The State of Israel has never attempted to build a national identity that would be ‘liberated ’from Jewish ‘religion.’ Instead, it has focused on the construction of a national identity distinct in one critical respect: it is reserved for Jews only.
By Yaacov Yadgar
One of the more controversial legislative bills being currently pushed forward by the ruling coalition in Israel, a proposed ‘Basic Law: Israel—the Nation-State of the Jewish People’, seeks to enshrine and ensure, constitutionally so, the State of Israel’s ‘Jewish identity’ as the nation-state of the Jewish People.
Several aspects of the proposed bill draw immediate attention: first, it asserts Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people by negating and excluding recognition of other peoples’ (read: Palestinians’) similar claims: as the second paragraph of the bill states, “The right for national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” Other sections of the law make clear that this amounts primarily to the state’s commitment to the preference of Jews over (Palestinian, Arab) non-Jews. Thus, the law decrees that the state shall encourage immigration of Jews, encourage and support the settlement of Jews, and will strengthen the affinity between the State of Israel and Jewish communities outside of the state, ‘offering its hand’ to Jews who are in distress because of their Judaism. In addition, the law designates Hebrew as the sole official language of the state, thus excluding the Arabic language, which is currently designated—at least formally—as a second official language.
This questionable notion of identifying the Jewish state by constitutionalizing the (already practiced, but not wholly and explicitly institutionalized) preference of Jews over (Palestinian) non-Jews has deservedly attracted much attention and criticism. One recent editorial in Haaretz, for example calls the bill “Basic Law: Apartheid in Israel,” and warns that it will institute Israel as a ‘Jewish and racist state.’
Secondly, the proposed bill seeks to solve the supposed conundrum of Israel’s identity (as stated in previously legislated Basic Laws) as “Jewish and democratic” by making the state’s Jewish identity—or ‘Judaism’—superior to its commitment to democracy. As the explanation to the bill makes clear, this ‘positive’ assertion of Israel’s Jewish identity presents a rather novel, although surely not unprecedented attempt at putting into legislative words the supposed ‘original intent’ that lies at the foundation of Israel as a ‘national home for the Jewish people.’ Beyond the preference of Jews, this seems to revolve around a commitment to ‘preserve’ and ‘bolster,’ or ‘nurture’ Jewish values, identity, heritage and overall tradition. This aim is further echoed in attempts by other members of the Knesset to draft a ‘less extreme’ version of the same law, in which the main thrust is an attempt to ‘bolster Israel’s Jewish identity,’ and by the Religious Services Ministry recent establishment of a ‘Jewish Identity Administration,’ whose job is to instill ‘Jewish values’ in the Israeli public.
The most ‘Jewishly charged’ sections of the proposed law decree that the state shall ‘act to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of the Jewish People and to nurture it in Israel and abroad’; that ‘the history of the Jewish people, its heritage and tradition’ shall be taught in all educational institutions serving Jews; that the ‘Hebrew calendar’ is the official calendar of the state, and that Jews shall not be employed in work during the Jewish holidays (including the Sabbath); and that ‘Hebrew law’ shall be ‘a source of inspiration’ for both legislatures and judges.
Now, all this emphasis on Jewish values, identity, heritage and tradition — what many opponents of the bill view as amounting to ‘religious coercion’ — accompanied by an overt discrimination of non-Jewish (Palestinian) citizens of Israel might sound a bit perplexing to those who adhere to the notion that Israel is essentially a ‘secular’ state that aims at offering a nationalist (read: secular) interpretation of the meaning of Jewish politics and collectivity. Moreover, from its initial proposal in 2011 to date, the bill has been formulated and promoted by supposedly ‘secular’ members of the Knesset, who represent ‘secular’ Zionist parties; parties that are identified as ‘religious’ or ‘ultra-Orthodox’ have not been involved in its promotion.
