Jewsraelis: A Cultural Revolution

December 19, 2018

A vast array of data proves that Israel’s Jews reinterpret Judaism by mixing tradition and nationalism, making questions of continuity obsolete. 

After King Cyrus allowed the Jews in Babylonia to return to the Land of Israel in 538 BCE, most of them chose to remain in exile. They may have missed their country but their longings didn’t include a strong desire to settle there again. Such attitudes persisted into the 20th century when Jewish-American rabbi and thinker Arthur Hertzberg decreed that “The character of the Jews is of sophisticated nomads.” They love their homeland passionately, but at the same time are also “the most cosmopolitan people.”

Not anymore.

Zionist thinkers, from their early days, believed that the role of a national homeland was to rescue the Jews and Judaism from their cosmopolitan state. Historian Ben-Zion Dinur expressed that view without mincing words: “There’s one problem with Judaism, and it is called exile.” Thus, political Zionism stressed the need to offer the Jews a physical refuge from anti-Semitism. Its adherents had woken up from the dream of integrating among other nations and believed that only a defined and secure geographic territory could sustain the Jews. Spiritual Zionism emphasized the need to offer the Jews a cultural refuge from assimilation. Its adherents realized that the prospect of preserving Judaism when among other nations wasn’t viable. They believed that only a defined geographic territory could supply Judaism with the spiritual energy for its continued existence. In other words, political Zionism wanted to rescue the Jews from the dangers threatening them from the outside, whereas spiritual Zionism wanted to rescue the Jews from the dangers threatening them from the inside. 

“Israel, we strongly believe, is indeed a hub of a revolutionized Judaism. It is the hub of a new Jew.”

Both of them, and all other sub-streams of Zionism, developed the concept of the “new” Jew and its multiple meanings. The idea of the “new” Jew, like the principle of Diaspora negation, explained Prof. Yitzhak Conforti of Bar Ilan University, “provided a middle ground for all forms of Zionism.” All Zionists rejected the Diaspora, “and all saw a need to create and educate a new Jew. However, each of the various forms created a type of new Jew that reflected its particular ideology.”

So, Zionists expected a new Jew to emerge. They were correct in their assessment — a new Jew was born. It was born and had grown and is now standing on both feet. A book penned by me and my co-author, professor Camil Fuchs, “#IsraeliJudaism,” presents this new Jew in detail. Israeli Judaism, we argue, is Judaism like none other today or throughout history. It is a new type, a new branch of Judaism. As the subtitle for our book states — “A Portrait of a Cultural Revolution” — Israel, we strongly believe, is indeed a hub of a revolutionized Judaism. It is the hub of a new Jew.

We base our conclusions on a vast amount of data. Fuchs, a mathematician at Tel Aviv University, is Israel’s leading statistician and pollster. And so, I asked him to join me in running a comprehensive study about Israeli Judaism for The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), where I am a senior fellow. Our task was simple: 70 years after Israel was born, identify the main characteristics of its Jewish culture. We did not want to make guesses or come up with intellectual theories that look good on paper — we wanted hard evidence. We wanted to know what the Jews of Israel are doing culturally in their everyday life. 

To achieve this, we ran surveys with more than 3,000 respondents — that’s a very big sample for a society of 6 million. (The average Israeli survey you read about in the newspaper includes 500 participants.) We asked each of these Israeli Jews close to 400 questions. To supplement our findings, we dug out many hundreds of other data sets, studies and books about Israel. As a motto for our research we chose a quote from the Talmud: “Pook hazi mai amma davar” — Go out and observe what the people are doing.

We now know what they are doing. We know Israelis practice a new brand of Judaism born from mixing traditional sentiment and national sentiment in a way that makes the two indistinguishable. In many cases it is very hard — maybe impossible — to determine where the Jew ends and the Israeli begins, or where the Israeli ends and the Jew begins. Most of us — 55 percent, to be exact — are Jewsraelis.

To reach this conclusion, we scanned many thousands of data points and used several methodologies of statistical analysis (that is to say, Fuchs ran statistical analyses while I was waiting impatiently for the results). Our most telling model was locating the Jews of Israel on a graph with two dimensions — one for tradition, one for nationality. We used 32 questions from the survey to create a map. If a Jew lights candles on Friday night, they get a point for tradition. If they shop on Shabbat, they get a point for nontradition. 

