How the New Israeli Judaism Was Born

A new identity is sweeping Israel – simultaneously traditionalist, nationalist and liberal

Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico
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Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, by Kariel Gardosh (aka “Dosh”).
Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, by Kariel Gardosh (aka “Dosh”).
Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico

When the image of Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, appears on the cover of a book, we know we’d better sit down. It’s a momentous event. Something in us, in our very essence, in our sheer Israeliness, isn’t what it used to be. The sabra image created by Kariel Gardosh (known as “Dosh”) has long since been transformed from the symbol of the young state into the symbol of parting from the young state – a concise representation of everything we no longer are. Usually it turns out we’re no longer young, beautiful, secular and just.

Every society undergoes change, but in Israel the transformations seem especially rapid and, in a particularly reflective culture – the Jewish self-awareness that Woody Allen made a caricature of – there will clearly be a need for constant introspection. The freneticism accompanying these changes is also understandable: Not enough time has passed since the shtetl for us to feel that we’re comfortable in modernity. Even when what has been repressed isn’t really threatening to burst onto the surface, just the fear that it will can stir anxiety. Accordingly, self-examination and accountability are called for at all times.

Two Hebrew-language studies from the previous decade come to mind in this connection. Their very titles attest to the end of an era: “The End of Ashkenazi Hegemony” (2001) by Baruch Kimmerling and “Farewell to Srulik” (2004) by Oz Almog. Authored by sociologists, these two books marked the transition from denial to awareness, possibly even mourning. Things aren’t what they were, we’re told, and not necessarily for the better.

In his encyclopedic work, Almog summed up the transformations, as he saw them, in the realms of the media, law, women’s status, the family and psychology. The plethora of quotations he generously (at times tediously) offered the reader were intended to illustrate how the Israeli elite (“the veteran Jewish stratum, secular, educated, established”) parted ways from Srulik, who as usual embodies the Israel that is no more.

However, Almog’s explanation for the parting is flawed. In his view, along with the inertia that saps the energy of every revolution, it was the media which reshaped the Israeli consciousness. Supposedly, the media’s control of the agenda caused the Israeli elite to forsake the shared Zionist vision for “globalist consumerism.” Almog concludes by expressing his concern that no new ideological framework will coalesce, and Israelis will gradually be divested of their Jewish identity. Fifteen years on, it’s easy to see that the exact opposite has occurred.

Kimmerling undoubtedly probed deeper than Almog. He eulogized the “Ahusalim” – his acronym for the secular, socialist, nationalist Ashkenazim who founded the country and tried, based on a collectivist “statist” agenda and the social “melting pot” they forcefully forged, to shape the state in their image. The Ahusalim failed, and since the 1970s gradually disappeared from their positions of control and influence.

Kimmerling ascribed most of the responsibility for what he called “the decline of Israeliness” to the Gush Emunim settler movement – something of an Ahusali approach in itself. The messianic spearhead of the religious-Zionist movement supposedly brought to the surface the religious and ethnocentric elements implicit in secular Zionism and hurled them in every direction (though mainly toward Judea and Samaria). The universal humanism in the hearts of the Ahusalim and the civic-republican ethos of the young state were too feeble to resist. Both faded.

But Kimmerling reversed things. It wasn’t Gush Emunim that ruptured the hegemony of the Ahusalim; it was their rupture that allowed the self-confident bullying of Gush Emunim. First, the weakening of the ruling leftist Mapai party in the trauma of the Yom Kippur War – the crisis of faith that seized secular Israelis at the sight of the demigods from the Six-Day War, floundering and humiliated. Second, and more significantly, it was the erosion of socialist collectivism in favor of liberal individualism, that rewrote the Israeli ethos. Both made it possible for religious Zionism, that admired, almost to the point of worship, not only secular generals but also the state’s leaders, to take the reins and the law into their hands. Likud’s rise to power in 1977 completed the process and did much more than religious Zionism to inject what Kimmerling calls “Jewish-ethnocentric categories” into the Israeli identity.

Demise of ‘Hebrewness’

What then brought about the end of Ahusali hegemony? Why did we part from Srulik? Two recently published books reexamine the metamorphoses undergone by Israeli society. Neither was written by a sociologist, and maybe that’s why it’s easier to see them as milestones. They’re also complementary. In Hebrew, Rami Livni writes about “The End of Hebrewness: Why Israel Is Not in a Crisis but in the Midst of a Revolution,” while Shmuel Rosner and Prof. Camil Fuchs offer “#IsraeliJudaism: A Portrait of a Cultural Revolution.” The word “revolution” appears in the title of both books, and both have Srulik on the cover; no one here apparently intends to leave any doubt. But while Livni delivers a melancholy lament, Rosner and Fuchs, despite their repeated declarations that they’re only reporting from the field, are celebrating.

