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Jewish and non-Jewish identities in Israel

Zionism and Jewish identity. Before addressing Jewish and non-Jewish identities in Israel today, the basic principles of Zionism must be outlined. Without understanding Zionism, a meaningful discussion about identity in contemporary Israel cannot be broached.

Zionism is not simply a response to the Holocaust. Rather, its origins trace back some 60 or 70 years earlier — to the late 19th century — when nationalist movements began springing up throughout Europe. In this historic context, Europe’s Jews increasingly turned to Zionism as a modern Jewish intellectual and political equivalent of nationalism. By the turn of the century, the Zionist movement had emerged as one of the central Jewish responses to modernity. Still today, it continues to offer Jews around the world a compelling option for survival.

Generally considered the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl wrote the seminal book, “The Jewish State,” in 1895, in which he diagnosed the Jewish “problem” (as Europeans often referred to it at the time) as one of anti-Semitism. He argued Jews no longer had any real prospects for survival in Europe. He cited the centuries of pogroms, blood libels and rampant anti-Semitism, culminating in the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894.

In his and other early Zionists’ view, there was simply no future for Jews in Europe. The only solution was to leave and return “home.” And where was home? Clearly, these Zionists considered it to be the ancient Jewish homeland, the Land of Israel, with which Jews had been connected since biblical times — the beginning of their history as a people.

The Zionism Mr. Herzl and his contemporaries advocated became known as “political Zionism,” since it proposed a political solution, i.e., a Jewish state. Rather than face an uncertain future in a profoundly anti-Semitic Europe, Jews should establish a state, with a strong Jewish majority, who would “live and breathe free” (in the words of Israel’s national anthem). In this state, Jews would live in a “normal” national society, as did the nation-states of Europe. First and foremost, it would serve as a refuge for Jews anywhere in the world suffering oppression and anti-Semitism.

This notion of Israel as a refuge for oppressed Jews still lies at the center of modern Israeli consciousness. For most Jewish Israelis, it is Israel’s responsibility to assist Jews anywhere in the world where they face oppression and help them immigrate to Israel.

What underpins political Zionism — and all other Zionist theories — is the concept that Jews constitute a people. The Zionist movement — in all of its configurations since its birth in the late 19th century until today — understands the Jews as a national collective, as a people who originated in biblical times and somehow miraculously survived.

Another influential early Zionist was Ahad Ha’am (“One of the People” in Hebrew). Born Asher Ginsberg, he agreed with Mr. Herzl and other European Zionists of the time about the creation of a Jewish state as a political solution. However, in contrast to Mr. Herzl, he argued that the main problem facing Europe’s Jews, particularly those in Western Europe, was not so much anti-Semitism but cultural assimilation. Indeed, by the turn of the century, Jews in countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain participated in society as full citizens.

Ahad Ha’am espoused a “cultural Zionism,” maintaining that a Jewish state would be the only place where Jews could live out a full Jewish national culture. In a Jewish state, Jews could revive the Hebrew language and with it Hebrew literature, art, music and dance — all major elements of a thriving national culture.

Unlike Mr. Herzl, Ahad Ha’am argued that the creation of a Jewish state should not be thought of as a return to “normalization.” Rather, it should be uniquely Jewish: Its society should be fundamentally ethical and just and live up to the ideals of the prophets of Israel. The government and citizens should care for the minorities in its midst.

Also in the late 19th century, religious Jews — mostly members of Europe’s Orthodox communities — began advocating “religious Zionism.” In contrast to their political and cultural Zionist contemporaries, who for the most part envisioned a secular Jewish state, religious Zionists argued that the practice of a genuine Judaism ought to be a pillar of the Jewish state. They believed an authentic Jewish national identity cannot be separated from the practice of Judaism and that any attempt to define the Jewish people without the Jewish faith could not stand the test of time.