The bill, it should be noted, has yet to pass; and, to judge by its history and the controversy surrounding it, it is safe to assume that the bill still has to clear some major hurdles before it becomes Israeli law. Indeed, its latest iteration, presented to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in late June 2013, seems to have forgone some of the more bluntly ethnocentric clauses. Nevertheless, on its varying irritations the bill presents a rather illuminating explication of an inherent tension at the core of Zionist Jewish nationalism. The bill’s drafters and supporters are not mistaken to state that it ‘represents a broad Zionist consensus.’ If we accept the notion that Zionism and the State of Israel (as its culmination) are a democratic-nationalist attempt at ‘modernizing’ and ‘secularizing’ Judaism, then how are we to understand this bill’s rather explicit reliance on Jewish tradition for the constitution of a positive meaning of Jewish identity, and for its racial undertones in designating the nation-state negatively by the exclusion of a fifth of the state’s population? This, indeed, might seem confusing.
Let us consider for a moment the source of this apparent confusion. Most commentators tend to accept, whether implicitly or explicitly, that ‘Jewish Religion’ and ‘Israeli Politics’ are two clearly separated, essentially distinguishable realms, that, for some historical and political reasons tend to be entangled and confused. They assume that Israeli society and politics are essentially dictated by the epistemological tension between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ and by the socio-cultural ‘cleavage’ between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ Jews in Israel, essentially recognizing the former as committed to liberal-democratic (secular) values and the latter as an anti-democratic, theocracy-craving conservative minority.
Needless to say, this premise regarding an essential, categorical distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ reflects a broader worldview that dominates corresponding discussions on similar issues outside of Israel (often dubbed as matters of ‘church and state’). It is regrettable then, that this discourse is largely mistaken and misleading. The debate on ‘religion and politics’ in Israel perpetuates the mythology that Zionism has been an essentially ‘secular’ project. It is a myth that assumes that Israel is a secular, liberal and democratic nation-state, which for this or that reason — primarily, the representational and coalition structure of the Israeli regime, which allegedly endows the ‘religious’ parties with the ability to ‘extort’ compromises and concessions from the ‘secular’ majority—is forced or coerced to pass and implement laws that impose Jewish religion on the public sphere and on the private lives of the Israeli citizens.
This, after all, is the idea encapsulated in one of the basic notions of Israeli politics, namely the (in)famous ‘status quo,’ which is, so we are expected to believe, a kind of an armistice between two contesting parties: The ‘secular camp’ (which is committed to the aim of establishing an enlightened, secular, liberal and democratic regime, in which religion is excluded from public matters), and the ‘religious camp’ (which is committed to the enforcement and coercion of Jewish Law onto the state and its citizens).
This bipolarity generates severe misunderstandings, and prevents us from carefully assessing the unresolved nature of the relationship between Zionism (followed by the nation-state it has established) and what it, Zionism, has viewed (following the cue of contemporaneous Jewish-European thought) as ‘Jewish religion’ seen as distinguishable from ‘Jewish nationality.’
This distinction, it should be noted at the outset, is an idea borne out of the coercion of Jewish traditions into the splint of the essentially European Christian historically situated categories of ‘religion’ and ‘nationalism.’ As such, this discussion hides several important foundational facts regarding the meaning of Jewish and Israeli identity, and encourages a misrepresentation of the diversity of Jewish identities in Israel (to note but two of its disastrous consequences).
One of the more fruitful ways to transcend this discourse’s narrow horizon and to engage in an examination — a construction, even — of its alternatives, is to identify the matters at hand not as an issue of ‘religion and politics’ in Israel, but rather as a (quintessentially political) issue of our relations with our traditions. In other words, I would propose that we engage in a critical Jewish reading of the unresolved, problematical, often manipulative nature of the State of Israel’s approach to the numerous histories of Jewish communities, histories that are manifested in the Jewish traditions that preceded the Zionist project and its culmination in the State of Israel.
Thus we come to grips with the central issue to be addressed: How does the nation-state’s ‘theopolitics’ — constituted, as it is (symbolically, at least), on an ‘invented’ national tradition — approach Jewish traditions that preceded it and continue to live alongside it?
The ‘problem’ with those Jewish traditions is that they do not fit easily, if ever, into commonly used categorical frameworks, which originate in modern Western discourse such as ‘nation,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘race’ and, maybe most importantly, ‘religion.’ Let us ignore for a moment, even if only for the sake of argument, the tendency to view these categories, borne as they are from a specific European-Christian history, as if they were a universal language of human order, which is necessarily also applicable to the histories of Jewish communities. What is critical to note is that in many, meaningful senses ‘Judaism’ is both and at the same time each and every one of these terms/categories, and neither of them. This is so because Jewish traditions are comprehensive ways of life that touch upon various dimensions of human experience, which are sometimes labeled under one of the aforementioned categories, while at others they are labeled under another.
Bearing this in mind, I would like to offer below a short discussion of several of several notions that become further clarified by refocusing the framework of discussion and analysis on matters of tradition. These touch upon three central issues: the role of Jewish traditions in (a) the shaping of the Zionist project; (b) the shaping of the Israeli public sphere; and (c) the formation and development of Jewish identities in Israel.
One of the more fruitful ways to understand Zionism is to NOT to identify it as an attempt at secularizing Judaism (or ‘Jewish tradition’) through the invention of a national tradition; predominant as such a description is, it nevertheless suffers from some acute deficiencies, not least of which is its lack of clarity as to the very meaning of ‘secularization.’ Instead, Zionism is a counter-reaction to another act of invention, which preceded Zionism: the transformation of Judaism into a ‘religion’ (or, in other words, the inventions of ‘Jewish religion’). I am referring here to the modern ideological and practical move that originated in Europe, mostly in Germany, from the 18th century onwards, which sought to reinterpret Jewish traditions so as to render them applicable to the allegedly universal (and essentially European Protestant) category of ‘religion,’ in itself a contemporaneous invention.
Zionism emerged as a forceful argument against the idea that Judaism is in essence a ‘religion,’ that is a system of belief, a ‘faith’ that is mostly a personal, apolitical matter of ‘spirituality.’ The idea that Judaism is a religion — exactly that which is labeled under this title and nothing beyond it — is usually accredited to Moses Mendelssohn. Its further development and articulation (mostly by other German Jewish philosophers) brought about the formation of Reform Judaism, encouraged the shaping of the Historical Positivist position (better known today as Conservative Judaism), and, ultimately, facilitated the shaping of modern orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy as counter reactions to the Reform interpretation of the implications of this idea.
One of the arguments implied by the idea that Judaism should be understood as a religion is that Judaism is not a nationality, at least in the prevalent contemporaneous European nation-state oriented sense of this term. By making Judaism a ‘religion,’ European Jews had allegedly solved the potential tension in their identification as members of an alien, foreign nation living among host nationalities. It enabled Jews, as the famous term of phrase states, to become ‘German (or French, or otherwise) nationals of the Mosaic faith’: loyal citizens and servants of the nation-state who differ from the majority only in the limited realm of religious belief, which in any way lacks political implications.
Zionism sought to negate this argument. The driving ideological force of this historical project had revolved, fundamentally, around a competing argument, which also used the contemporaneous European political discourse: Judaism, so argues the Zionist idea on its various formulations, is a nationality. As such, it must be expressed and realized in the political framework of a nation-state, in which the true meaning of Judaism as a nationality will be reincarnated.
This nationalism—which many Zionist thinkers preferred to label ‘Hebrew,’ not ‘Jewish’ — was thusly presented as a broader frame of meaning, which incorporates in it ‘Jewish religion’ but is surely not dictated by this religion, nor is it identical to it. This idea also stands, of course, at the root of the State of Israel, which is commonly identified — and if the aforementioned Basic Law passes, also constitutionally so — as the (supposedly secular) state of the Jewish nation.
As in other cases of emerging nationalist movements, the Zionist project has also involved a wide-ranging endeavor of ‘inventing’ a national tradition; Zionism was required to instill the notion of a national Jewish identity with a positive meaning, and Zionist thinkers were required to rewrite ‘Jewish history,’ to reinterpret Jewish meaning and subjects, so as to render these consistent with the national meta-narrative of an identity and to generate a political conflation between territory and identity (whether ethnic, national, linguistic, etc.).
Needless to say, Zionism has found the building block for this rewriting in the histories of Jews, that is: in Jewish traditions. But it had arrived at this move as it was already deeply immersed in the context of the ‘secularization’ of Judaism (a move that culminated in the movement of Jewish Enlightenment, Haskala). That is to say: this project of a national rewriting of traditions was, from the outset, based upon the false distinction between Jewish ‘religion’ and other, ‘essentially secular’ dimensions (political, national, cultural, linguistic, and so on) of Judaism. Moreover, prevalent streams in Zionist ideology tended to view this same ‘religion’ as oppressing the national vitality, and as the root cause for what they viewed as the decline of the Jewish people in exile.
How, then, has Zionism constructed its position vis-à-vis Jewish traditions that had preceded it (and were, so the mainstream argument has claimed, besmirched by the stain of ‘religiosity’)? Several Zionist thinkers — including, to the embarrassment of many, Theodore Herzl — chose to simply ignore this question, focusing instead on the notion of Jewish political power by way of imagining the ‘Jews’ State’ as a sort of a European nation-state — indeed, a German-speaking state, at that — that is ruled by Europeans of Jewish decent. Others, who were fiercely critical of this neglect — foremost among whom was, of course, Ahad Ha’am, who flung at Herzl the accusatory (rhetorical?) question, ‘what exactly is Jewish about your Judenstaat?’ — viewed the Zionist project as primarily obligated to ‘secularize’ Judaism, that is to reinterpret Jewish traditions so as to make them consistent with a rationalist, modernist, utilitarian worldview, which will be the basis of the (secular) nation-state of the Jews.
This notion of reinterpretation lied at the root of the self-image of those Socialist-Zionist ideologues who arrived in Palestine with the declared aim of rewriting the meaning of their Jewish (or ‘Hebrew’) identity. These ‘pioneers,’ most of whom had received a ‘traditional’ Jewish education and practically all of whom were driven by a rebellion against the authority of the way-of-life into which they were born, had an intimate, unmediated familiarity with certain Jewish traditions (mostly East-European ones), and they sought to reinterpret parts of these traditions. They did so from a confrontational, aggressive position. Thus, to give but one of the most familiar examples, they rewrote the ritual of the Passover Seder and Haggadah, so as to render these consistent with their ideology and worldview: they took God out of the Haggadah, and replaced Him, in the role of the savior, with Labor, Land, or even Vladimir Ilych Lenin.
It should be noted that this aggressive confrontation with tradition — even though highly unrefined — nevertheless manifests a certain type of conversation with tradition, which is based upon a familiarity with it. A rebellion against authority is also an acknowledgment of it, and it is surely based upon a familiarity with it. But once the ideological enthusiasm had ebbed, and the unmediated familiarity with tradition was lost, the sons and daughters of these ideological pioneers were left with a sour residue of resentment against ‘tradition’ and ‘religion,’ and they were largely ignorant of the content of these objects of their derision. They have, of course, remained identified as Jewish. But the positive meaning of this identity, beyond the fact that they have been committed to the establishment of a Jewish nation-state (Zionism, ultimately, has chosen Herzl’s vision over Ahad-Ha’am’s), became increasingly vague. The dialogue between them and their Jewish tradition became gradually silent.
The establishment of the State of Israel did not resolve this dilemma. At the end, the state seems to have chosen to focus primarily on the constitution of a Jewish majority — a matter of ‘demography’ — as the principal condition for its existence as the state of the Jewish People; it put relatively few resources into answering the questions of how to converse with, and reinterpret, the Jewish traditions of the communities that constitute this majority. In the famous contest between two possible translations of Herzl’s Judenstaat, Zionists chose to focus on the establishment of a ‘State of Jews’, not necessarily on the constitution of a ‘Jewish State,’ Indeed, this seems to be the core understanding of the meaning of Israel’s being a Jewish nation-state among those liberal, secularist Zionist circles, such as Haaretz’s editorial board, who vehemently oppose the aforementioned proposed Basic Law, as well as other attempts at ‘bolstering Israel’s Jewish identity.’ Opposing the aforementioned Religious Services Ministry designation of a ‘Jewish identity administration’ as an act of ‘religious coercion’, an editorial clearly states:
Zionism dreamed of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state: a refuge for members of the Jewish people, not a state with an official religion like Muslim Saudi Arabia. The Balfour Declaration promised a national home, not a religious one. On Israeli identity cards, “Jewish” describes a nationality.
