Israel turns 75: The country's identity as a Jewish state - opinion

A central feature of Israeli society is its Jewish-affiliated majority alongside other religious minorities.

 SOLDIERS GATHER in front of the seven-branched candelabrum outside the Knesset, a remembrance of the Temple in Jerusalem. Israel’s Jewish character is reflected in key symbols of the state, says the writer.  (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
SOLDIERS GATHER in front of the seven-branched candelabrum outside the Knesset, a remembrance of the Temple in Jerusalem. Israel’s Jewish character is reflected in key symbols of the state, says the writer.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Israel was founded as a state in which the Jewish people would exercise their right to self-determination. This essence is anchored in the November 1947 resolution of the UN General Assembly to establish two states – one Jewish and one Arab – and to internationalize Jerusalem as the seat of the holy places. Accordingly, Israel’s Declaration of Independence emphasizes the opening of the country’s gates to Jewish immigration.

Indeed, a central feature of Israeli society is its Jewish-affiliated majority alongside other religious minorities. Israel’s Jewish character is also reflected in key symbols and values, including the national emblem with its seven-branched candelabrum; the national flag, featuring the stripes of the Jewish prayer shawl in the dark blue hue mentioned in the Book of Numbers; the revival of Hebrew as a vernacular that is also the language of the Holy Scriptures; the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest; the observance of Jewish dietary laws in public institutions; religious studies in the non-religious public education system; and many more. All of these attest to the religious roots of Jewish nationalism, namely Zionism.

The Jewishness of Israel has developed in a milieu of non-separation of religion and state. Jewish religion and public life in Israel are intertwined. Religion penetrates areas that are not of obvious religious interest. Therefore, despite the broad commonality of a majority that affiliates as Jewish and notwithstanding widespread sympathy for Jewish tradition among the secular, the strong public status of religion and especially of the religious establishment has made both of these focal points of severe friction over the years.

These tensions spill into disagreements about other facets including ethnic, socioeconomic and political. The resulting disharmony is further intensified in the last-mentioned setting because it creates room for religious disputation surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, of course, does not prevent individuals in the private sphere from detaching nationalism from religion.

In this last realm, religious attitudes and behaviors are embodied largely in the way people self-identify. At the turn of the present century, about 43% of Israeli Jewish adults defined themselves as secular. Although this was the largest single group in Israel, it falls far short of being a large majority.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next to Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana in the Knesset Plenum, December 29, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next to Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana in the Knesset Plenum, December 29, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Just over half of the population belongs to that segment that has some affinity with Jewish tradition and religion. In fact, a very similar proportion (42%) self-identified as traditional, another one in 10 Jews as religious, and the remaining 6% as ultra-Orthodox (haredi).

In the two decades that passed since then, the religious identity of Jews in Israel has been evolving in polarizing directions, the fringes widening and the traditional middle narrowing. Their growth rates, however, were not uniform: the religious and especially the haredim grew more quickly (to 12% and 10% respectively) than did the secular (to 45%).

What is the significance of these differences?

THESE DIFFERENCES reflect contrasting trends: the slowing of the largely secular immigration from the former Soviet Union since the 1990s and the high birth rates of religious and haredi Jews.

Not only has the equilibrium among the various religious sectors of Israeli society been changing. Within each sector, too, personal religious identification across the life cycle is found to be dynamic, with people becoming more religious or less religious without switching their self-identity. Those who changed their degree of faith and ritual observance have been doing so in different directions: the religious and haredi bolstering their religiosity and the secular and traditional moving away from all religious patterns.

For example, about a third of the haredim and the religious have moved toward greater religiosity during their lives, as against very few who shifted in the opposite direction. In contrast, only 3% of the secular became more religious while more than one-fifth declared themselves less religious than before.

These trends are deepening the differences among religious sectors in social, cultural and political matters that are important for the solidarity and internal resilience of Israeli Jewish society. Israeli society today is riven with disagreements about the values and institutions that the state should have and the equilibrium of Judaism and democracy – two of the fundamental pillars of the state.

Most haredim hold that Israeli law should follow rabbinical law (Halacha), have no confidence in the Supreme Court and express dissatisfaction over the balance between the country’s Jewish and democratic fundamentals, with a majority of almost three-quarters considering the democratic component too strong.

At the other end, only a few of the secular favor the application of Halacha as the law for Jews in Israel and a majority express confidence in the Supreme Court. Only 15% consider the balance between the democratic and Jewish components of Israeliness appropriate, most of the rest seeing the Jewish component as too strong. Even if their positions are more moderate, religious Jews tend more toward the haredi view while the traditional lean more toward the secular.

Characteristics of law and government affect more than the inhabitants of the state. They determine Israel’s standing in the world and its ranking on international indices of freedom and democracy. By implication, they may affect its diplomatic relations with Western countries. They are also significant for Diaspora Jews, many of whom hold liberal worldviews.

This is the fourth in a series of eight op-ed articles appearing once a month during Israel’s 75th anniversary year.

The writer is a professor, and head of the Division of Jewish Demography at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he also holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations.