The doom-and-gloomers who dictate headlines turn pathologically negative when it comes to Israel. If an Israeli cured cancer, the headlines would read: “Zionist Plot Creates Hospital Bed Surplus.”
If Israel made peace, the headlines would charge: “Israeli Aggressor Puts Arms Dealers Out of Business.” As we celebrate this extraordinary country’s 68th birthday, let’s look at one recent example of Israel-sourpussing.
In March, the Pew Research Center publicized its Israeli Jewish identity study. Haaretz shrieked: “Increasing Polarization Amongst Jews.” My headline would read: “Pew Study Shows Robust Jewish Life, Zionist Idealism and Decreasing Polarization.”
The study showed that Israelis are proud of Israel and support its mission to serve the Jewish people. Nearly all Israeli Jews (98 percent) support Jews’ right to move to Israel under the Law of Return. “That sublime symbol of Jewish self-help,” according to Leon Wieseltier, justifies “a classical meaning of Zionism: there must exist a state for which Jews need no visas.” In that spirit, 91% see a Jewish state as important for the Jewish people’s future, especially because 76% fear spreading anti-Semitism.
Three-quarters believe they share a common destiny with American Jews and 59% think “American Jews have a good influence on the way things are going in Israel.”
This last finding debunks stereotypes of headstrong Israelis dismissing everyone else, especially American Jews.
Considering American Jewry’s growing gap between what we could call Jew-Cs (Juicies) and Jew-Ds (Judies) – Jews who care and Jews who don’t – Israelis’ mass commitment and concern is inspiring.
“The Pew Study actually shows the Zionist mission is a success and that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, including Haredim [ultra-Orthodox], buy into the Zionist premise that Israel is the homeland of all Jews,” said Eitan Cooper, vice president of development at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Cooper recently found himself the only person at a woe-is-me meeting of Israeli educators who wasn’t beating his breast about the report.
He is heartened, as I am, by findings proving a Jewish identity far more diverse and dynamic than the oversimplified claim that Israeli Jews are either religious/ultra-religious or secular. The Pew Study estimates that among Israeli Jews (81% of the population), 9% are ultra-Orthodox, 13% are religious, 49% are secular – the usual categories – and 29% are masorti or traditional. As more Ashkenazim and Sephardim continue to intermarry, more traditionals will emerge. Cooper notes the absurdity that this robust, growing, important and constructive traditionalist sector is ignored politically and financially by the current government, which should be encouraging this kind of middle ground through the TALI and similar school networks, after-school programs, camps and youth movements.
Beyond that, the study once again shows that “secular” Israelis aren’t very good at being secular. Thirty percent of seculars fasted all day last Yom Kippur, 53% light Shabbat candles at least occasionally, 87% participate in a Passover seder and 98% marry Jews. While they treat some of these activities as cultural, not religious, the Zionist revolution sought to make what we now call “doing Jewish” easy, natural, normal.
I analyzed the Pew Study with nearly a dozen smart Israeli master’s students, who ended up angry at the surveyors, not just the headline-makers. Seeing headings from Pew researchers that “U.S. Jews more likely to see ethics, justice as essential to being Jewish” initially shocked these young Israelis. Many American Jews were also dismayed to hear that 69% of American Jews but only 47% of Israeli Jews see “leading an ethical and moral life... essential to being Jewish,” only 27% of Israeli Jews count “working for justice and equality” essential, only 16% value “being intellectually curious” and only 9% appreciate “having a good sense of humor” as parts of their Jewish identity.
Here’s the rub. Many non-religious Israelis have been miseducated by the Israeli rabbinate to associate “Jewish” with religious observance and to view Judaism as an all-or-nothing, you’re-in-or-out system. When asked about “Jewish,” many probably heard “religious.” The open-ended question “what does being Jewish mean to you” received answers about connecting to Jewish history, culture and community, with 53% emphasizing transmitting Jewish traditions to their children.
My students concluded that the study illuminates the Zionist revolution’s success, creating a New Jew so comfortable in the natural Jewish habitat of Israel that qualities like being moral, funny and intellectually curious are not ghettoized as Jewish traits but normalized as Israeli or human traits. A more sophisticated study would have explored Israelis’ “Israeliness,” and discovered the missing idealism. These are signs of life, of health – complicated somewhat by the unfortunate rabbinate-imposed and extreme secularist aversion to associating positive regular characteristics with “Jewish,” meaning the Jewish religion, because of the politics.
The most important statistic, from the Israeli government, charts more than 175,000 births annually– making Israel a Jewish community that is not doomed by intermarriage but blessed by natural growth.
So let’s say phew to the Pew naysayers! Let’s toast Israel in its complexity – and wackiness. Let’s toast Israeli Jewish identity in its robustness and normalcy.
Let’s toast the police in the Old City who patrolled in rainbow-colored wigs before Purim to reduce tensions.
Let’s toast the religious Jews who know they can no longer wait for the messiah, and who fight to defend our country. Let’s toast the supposedly secular Jews who nevertheless care deeply about the Jewish people and enjoy participating in traditional rituals. Let’s toast the Zionist revolution for creating this new, evolving mix, that has not only fostered a thriving, growing Jewish community in Israel, but has inspired Jews worldwide with a more natural, less neurotic, prouder, stronger, more appealing vision of natural-born Judaism.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St.
Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is professor of history at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.