But even such a limited understanding of Jewish politics — this, simply, is politics run by people of Jewish origins — is required to address certain issues of Jewish identity in order to run a nation-state that identifies as the state of the Jews. Thus, for example, the state is required to decide who counts as a Jew and who does not — to outline, in other words, the border-lines and definition of that nation in the name of which it functions. The solution devised by the allegedly-secular state was to rely on the ‘official representatives’ of ‘Jewish religion’ (namely, rabbis and politicians who adhere to a conservative, orthodox interpretation of Jewish tradition) to function as the nation’s gatekeepers — whether by assigning them with the responsibility to decide ‘who is a Jew?’ or by giving them the monopolistic authority to manage the Jewish citizen’s personal matters (marriage and divorce), essentially preventing marriages between Jews and non-Jews, thus preserving the distinction between these two primary groups.
It is worth noting here that the State of Israel has never attempted at building an Israeli national identity that would be ‘liberated,’ so to speak, from Jewish ‘religion’ and would naturally include the non-Jewish citizens of the state. Instead, the state has focused on the construction of a Jewish national identity, which although highly problematical is nevertheless distinct in one critical respect: it is a national identity reserved for Jews only. In addition, the state has viewed the diversity of Jewish traditions as a threat to ‘national unity,’ and devoted its resources and attention to the abusive project of ‘the melting pot,’ which, as its name suggests, viewed these traditions as objects that should be dissolved.
Of course, the state still espouses a notion of a distinction between Jewish ‘religion’ and ‘nationality,’ but as has been demonstrated by the political and legal debates surrounding the ‘paradoxes’ this distinction creates, the state, as well as the culture it has built, remains loyal to the notion that these two ‘categories’ are essentially identical. This idea stands at the core of the national school curriculum, and this is what feeds a series of laws, which enforce a certain, notoriously narrow, interpretation of Jewish tradition (mainly, if not solely, in terms of practice, or rather the prohibition of certain practices) on the public sphere.
This, then, is the key to understanding the Israeli ‘status quo.’ It is not a matter of a ‘compromise’ and a ‘submission’ of the ‘secular majority’ to the whims of the ‘religious minority’; rather, it is an expression — an obviously unwieldy one at that — of the state’s reliance (a state, it should be stressed, that is ruled by representatives of that same ‘secular majority’) on a narrow, ‘religious’ interpretation of the meaning of Jewish traditions for the purpose of regulating the public sphere and administrating ‘national’ politics. And the state enforces this interpretation on the public sphere and on its citizens using its primary tool of control: the Law.
It is worth stating this explicitly: The ‘secular majority’ needs this ‘religious coercion’ more than any other party in this relationship. This coercion is what secures the maintenance and preservation of this majority’s Jewish identity in a nation-state that identifies as the state of the Jews. Being a Jew in Israel means belonging to the majority, which enjoys a privileged position in every aspect of life; whoever is Jewish enjoys a political, symbolic and cultural capital that is reserved for Jews only. And were it not for the state’s enforcement of its narrow interpretation of ‘Judaism’ on the public sphere, most members of this majority would have been left lacking a possibility to positively understand the meaning of their Jewish identity. The state, in other words, enforces ‘religion’ on the public sphere, and guarantees by it the distinction between Jews and non-Jews, as well as the privileging of the former over the latter.
A focus on the issue of our attitude toward tradition also sheds new light on the matter of Israeli-Jews’ Jewish identity. Primarily, it exposes the negative and distorting influence of the ‘cleavage discourse,’ which tends to view the binary distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ as the constitutive axis of Jewish identities in Israel.
Take, for example, the secular majority. The positive meaning of its ‘secularity’ is so enigmatic as to have encouraged the surveyors running the most-comprehensive poll on Jewish beliefs, observance and customs among Israeli Jews to replace the label ‘secular’ in their questionnaires with the negative designation ‘not-religious.’
Needless to say, the problem begins with that same cleavage discourse, which gives birth in the first place to such baseless polar images (‘religious’ is someone who observes, orthodoxly so, each and every small tag of the 613 mitzvot, while ‘secular’ is someone who is completely indifferent to Jewish observance). Instead, we would be better advised to adopt a ‘traditionist’ point of view, one that raises the question of Jewish-Israelis’ attitudes to their Jewish traditions.