And of course, this exercise was not meant to make a point about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of doing this or that on Shabbat. As we were writing this book, we agreed to be as nonjudgmental as possible when we looked at what the Jews of Israel do. In fact, it was impossible for us to be judgmental, because we are two authors who often disagree on the appropriateness of this or that. I am much more traditional and conservative than Fuchs. Do we approve of shopping on Shabbat? It does not matter, because all we do is measure it. And then we apply numbers to it, to differentiate between a person who does the traditional thing (no shopping) and a person who does the less traditional thing (shopping).  

We measure points of Jewish tradition, such as keeping Shabbat laws, and we measure behaviors of Israeli nationalism, such as raising the Israeli flag on Independence Day. Those who raise it get a point for nationalism. Those who say that Israel should not be a Jewish but rather a neutral civil state (about 9 percent of the Jewish population), get a point for non-nationalism.

Our map shows a Jewish population divided into four unequal groups. The majority is the group of Jewsraelis — that is, the Jews who score high on keeping Jewish traditions and on keeping national practices. Here is one example of what such Jews look like: 38 percent of Jewish Israelis raise the flag on Independence Day (nationalism) and make Kiddush on Friday night (tradition) and say that it is important for them to be Jewish (level of intensity). The percentage of Jewish Israelis who don’t make Kiddush and don’t raise the flag and say it’s not important for them to be Jewish is much smaller — 8 percent. 

So, we have four groups: Those practicing tradition and nationality (“Jewsraelis,” the 55 percent majority); those who mostly practice nationality (15 percent we call “Israelis” in the book, who tend to come from secular quarters of the old-fashioned Labor Party Zionists and whose culture is relatively devoid of keeping Jewish traditions); those who practice mostly Jewish traditions and many fewer Israeli customs (17 percent we call “Jews,” who are mostly Haredi Israelis); and those who, relatively speaking, practice neither (13 percent we call “Universalists” — urban, liberal, left leaning and often alienated from other Israelis.).

A few myths are refuted in our book that American Jews should know about.

One myth — that Israel is becoming more religious — is not true. The secular group is growing rapidly. In the book we include a story about a huge battle in the city of Petach Tikvah in the 1980s over the opening of a movie theater on Shabbat. (I remember it as a young soldier at the time.) That was a big deal. Policemen on horses were called in to calm violent demonstrations. The government was shaking. It seemed like a serious cultural crisis. Now, 30 years later, 98 percent of all movie theaters in Israel are open on Shabbat. 

“If you consider tradition rather than religion — and in the book we make an effort not to confuse them — Israel’s Shabbat is still strong.”

Another example that we already touched upon: the issue of shopping on Shabbat. Not long ago, suggestions for a possible grand bargain between secular and religious Israelis in regard to Shabbat included the idea of having cultural institutions open and commercial enterprises closed. One such suggestion was authored by two renowned Israeli intellectuals — Rabbi Yaakov Medan and law professor Ruth Gavison. They thought they were both compromising — he, by accepting a reality of opened cultural institutions such as movie theaters; and she, by agreeing to keep shopping malls closed. 

Our book questions whether such a proposal would be practical today. That’s because, according to our numbers, a clear majority of secular Israelis (about half of all Jews) shop on Shabbat. Shopping on the day of rest has become a habit for them, a part of their weekend culture. Rolling it back would be difficult, if not impossible. Rolling it back would also ignite the kind of political battle that politicians tend to avoid. So again, when it comes to halachic Shabbat observance, Israel is secularizing.

Does this mean Shabbat as a cultural Jewish phenomenon is also weakening? That depends on your viewpoint. If you only consider an Orthodox religious version of Shabbat to be a worthy exercise, then the answer is yes. There is less religiosity and less religious coercion of rules in the public sphere. However, if you consider tradition rather than religion — and in the book we make an effort not to confuse them — Israel’s Shabbat is still strong.

In 65 percent of Israel’s Jewish homes, candles are lit on Friday night. In 68 percent of these homes, Israelis make a Kiddush. More than 80 percent of Jewish Israelis have a family meal on Friday night — that’s tradition. Jewish Israelis keep many of the Jewish traditions, but without the need to be religious or follow the script dictated by ancient religious texts. 