Livni, an educator, philosopher and cultural critic who writes op-eds for Haaretz, bemoans the fading of “Hebrewness,” invoking a term used by the Zionist pioneers to describe themselves. The pioneers, insisting on their separateness from Diaspora Jews, created Hebrewness on the soil of the Land of Israel. It’s the original and most-rooted Jewish culture, the nationalist Judaism that springs up as truth from a specific land. In contrast to traditional Judaism, Hebrewness isn’t rootless and ghettoized but proud and entrenched, and will transform the Children of Israel into a free and normal people in their own land.

As Livni elaborates, Hebrewness favored sovereignty, activeness, initiative, secularity, innovation, fulfillment, modernity, normality and excellence. It aimed to forge a complete person, exceptional and generous, with feet on the ground and head held high. The Hebrew would both exist independently on his own land and be part of the world community of nations. He would maintain a just and exemplary society based on the vision of the prophets and in accordance with international law. He would make the desert bloom and settle the land, while protecting and working for all its inhabitants. He would engage in science and bring prosperity. He would fight for a life of justice, fraternity and freedom.

This would be a fitting ending for 2,000 years in exile – an ending that, in Livni’s elucidation, would reinterpret the ordeals of the Jewish people as cutting a path to a modern, normal existence, not one swallowed up in messianic pyrotechnics. The Hebrew would be a “complete Jew,” in the words of A.B. Yehoshua, unlike Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jews who have chosen to remain in the Diaspora, mentally or physically.

Hebrewness, as a Jewish identity, has been fading this century, Livni writes. The consolidation of the right wing in power alters the Israeli mentality. According to Livni, the right isn’t striving for normality. Its nationalism isn’t bent on integration into the universal democracy but on ethnos, religion and territory. Peace with Israel’s neighbors isn’t an ideal and maybe isn’t desirable. There is no thrust for realistic achievement but rather a desire to express emotion. “Few people expect [Benjamin] Netanyahu to put forward a solution on the Palestinian issue, or wonder what he achieved in his frenetic lobbying on the Iranian question .… Netanyahu gets a prize for his efforts, for his fine rhetoric and for ‘letting them have it’ …. Talk has replaced action. The experience has replaced the result.”

Independence Day in Tel Aviv. Credit: Moti Milrod

Livni locates the source of the problem in the lack of structure of Jewish nationalist secularity. European secularity, he explains, was from the outset interwoven with nationalism, in contrast to Jewish secularity, which did not develop a concept of a secular state. Zionism used religious symbols in its national enterprise, even rabbinical authority, as for conversion or marriage, for example. The religion-state “status quo” was aimed at “taming” religion but entrenched an unstable balance. Israeli secularity started to atrophy with the decline of Labor Party hegemony, “in the first stage sinking into sectarianism (the Shinui and Yesh Atid parties), until later losing its way and substance.” Secularity diverged from the statist ethos and from the ambition to lead, and ultimately was privatized into liberal individualism.

Thus secularity was fated to disappear. “The breach between the Jewish religion and modern Jewish identity will be resealed …. The secular community will increasingly resemble a variation of the traditional community.” The transition, Livni writes in sorrow, has been from “Hebrewness” as a new and final definition of Jewishness, to “Israeli Judaism,” in which Israeliness simply constitutes the current trappings of Judaism, and to be a complete Israeli it is necessary to be a Jew.

Private Judaism

That’s precisely the conclusion reached by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs. Their impressively broad survey maps the current Jewish identity in Israel. Rosner is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute and an op-ed contributor to The New York Times. Fuchs is a statistics professor at Tel Aviv University and an adviser to the Dialog polling institute. In two rounds, they asked representative sample of 3,500 Israeli Jews a bevy of questions on their worldview and way of life. The questions were divided into two themes: Jewish tradition and religion, and Jewish nationalism in Israel.

The “nationalism” questions deal, for example, with attitudes to military service and living abroad. “Religious” questions touch on reciting kiddush Friday evening, burial preference and civil marriage. The answers were weighted to let the researchers assign each respondent a point on a graph vis-à-vis a religious Jewish identity or a nationalist Jewish identity. Based on the results, Rosner and Fuchs divided Israeli Jewish society into four groups: “Jews,” who “practice mostly Jewish traditions and many fewer Israeli customs” (17 percent); “Israelis,” whose identity is mainly nationalist (15 percent); “universalists,” who emphasize secular and civic values (13 percent); and “Jewraelis” – “those who are practicing tradition and nationality” (55 percent).

