Jewish Identity - It's No Obsession

If the Israeli state is committed to a defined Jewish identity, its severance from the West Bank will not be a terrible rift.

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Of all the burning questions on the agenda, the most important concerns the state's Jewish identity, an issue at the basis of all the debates preoccupying us – our attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs, the territories, the refugees, even the economic system.

Yet when the relationship between "Jewish" and "democratic" comes up, the need to define "Jewish" is pushed to the sidelines.

In essence, even the debate on the territories centers around our identity. Few people today justify the settlements as a security-existential need. Those who insist on remaining in the territories, like those who want to give them up, are considering whether the fulfillment of Judaism in the modern era requires holding on to Greater Israel or having a state with a Jewish majority. Jewish identity is also the key question if we imagine a day when peace has been achieved; it's what will continue to connect us, as people with shared characteristics, to this difficult place.

Then the question of Jewish identity will arise in full force. Unlike the claim by Shlomo Sand, Judaism does not have religious characteristics only. Since the 19th century, Zionist thinkers have debated the meaning of Jewish existence divorced from religion. Ahad Ha'am aimed for the establishment of a spiritual-cultural center. Haim Nahman Bialik aspired to secularism anchored in a new interpretation of the traditional culture. A.D. Gordon proposed the religion of labor. Dov Ber Borochov spoke of socialist Judaism. The fact that no decision was reached doesn't mean there is no Jewish identity that is not Orthodox. On the contrary.

Even if we adhere to the traditional connection between religion and the nation, we can find many possibilities for Jewish identity. We can rely on the Jewish sources to create a benighted state, but a super-liberal one as well. There is the Judaism based on religious law of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the messianism of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Reform Judaism and traditional Judaism. The list goes on.

In 1958, David Ben-Gurion turned to whom he called "the sages of Israel," seeking an answer for who is a Jew. The proposals were fascinating and reflected various perceptions of Judaism. They can be read again and again, but few of us take an interest, mainly because a preoccupation with Judaism is rejected by most secular Jews as irrelevant.

That is a serious mistake. When we define Jewish identity for the state – Jewish identity in general will probably remain controversial – we will have an easier time making decisions on current problems. If the state is committed to a defined Jewish identity, its severance from Judea and Samaria will not be a terrible rift. If Jewish identity is at the center of our existence, it will also be easier for Arab citizens to define themselves vis-à-vis this identity.

That's why there is no need to oppose the establishment of a Jewish Identity Administration; Haaretz's July 10 editorial, "The Jewish identity obsession," opposes one. We should seek just the opposite: to expand it. The administration should be removed from the Religious Services Ministry – certainly from Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, who represents only one stream of Jewish identity. It should be turned into a serious national project that will provoke a deep discussion on the meaning of our identity.

Defining identity is not meant to force anyone to live according to that definition. But just as the founding fathers in the United States laid down a values infrastructure, the principles of Jewish identity, as we define them, must serve as a basis for a constitution that will explain and strengthen the meaning of our existence and way of life.

Women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 11, 2013. Wrestling with the boundaries of Jewish law.Credit: Michal Fattal

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