Israel Needs a New Identity to Account for Waning Zionism

This need will only intensify as minorities claim their rightful place in setting the national agenda and distributing public resources.

Haaretz Editorial
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Israeli flagCredit: Emil Salman
Haaretz Editorial

The big scoop was reported Sunday: The spiritual leader of the Shas party, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, was recorded saying he did not stand during the national anthem, which he called “a stupid song.” Three years ago a similar media storm hit when Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran did not sing “Hatikva” during the swearing-in ceremony for the supreme court president.

The media shock when public figures like Cohen and Joubran express feelings about the national anthem reflects obtuseness about Israeli society. Many Israelis are not Jewish, while others do not subscribe to the Zionism of Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion.

Around a quarter of the next Knesset will be “non-Zionist”: the MKs from the Joint List, United Torah Judaism and Shas, and a few MKs from parties like Yahad Ha’am Itanu, not to mention Zouheir Bahloul of Zionist Union. Demographers forecast that this percentage will only increase in the future because half the children in first through third grades are Arab or ultra-Orthodox.

Many Arabs and Haredim want to feel part of Israeli society, move up in the workforce and improve their economic position. This is clearly the case among Haredim who join the army, or among Arab respondents in a poll published last week in Haaretz, most of whom want the Joint List in a governing coalition.

But the desire to integrate doesn’t obligate anyone to accept every symbol of Zionism. On the contrary, the stronger the Haredim and Arabs become demographically and politically, the more they will feel comfortable maintaining their separate identities.

Right-wing governments’ knee-jerk reaction to these burgeoning minorities has been to increase displays of “Zionism.” But the Zionism of the right includes the building and nurturing of settlements and distorts the Zionist idea.

The Labor Party also tried to appropriate Zionism via the name of its alliance with Tzipi Livni’s party. But these efforts prove that Zionism is on the defensive and under pressure from rival ideologies. This confrontation will only intensify as growing minorities claim their rightful place in setting the national agenda and distributing public resources.

In the coming years, fewer Israelis will be singing “Hatikva,” and they will refuse to apologize or pretend. As a result, there is a growing need to craft a more inclusive Israeli identity. It’s unfortunate that only a few politicians – President Reuven Rivlin foremost among them – recognize this challenge and seek a solution.

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