The dominance of the “Jewraelis” is the book’s main message: A new Jewish culture has been forged in Israel – Israeli Judaism – fusing national identity with religious identity. According to the authors, if we wish to locate these developments in Jewish history, what’s taking shape is Jewish tradition with a national hue. This Judaism is less based on halakha (traditional Jewish law), less secular (in the ideological sense of the word) and less traditional (in the Mizrahi sense of the word).

Because the questions were formulated by the researchers, we can perhaps be skeptical about the resulting percentages, and a certain element of begging the question is apparent. Still, the authors, who also draw on earlier polls and studies, cite an array of evidence that seems to support their findings. Increasingly broad margins of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community are undergoing what Prof. Kimmy Caplan calls “Israelization.” The Haredim are becoming more nationalist, are adopting Zionist and right-wing views and are integrating into Israeli society as a whole. The classic Haredi identity – isolationist, anti-modern and anti-national – is being challenged and, in certain circles, is disintegrating.

The religious-Zionist movement, as was already apparent in an Israel Democracy Institute study led by Prof. Tamar Hermann (“The National-Religious Sector in Israel 2014”), is grounding its identity more in a nationalist/right-wing agenda and less in a halakhic approach. Settling the Land of Israel and defending the state have become the main components of this community’s outlook and Jewish identity. Accordingly, this group experienced “mass desertion” (as the authors put it) involving the shedding of religious observance. The group’s size remains stable only because of a high birthrate.

“Traditional Jews” in Israel are becoming more secular: Rabbinical authority is diminishing and Orthodoxy is no longer considered the only authentic form of Judaism. Many people who grew up in traditional homes now categorize themselves as secular. Although it’s also true that secular Israelis are showing a renewed interest in Jewish tradition, this is occurring on an individual basis, and people so inclined are preserving their autonomy in the face of the religious establishment. Secular Israelis are adopting a self-designed private Judaism, or are joining Reform or Conservative Judaism.

Indeed, one of the findings of the #IsraeliJudaism Project reinforces what’s been turning up in surveys on the subject since 2013: About 10 percent of Israeli Jews call themselves Reform or Conservative (in the book, the figures are 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively). These aren’t people who are members of communities or who even regularly attend services in synagogues affiliated with the two movements. However, their declared identification with non-Orthodox Judaism shows that “Orthodoxy has become a term that is no longer congruent with authentic and genuine Jewishness, but a term that describes the religious Jew in a specific formulation.” In other words, the acceptance of the non-Orthodox denominations has turned Orthodoxy in Israel into a denomination.

Orthodoxy’s status in Israel is on the decline. Not only is the rabbinical establishment one of the institutions most despised by Israelis, but the social trend is away from Orthodoxy. The numbers presented by Rosner and Fuchs show clearly that, whereas the political thrust is rightward, religion is moving to the left: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are becoming Orthodox, Orthodox are becoming traditionalists, and traditionalists are becoming secular.

For example, 36 percent of those who grew up in a traditional home now term themselves more secular, and only 17 percent say they’re more religious. The same holds for 40 percent of those who grew up in an Orthodox home, as opposed to 20 percent who have headed in the Haredi direction. In today’s Israel, the probability that an adult will live in a home less religious than the one he grew up in is greater than the other way around. In a term coined by Yair Ettinger, a former religious-affairs correspondent of Haaretz, we are in a post-Orthodox era.

It’s also a more nationalist era. The survey shows that adopting elements from tradition leads toward nationalism (in groups up to but not including the Haredim). Those who termed themselves secular and “somewhat traditional” fly flags on Independence Day and stand to attention at the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, more than those who term themselves totally secular. A correlation exists between traditional identity and nationalist identity, supporting the authors’ conclusion that a Jewish national identity, or a national Jewish identity, is developing in Israel.

It’s a Jewish but not Orthodox identity, nationalist and not universalist. According to the survey, 62 percent of Israeli Jews recite kiddush Friday evening, but 51 percent shop on Shabbat and more than half a million work on Shabbat. Sixty-eight percent keep kosher during Passover, but 55 percent feel that the Tisha B’Av fast day is just like any other day. According to 68 percent, being a good Jew entails serving in the army, 33 percent are willing to accept as a Jew anyone who feels Jewish, 58 percent support worship by Women of the Wall at the Western Wall, and only 9 percent want Israel to be an Israeli civil state, meaning not Jewish.

