Research spotlight: When population composition effects reverse public opinion

Evgenia Bystrov shows in her recently published article “Religion, demography and attitudes toward civil marriage in Israel 1969–2009” how the changing population composition affects total agreement to introduce the institution of civil marriage.

Although the civic right to get married is granted in most countries on this planet, in the developed world there is also a right for couples to choose the way they want to marry. In democratic societies, religious marriage exists as an additional option to civil marriage. This is not the case in Israel, where religious marriage is the only legal way to settle personal status.

Civil marriage does not exist in Israel, and since the establishment of the state this issue has fueled political, academic and public debates. For several decades, the support for introducing civil marriage in Israel was monitored in national public opinion surveys. Over time, growing public support for civil marriage has increased the pressure on policy makers to change the law. Nevertheless, the status quo continues so far.

Demographic forces play an interesting role that may prove to be decisive for the possibility of change in the coming years. I have analysed these forces in my recent article published in Current Sociology. The article aims to disentangle the effects of changing population composition on attitudes towards introducing civil marriage in Israel. It shows how different growth rates of social groups alter total agreement on whether to allow couples to the right to civil marriage within state borders.


The main results indicate that there are two demographic forces that changed the composition of Israel’s population in the last decades. The first is migration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, mostly secular, which drastically increased the share of population who are in favor of the civil option of marriage. The second is the high birth rates of the most religious groups such as Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who tend to oppose the civil option. Although this latter population change is more gradual, it is likely to have a greater impact than migration from the Soviet Union.

Another important finding is that besides the level of religiosity, the question of instituting a civil alternative for regulating personal status is connected with  national-political attitudes. Non-permissive attitudes towards liberalizing the institution of marriage in Israel are an expression of nationalistic views, radical political attitudes and intolerant attitudes towards other ethnic and religious groups.

I conclude that the national motivation required to institute civil marriage depends, to a major extent, on population composition. Despite changing attitudes, it seems that the time is very limited before such motivation runs out, especially in light of the processes of the rapid Ultra-Orthodox and national-religious population growth. Doubtless, this factor is a serious constraint for the prospects of establishing civil marriage in Israel in the foreseeable future.


Evgenia Bystrov holds her PhD degree in sociology from the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences, Jacobs University Bremen and University of Bremen, Germany. The research article in spotlight is part of her dissertation, entitled: ‘The Second Demographic Transition Theory in Practice: The Case of Israel’. Any feedback on this issue is welcome in the comments section or via email

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