Trying to distill the various identities of the citizens of Israel

The Israeli public, not the state, shapes the country’s culture

ISRAELIS DEMONSTRATE for social justice in Tel Aviv in 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISRAELIS DEMONSTRATE for social justice in Tel Aviv in 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs have penned an important analysis of a vital study of attitudes of Israeli Jews toward their Judaism and their identity. While not always a page-turner, Rosner’s and Fuchs’s prose manages to make what are undoubtedly mountains of data into a significant sociological and historical study.
After asking more than 3,000 participants more than 300 questions each, questions focusing on “the two major axes of Jewish life: nationalism and traditionalism,” Fuchs and Rosner are able to distill the data and divide the Israeli population into four quadrants, groups that they term “Jews,” “Israelis,” “universalists” and a hybrid they call “Jewsraelis.” That last group has both a strong Jewish and nationalist identity, and is the dominant force, they argue, in modern Israeli culture, making up some 55% of the current population of Israel.
Rosner and Fuchs offer insights into each subgroup of Israeli society, examining all facets of the population.
They note, for example, both the strengths and foibles of the National-Religious, or kippah seruga community, which they write is “falling apart just as it seems to have reached the pinnacle of its cultural influence and political power.” They note that although many children are born to the National-Religious community, the dropout rate remains high. All is not bleak, though, as many of these dropouts continue to identify as “traditionalist Jews” and as “somewhat-traditional secular Israelis,” thus preserving the levels of traditionalism in the overall societal mix.
But Fuchs and Rosner are evenhanded: they subject the secular segments of the population to an equally dispassionate analysis.
They point out that the secular community tends to define itself not by articulating its own values, but, rather, “in opposition to the religious community.” Citing the work of Justice Daphne Barak-Erez on Israel’s anti-pork laws, Rosner and Fuchs note that this section of society will need to decide who they are rather than reacting to what they see as “religious coercion.”
While secularism does indeed possess a robust value system, Israeli secularists seem to be suffering from a crisis of self-confidence and self-worth.
Each part of society, in short, has its own internal and external challenges. Indeed, the authors note that while hadata (religionization) occurs in Israel, hilun (secularization) occurs with just as much frequency.
They wisely point out that while the state “has tremendous power to direct new cultural currents,” e.g., enacting laws regarding Sabbath observance in the public square or hametz laws, “the public retains its own tremendous power to go along with these currents or ignore them.” It is “the public,” they write, “that shapes the Jewish culture of the state, not the state that shapes the Jewish culture of the public.”
The power of the Israeli public to shape the Jewish character of the state raises the question – which Fuchs and Rosner pose in the book (and posed in their original study) – as to whether the state should “leave cultural matters to sort themselves out, perhaps even by separating religion and state, or should be actively involved in encouraging a particular culture.”
Such questions are pertinent for a society in which it is relatively easy to feel, act and “be” Jewish, however one defines such Jewishness.
Indeed, Fuchs and Rosner are careful to point out significant differences between Israeli Jews and the second-largest world Jewish community, that of American Jews. The practices, beliefs and identities of these two communities vary greatly (see my review of Daniel Gordis’s We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel for a lengthier discussion of this issue). Fuchs and Rosner describe this as a conflict between a “tribal” worldview and a “universalist” one: “Israeli Jews,” they write, “look inwards; American Jews, outwards.” This impacts both the way these two groups see themselves as well as how they see one another.
Fuchs and Rosner point out that Diaspora Jews need to understand that Israel is societally larger and far more complex than in the past; that it relies far less on political and economic assistance from the Diaspora; and that much time has passed since the defining historical events of the 20th century that forged the connection to Israel. These factors also impact the relationship between American Jews and Israelis, and while this is somewhat tangential to their main argument, the authors are wise to make this point.
Ultimately, explain Rosner and Fuchs, their work is about reconciling the data they have mined with the impression that most people have, based on their daily life experience and their social media feeds. They write that the “relative harmony” that they describe “does not always correspond with the sense of unrest that characterizes the Israeli public sphere.” Noting that practically all Jews want their kids to be Jewish, Rosner and Fuchs write that the challenge is that few of them agree on what that means.
This book is an important contribution to understanding the values underlying current and past debates of policy and politics in Israel and in the Jewish world writ large. The authors are to be commended for undertaking this Herculean task.