jews who have had a son had him circumcised, with 60 per cent of non-practising Jews following suit. The desire for a Jewish funeral is “more or less universal” among Haredi, Orthodox, Traditional and Reform/Progressive Jews, and very high among those identifying as “just Jewish” (88 per cent). 

The 2022 National Jewish Identity Survey (NJIS) was carried out between 16 November and 23 December 2022. The final sample size was 4,891 self-identifying Jewish people aged 16 and above and living in the UK.

It was officially launched at the JW3 cultural centre in north London on 8 February, with a new podcast, Jews Do Count. The series, from JPR and JW3, will explore themes arising from the report. 

Dr Boyd said the research was designed to help guide community development and planning in future. “The policy implications of the findings — what the research means to community leaders, policymakers and educators, both in and outside the Jewish community — need to be teased out and discussed,” he added. “There is a great deal of food for thought here, with potentially significant implications for Jewish life going forward.”


Join our Newsletter