/ Rabbinic Torah Seminar (RTS)

The Quest for a Shared Israeli Ethos

From the founding of the state, Israelis have asked themselves: Can this radically diverse society manage to coalesce around a shared identity and set of values?
Yossi Klein Halevi is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Jennifer Raskas, he co-directs the Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. Yossi is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor and co-host with Donniel Hartman and Elana Stein Hain of the Institute’s award-winning podcast, For Heaven’s Sake. He is also the author of Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli

2016 “Hart Talk” during Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar (RTS)

From the founding of the state, Israelis have asked themselves: Can this radically diverse society manage to coalesce around a shared identity and set of values?

Israel is the sum of its contradictions. A culture created by an Ashkenazi ideological core that is increasingly reshaped by its Mizrahi majority. A secular state in a holy land, uneasily balancing religion and state. A country under siege, struggling between security and democratic norms. The only democracy in a region that is devouring itself. The only democracy that is a long term occupier of another people. The only occupier that fears that withdrawal from territory will not merely diminish it but risk its ability to effectively defend itself.

In its early years official Israel promoted the notion of an ideal Israeli: socialist, secular,  implicitly Ashkenazi. Today Israel is far more diverse, and at least within its sovereign borders, far more pluralistic and democratic than in its early years. We have moved from a coercive melting pot to an uneasy confederation of tribes. Yet that diversity only intensifies the urgency of the old question: Do we have a common identity and set of values?

Debates in Israel are often so intense – not only because Jews always argue intensely, but because the issues are perceived by protagonists to be life and death. That is surely true of our territorial debate, where left and right agree about one thing: that the vision of the other camp is a danger to Israel’s existence.

But even our religion and state debates can be perceived by protagonists as existential. For haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, violation of Jewish law endangers our survival by tempting God’s wrath – exactly as we recite in the second part of the Shma prayer. For non-haredim, a theocratic Israel would isolate us from the West and most of the Diaspora and ultimately leave us alone in the world.

At their most intransigent, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can perceive the other as a literal mortal threat.
Another reason why our debates are so fierce is because we have brought home with us very different, often contradictory notions of what our reborn homeland should actually look like. Not only can’t we agree on the outlines of our borders, but we surely can’t agree on the nature of our society within those borders.

Each Diaspora community that has returned home – as we in Israel put it – brings with it a vision of Israel based on its unique experiences. It is no coincidence that the Hartman Institute is an American-Israeli center, and that many of those who sit here are American immigrants who have brought with us the pluralistic values with which we grew up. Nor is it a coincidence that so many Russian Israelis, for example, who grew up as a helpless minority under an anti-semitic regime, tend to fear an erosion of Israel’s power more than they do an erosion of its democratic values.

What I’ve learned as an Israeli is that no single Diaspora experience can claim to be the whole repository of Jewish wisdom and values. It sometimes seems that different Diaspora sensibilites, even different eras of Jewish history, are arguing with themselves about the meaning of Jewish identity and the nature of the state we dreamed into being.

During the first intifada in the early 90s, I served in an IDF unit that was based in the Gaza refugee camps. Our role was more policing than soldiering, trying to control violent protests. I befriended two fellow new immigrants, both of whom, as it happens, were African Jews, one white, one black. Zev was from South Africa, Shimon from Ethiopia. As we patrolled the camps, Zev became increasingly listless: Gaza was his nightmare, as if South Africa had pursued him. But Shimon was resolute: He saw the graffitti on the walls showing swords piercing the Star of David, and he concluded: It’s us or them. They wanted to send his family back to the refugee camp in Sudan, and Shimon was going to resist.

The challenge facing Israeli society, then, is to accommodate – within a broad shared framework of values – the radically different sensibilities of our ideological and ethnic tribes. That framework has been defined by Israel’s Declaration of Independence as Jewish and democratic. What each of those values means – and the balance between them – is the essence of the struggle over defining Israeliness.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence not only saw no contradiction between those two facets of identity of the future state but insisted that Israel’s democratic spirit would be the natural result of its Jewish spirit. Israel would be democratic precisely because it would be Jewish – because its Jewish values would be those of the Prophets of Israel.

The nation’s founders, then, defined Israel as both a Jewish state and a state of all of its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish. We now know that the reality is more complicated. Today those two identities are sometimes perceived as antithetical. Yet for the founders they were the entwined, non-negotiable elements of Israeliness. That meant a public space infused with a Jewish sensibility – the holidays and language would be “Jewish”–but the Arab minority would also see a reflection of itself in the public space. Arabic is Israel’s official second language. And Israel is the only Western state where Shariya, Islamic law, has official status.

But the framers of the Declaration did insist that the state about to be born would be permitted – obliged – to discriminate in favor of Jews in one area: immigration. That there would be one corner of the planet where it was actually an advantage to be a Jew when applying for citizenship. Affirmative action for Jewish immigrants, as we would put it today. But that was meant to be the grand exception, not a pretext for other forms of discrimination. As former chief justice Aharon Barak explained, a democratic state is permitted to determine who it prefers to admit into the country as citizens; it is permitted, in other words, to discriminate at the gates of entry. But once an immigrant enters through those gates and becomes a citizen, there can be no preferential treatment on the basis of identity.

For all the erosion in democratic values, especially among young Israelis, arguably majority of Israeli Jews still agree that Israel must remain both Jewish and democratic, however those categories are defined. But the country’s two fastest growing populations – the ultra Orthodox and the Arab or Palestinian Israelis – are also the two populations outside that shared ethos. Arab Israelis want Israel to be less Jewish, while ultra-Orthodox Israelis want Israel to be more Jewish.
Israel’s challenge is to create a strong center that can hold our unavoidable, necessary contradictions.

The emergence of a substantial centrist camp on the Palestinian issue – ready in principle for a two state solution but wary of the other side’s intentions – has gone a long way toward calming our territorial debate.

But for now at least the left-right schism over a Palestinian state has given way to the primacy of our cultural schism – over democracy, identity, the rule of law, respect for minority rights.

To effectively address that challenge, Israel needs to strengthen its cultural center. On the rule of law, centrist Israelis want a strong, unapologetic defense policy – but uncompromised by officially sanctioned brutality. On respect for minorities, centrists want an Israel that is at once a Jewish state and the state of all of its citizens. On religion and state, centrist Israelis want an Israel that is at once less Jewish and more Jewish – less Jewish legislation, an end to the corrupt monopoly of the official rabbinate and at the same time with Jewish values and culture in our schools and in our homes.

The shared ethos toward which we need to aspire is not homogeneity but the opposite – an embrace of paradox that is at the heart of the Israeli experience. This tension is the unavoidable result of the ingathering of the exiles, of the convergence on this small spot of Jews from around the world, uneasily creating a shared society with an Arab minority and trying to make sense of the contradictory hopes and dreams and fears of 4,000 years of Jewish history.

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