Religious Zionism steadily gained momentum in the 20th century, especially in the decades following the 1967 war, when significant numbers of Conservative and Reform Jews began embracing religious Zionism. Today, religious Zionism represents a major political, social and cultural force, and institutions promoting it operate throughout Israel. Its prominence corresponds to the growing trend among Israeli Jews from all religious communities to integrate the practice of Judaism into their sense of national identity.

Jewish identity in Israel today. An independent state now for 63 years, Israel is no longer a political proposal or idea, but a reality. The questions about modern Jewish identity first raised by the early Zionists have shifted to ones about the nature of Jewish identity in Israel today. The answers are complex and often controversial.

First of all, Israel has changed greatly over the past six decades. New waves of aliyah (“Jewish immigration to Israel” in Hebrew) have helped Israel grow from a population of 600,000 people in 1948 to a population of 7.8 million people in 2011, 75 percent of whom are Jewish. In the same time period, the idealism and socialism that characterized the early pioneers in the decades leading up to and the first years after independence have dissipated greatly.

Many decades of war, uprisings and acts of terror, especially suicide bombings, have pushed the mainstream Jewish population to the right. Many Israeli Jews feel the world is out to get them and destroy the Jewish state. The specter of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, a country that almost daily promises to wipe Israel off the map, exacerbates these fears and triggers the population’s collective Holocaust consciousness.

In other words, the right wing has taken over the center in Israeli political and cultural life. Ironically, despite the country’s tremendous military and technological strength, its Jewish citizens still live in the shadows of the Holocaust, which continuously reminds them that powerful actors in the world seek their annihilation. In this sense, Israeli Jews are not yet entirely free, even though they live in a free, democratic and predominantly Jewish country.

Still, a small but vocal progressive or liberal Jewish community exists in Israel. However, it does not receive any support from the government, the religious affairs of which the Orthodox Rabbinate monopolizes. Orthodox Jews do not encourage Jewish religious pluralism, to put it mildly. Israel’s Conservative and Reform movements raise their own money — mostly from abroad — to support their pastoral activities.

Israel’s Conservative and Reform communities are small and do not experience much growth since most of today’s aliyah is comprised of religious Orthodox Jews. Moreover, the government, whose coalition politics give Orthodox Jews a disproportionate say in its policies, does not foster their growth but rather denigrates their legitimacy.

Despite these challenges, Conservative and Reform Jews demonstrate tremendous vitality. Their institutions are lively and assertive. They receive more positive press coverage in the Israeli media than in the past. And they often win battles in the courts since the Supreme Court recognizes them as legitimate religious Jewish communities.

In short, it is possible to be a Reform Jew in Israel, but it is far from the norm. For example, the largest Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, Congregation Kol Haneshama, is small but thriving. About 250 family units belong to it. Hundreds of people attend religious services every Shabbat. Holiday services attract thousands. The congregation also offers a wide range of cultural and social services. The Israeli government, however, neither officially recognizes it nor grants it any of the benefits enjoyed by the country’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox synagogues.

Non-Jewish identity in Israel. Though created for Jewish reasons, i.e., to ensure the survival of Jews in the modern world, Israel also guarantees equality and freedom to non-Jews as enshrined in its 1948 Declaration of Independence. The inspirational statement expounds the ideals upon which Israeli society is based. It states:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…

In many ways, what is needed today is a return to these foundational values. The reality is that a large non-Jewish minority — roughly 25 percent of the total population — lives in Israel. The majority are indigenous Arabs. Though most are Muslim, some are Christian or Druze. A small community of Circassians also has lived in Israel since the late 19th century. The rest of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities include significant numbers of immigrants from the traditionally Christian countries of Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

Israeli Arabs have a four-part identity:

  1. They are Arab by language and culture. They speak Arabic in their homes and communities and study Arabic language, literature and history in school. (Most Israeli Arabs attend Arab-speaking schools.)
  2. Most Israeli Arabs are Christian, Druze or Muslim. Very few are secular. Even when they are largely secular, they still identify with and are connected to Christian, Druze or Muslim Arab communities.
  3. Many, but not all, are Palestinian and have relatives in the West Bank, Gaza or Jordan. Though they live in Israel, they sometimes identify with the goals and aspirations of the Palestinian people. A minority of Israeli Arabs are Bedouin.
  4. They are Israeli citizens. They carry Israeli identity cards and passports. They enjoy all the privileges of participating in Israel’s democracy, e.g., the rights to vote, to protest peacefully, to petition the courts, etc. They enjoy social security benefits and guaranteed access to public education and universal health care. They speak and read Hebrew and actively participate in and follow Israeli cultural and sporting events.