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway on Yom Kippur. The probability today that an adult will live in a home less religious than the one he grew up in is greater than the other way around. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Haredim in crisis

Rosner and Fuchs don’t purport to explain their findings, but they create the feeling that to them the processes underway are a natural development. Reporting on the disintegration of religious Zionism, they write that Israelis combine traditionalism and nationalism, given that “everyone organizes his own mix according to the dosage that’s right for him.”

However, the secularization of the religious-Zionist community, like that of the Haredim, isn’t only a matter of convenience or personal preference. The process we’re watching augurs a sharp change in the character of religious society. By embracing nationalism, people can depart from an overriding collectivist religious identity and adopt a framework allowing for greater autonomy and individualism. In other words, nationalism is Judaism’s way of becoming modern.

Of course, this was already the situation from the inception of the Zionist movement. Zionism sought an alternative Jewish identity to tradition, basing itself on the national element. The “Hebrew” to whom Livni refers is the version that socialist Zionism proposed for a modern Jewish identity. And it worked: The Zionists were confident and proud of their Jewish identity, yet entirely secular. While evoking traditional symbolism, socialist Zionism put forward a secular ideology that rejected religion as excess baggage that was part of the past and saw itself as the authentic Jewish identity.

Livni accuses the right, which espouses an ethnoreligious concept of nationalism, of causing the decline of the “Hebrew” in the beginning of this century. Still, at the time the state was established, the right wing and its concepts were marginal and remained that way for many years. Before the right’s ideas could be adopted, the left had to make room for them. Which is exactly what happened. Secular Israelis only took an interest in tradition when they no longer considered the “Hebrew” identity a valid response to the question “in what way am I a Jew?”

Hebrewness disintegrated long before this century, in a process that included the crisis of the legitimacy of the Labor movement after the Yom Kippur War, but even more saliently, Israel’s transition from socialism to liberalism. Simply put, like the rest of the Western world, Israel became a capitalist and individualist society. (Uri Ram in his book “The Globalization of Israel” – English version 2007 – describes this well and offers a better explanation than Almog or Kimmerling.)

Once Mapai’s socialist ideals and ethos of collectivist realization became invalid, the secular community began searching for a new way to formulate its Jewish identity. Unsurprisingly, that way was discovered in the Jewish tradition, but not as a turn to religion. After all, secular Jews had already internalized Western individualism; many of them were unwilling (and will not be willing) to join halakha’s demanding and collectivist framework. They prefer to form their Jewish identity around a cultural interest (a pluralistic religious study hall) or a spiritual interest (New Age) in tradition, and to tailor themselves a customized Jewish suit. Nationalism dovetails well with this development, as it provides Jewish elements in abundance without a need to make lifestyle changes. As distinct from the various types of fascism, democratic nationalism empowers – not suppresses – individualism.

On the other side are the Haredim and the religious Zionists, two groups coping with their own identity crises. The former want to join the general society for a number of interconnected reasons: economic needs, a severe leadership crisis and the disillusionment brought on by the online world. The latter, like the secular community, have been left without an ideological center since the collapse of the messianism of the school of the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in the 1990s, and more intensely since the demolition of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, in 2005. For both these groups, nationalism offers both a share in Israeliness and a modern, liberal and more individual version of Jewish identity.

This blend of variables explains why Israeli society is becoming simultaneously more traditionalist, more nationalist and more liberal. Of course, an important exception to the thrust of Israeli liberalism is the attitude toward the Palestinians; but it, too, is attributable to the same processes. Apart from the national conflict, which understandably arouses antagonism, an Israeli who weds his Jewish identity to Israeli nationalism will seek to empower the “Judaism” of the state, and this will come at the expense of his Palestinian neighbors in a variety of ways.

The question of “Jewish identity” has been at the heart of Jewish existence since the 18th century. Having been compelled to leave their traditional way of life and adjust to a modern Western culture, the Jews unsurprisingly find themselves in repeated cycles of search and identity-molding. Srulik, or everything he represents, proposes a “Hebrew,” nationalist, collectivist, secular version of Jewish identity. Parting from Srulik is enabling the current cycle of shaping the Israeli Jewish identity: an individualist identity but close to tradition, post-Orthodox and ethno-national. Without a doubt, this Israeli Jewish identity will also be supplanted by a new one in the future, setting in motion a new wave of nostalgia.

Tomer Persico, a research fellow and scholar in residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is also the Koret visiting assistant professor at the UC Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies.

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