I have already outlined above the background for the formation of Jewish-Israeli secularity — or at least the Jewish identity of most of those who identify as secular as a matter of designating a ‘default’ option in terms of their Jewishness, not as a matter of identifying with an explicit secularist ideology — as an outcome of the waning of dialogue between the individual and her reference group and their traditions. These ‘secular by default’ Israeli Jews have assigned (mostly passively so) the state and its institutions with the role of maintaining their Jewish identity: the state’s institutions educate their children to know certain aspects of Jewish history as their history, they ‘force’ on them the Jewish (or ‘Hebrew’) calendar, they compel them to recognize Shabbat as their day of rest, and they make it difficult for them to marry non-Jews (to mention but some of the facets of this ‘religious coercion’).
The key to understanding Jewish-Israeli secularism, then, is its inability to conduct a meaningful dialogue with the Jewish traditions from which it has emerged. This deficiency has been acknowledged by an important minority of certain intellectuals and elite circles, and it is the driving force behind what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Jewish renaissance,’ which revolves mainly around a mostly textual (at least for the time being) endeavor to get reacquainted with the ‘raw materials’ of these traditions.
A lack of dialogue is not reserved for secular Israeli Jews alone. A negation of such a dialogue has also become the founding ideology of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, which prefers to view its relation with tradition as a dictation or blind obedience, surely not as a conversation: tradition, which is, so the ultra-orthodox argument goes, set and sealed, and we are to obey it. As The Hatam Sofer’s famous innovation says, ‘anything new is prohibited by the Torah’). This stance is of course riddled with an unhealthy dose of self-denial. It denies the dynamic nature of tradition, and ignores the fact that even the greatest conservative is forced to continuously and incessantly interpret the meaning of tradition’s ‘dictation,’ consequently updating the meaning of this tradition.
Religious Zionism, which views itself — properly so, it may be added — as committed to a reinterpretation of its Jewish tradition, conducts this reinterpretation under the heavy shadow of its commitment to a foreign European tradition (nationalism) and to synthesizing two alien organs. Religious Zionism tends to view the nation-state, or its political theology, in the colors of ‘religious’ theology, in a move that tends to stain the latter more than it promotes the former.
At times it seems that Jewish Israeli masortim — who are mostly Mizrahim and tend not to accept the dichotomous distinction ‘either secular or religious’ as the constitutive axis of their Jewish identity — are those who engage in the most challenging dialogue with their Jewish traditions. But they do so without proper institutional support, and are constantly harshly criticized for what both ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ Israeli-Jews depict as the ‘inconsistent’ nature of the masorti way of life. Masortim present in a rather immediate, ever-developing way the possibility to conduct a fruitful dialogue with tradition and ‘still’ remain an active, participating actor in modern life. It is not hard to see how they become ‘threatening’ to both of those competing ‘opponents,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular,’ who build their identity as mutual opposites, assuming as they do that modernity leaves us with only a limited choice: either we abandon tradition, or we blindly obey its dictates.
The challenge facing us is the articulation of a Jewish politics that is not trapped in the framework of the nation-state’s worldview, on the European, Christian roots of this idea. What we are required to do, in other words, is to articulate an independent Jewish political language, one that nourishes on a meaningful familiarity and dialogue with Jewish traditions, accompanied by a critical reflection upon these traditions, as well as a critical correspondence with, and reflection upon, some of the dominant traditions today (such as the nation-state, capitalism, individualist liberalism, etc.). This critical reflection would have to challenge and resist these traditions’ tendency to force us into one-dimensional, narrow, dichotomous frames, which are insensitive to the great variety of human life. Most likely, this would be a minority position facing a forceful, overwhelming trend of power and popularity; but such a position is far from being a novelty in Jewish history. And, to paraphrase Franz Rosenzweig, the fact that a cripple governs the modern world does not make it less a cripple.
Dr. Yaakov Yadgar examines issues of political, ethnic and national identity and political culture in Israel. His two most recent books, “Secularism and Religion in Jewish-Israeli Politics: Traditionalist and Modernity” (Routledge) and “Beyond Secularization: Traditionalism and Critique of Secularism in Israel,” (In Hebrew, Van-Leer) present a wide view of the issues.