Most Israeli Arabs participate in the country’s political process and vote in large numbers. They often influence national politics in major ways. For example, they helped elect Ehud Barak in 1999 and helped unseat him two years later. They vote in especially large numbers in municipal elections. Arab politicians from several major Arab political parties largely control local governments in predominantly Arab towns and villages.

Israeli Arab citizens are completely free to practice their religion as they see fit, so long as it does not incite violence. The Israeli Ministry of Interior’s Division for Religious Communities offers leadership and other assistance to Christian, Druze and Muslim communities throughout the country.

Unfortunately, despite the many rights they enjoy, Israeli Arabs experience considerable discrimination.

In particular, the government still does not allocate resources equitably between Arab and Jewish parts of the country. For decades, predominantly Arab municipalities have received fewer public services and less public funding for social service institutions, such as schools, than their Jewish counterparts. Many civil rights and educational organizations, such as the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, work to rectify these inequities and to help integrate better Israeli Arabs into Israeli society. Though these efforts have led to some progress, significant gaps in resource allocation persist between Arab and Jewish communities.

Israeli Arabs also face several restrictions that diminish their access to equal opportunities.

For instance, Israeli Arabs are exempt from the two or three years of service in the military required of all Israeli Jewish youth. The main reason is “security”: According to traditional wisdom, Israeli Arabs may act as double agents, supporting Israel’s Arab enemies, and represent a “fifth column” since the Arab-Israeli conflict has not yet ended. In response, the government has instituted an optional “alternative service” program, in which participants supplement military service with community service in hospitals and other social service institutions.

However, few Israeli Arab youth choose to serve in the military or enroll in alternative service program, most often because their families and communities discourage them from doing so. However, by not participating, young Israeli Arabs often encounter discrimination when they enter the job market: Many good jobs require all applicants to have completed their mandatory military service.

Another restriction is in the area of immigration. Since its early years, Israel has upheld a law of return which guarantees citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world who wish to immigrate. Of course, debate continues over who exactly qualifies as a Jew under the law. Suffice it to say, Israel continues to uphold the law and welcomes Jews from other countries who apply for citizenship under the law of return.

Non-Jews who want to immigrate to Israel, on the other hand, must apply for citizenship under a different set of laws and only obtain it in rare circumstances.

Discrimination against non-Jewish Israelis is a major problem in Israel today — one that needs to be tackled in the years ahead. It is incumbent on Israel’s Jewish majority to treat the minorities in their midst with fairness. As written in the Torah, Jews must treat the stranger fairly, as Jews were once themselves strangers in Egypt. Moreover, in the enlightened self-interest of the Jewish state, Israeli society must treat its minorities fairly if it hopes to remain a genuine democracy.

The good news is that there are many excellent nongovernmental organizations in Israel working at the grassroots level — in Jewish, Arab and mixed communities — to help improve relations between the Jewish majority and minorities. Through public awareness projects, legal battles and advocacy, these groups are fighting discrimination and helping guarantee non-Jewish and Jewish minorities due process of the law and secure equal opportunities to grow and thrive in Israel, now and in the future.

Reform Rabbi Ron Kronish, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. The council, now celebrating its 20th year, serves as the Israeli chapter of Religions for Peace. The son of a Reform rabbi from Miami Beach, Florida, he immigrated to Israel 32 years ago. He lives and works in Jerusalem. For more about Rabbi Kronish and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, visit

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