Take another example: A clear majority of Jews in Israel light Hanukkah candles for eight days. They light the candles more than American Jews, even though Americans attribute more importance to Hanukkah than do Israeli Jews do — for whom it’s not such a major holiday. Israelis light candles because this is what we do in Israel. It’s an integral part of life. We have a seder on Pesach, we raise the flag on Independence Day, we dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah. And by “we” I mean almost all of us. 

And yes, we also have this habit of confusing, or mixing, Jewishness and Israeliness. Thus, Independence Day becomes a Jewish holiday — not an Israeli holiday. Most people who celebrate it are Jews. The flag they raise is Jewishly themed. The ceremony on Mount Herzl includes 12 torches lit by 12 Israelis who represent 12 tribes. Why 12? Read the Torah and find out. Why torches? Go to the Mishna and find out. Independence Day is a civil celebration like all other Independence Days in all other countries. But it is also very much a part of a new Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar of Jewish Israelis. The themes of the day make it Jewish, and also the views of the people celebrating it.

We asked the Jews of Israel many questions about their beliefs and values, and from their answers it is easy to extract a simple reality: many of them no longer see a difference between being a good, patriotic and contributing Israeli to being a good Jew. The lines blur. The culture is a melting pot of tradition and nationalism.  

For instance, there are non-Jews serving in Israel’s military, such as Druze and Bedouins. Nevertheless, more than 70 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that to be a “good Jew” one must serve in the Israeli army. There are many non-Jews living in Israel as good citizens — one-fifth of the population is not Jewish, most of it Muslim, a small minority Christian. Nevertheless, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis believe that to be a “good Jew” one must educate their children to live in Israel. 

Combining these many findings — just a tiny fraction of which we have in the book — you get a new picture of Israel’s Jewish society and of Israel’s Jewish culture. It is a society that moves away from religion and from religious coercion, but does not move away from Jewish traditions. It moves away from the control of rabbis and the mandatory observance of certain practices, but does not move away from voluntary, relaxed, widespread Jewish practice.

It is a society whose Jewish culture is no longer as mobile as Judaism used to be. This is Judaism connected to living in a certain place, surrounded by certain people, governed by certain rules. Israel is the only place such Judaism works — and it works without much need for worry about its long-term viability.

What about Jewish continuity? For many Israelis that’s a weird question — a question for the Diaspora. The continuity of Israel’s Jewish culture is very much ensured by the environment in which they live.  

We begin our book by explaining how Israel serves as the answer to three challenges of the modern world. “Since in the modern world nations exist in civil states — we will build for the Jews a civil state; since in the modern world religion no longer serves as a strong glue for Jews — we will gather them to a place in which their Judaism no longer depends on strict observance of halachah; since the modern world makes it easy for Jews to assimilate and disappear — we will offer a social framework in which there is not much opportunity for assimilation.”

“Two-thirds of Israelis say it is “very important” for them that their children will be Jewish. Nearly two-thirds of Jews have complete confidence that their children will indeed be Jewish.”

Israel is all this. And judging by the numbers, it is a great success. There is little to no assimilation in Israel. There is little, if any, erosion of the extent to which Jews feel Jewish. Hence, worry about “continuity” — a concept American Jews are highly familiar with — is practically nonexistent in Israel.

We asked the Jews of Israel: On a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 having no confidence and 10 having complete confidence — to what extent are you confident that your children will also be Jewish? (How can anyone have complete confidence in having a certain future for one’s children? Well, one can live in Israel and thus have it.) 

If you want to understand the stark difference between Israeli Jews and American Jews by looking at just one set of numbers, this is probably the one you ought to look at. A strong majority of Jewish Israelis, 61 percent, have complete confidence — that is, a 10! – that their children will also be Jewish. A vast majority, 86 percent, rank it from 8 to 10. And when we asked the same question about whether their grandchildren will be Jewish, the number of responses ranking confidence from 8 to 10 were only slightly lower — 79 percent.

So, either Israeli Jews are fools and don’t understand where they live, or they understand and internalize what it means to be Jewish in Israel. It means that if Israel survives (that’s for another article, about a different topic), Jewishness survives. Not just survives — it thrives.

Two-thirds of Israelis say it is “very important” for them that their children will be Jewish. Nearly two-thirds of Jews have complete confidence that their children will indeed be Jewish. Maybe that’s why the Jews of Israel are happy. 

That, and the wonderful December weather.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Print Issue: Breaking Barriers | May 17, 2024

In their new book, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,” Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby bring their vastly different perspectives to examine the complex subject of antisemitism in America today.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.