Losing Our Religion: The Unfortunate Need for a Secular Israeli Identity

Haim Watzman

In his recent post on the conversion obstructionism of Israel’s established church, Gershom wrote: “We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.” He’s right, but it’s sad that he is.

The secular Israeli state’s way of determining who is Jewish—and therefore who belongs to the state’s majority culture and ethnic group—is a religious definition. True, that’s partly an artifact of Israeli politics, but not just. It’s a definition with roots in deep in Jewish religion and history, and in the way the Jewish nation views itself. And it’s something to be proud of.

The halachic position is that a person need not be Jewish to be close to God. Being a member of the Chosen People means being subject to special duties, but it gives you no monopoly on righteousness or spirituality.

As a result, the traditional attitude towards prospective converts is one of skepticism. What do they need it for? Why take on all the duties and limitations that being a Jew requires? Why number yourself among an oppressed and despised people? So candidates for conversion have traditionally been discouraged; if they persist, the process is a long and arduous one.

In its early decades, Israel’s secular government was able to live fairly comfortably with the religious definition of belonging to the Jewish people. The problematic cases were relatively few. That changed with the huge influx of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants in the 1990s. Over the space of a few years, Israel gained a large population of individuals who were not religiously Jewish but whom the Israeli state sought to absorb into the majority culture.

Clearly, most of these immigrants were not going to become observant Jews. Yet, in the context of Israeli society, they could not be legitimize members of Israeli society without undergoing religious conversion.

Recognizing that the challenge we face today requires a reconsideration of conversion law, a few rabbis and religious politicians have sought to make becoming much easier. But their efforts have been stymied by the religious establishment.

These religious functionaries, who receive their salaries from the state, have not only served their country and people badly—they have made it almost inevitable that the religious definition of Judaism will have to be circumvented.

Israel, like most other countries, has a majority culture and a minority culture. As Yoav Orgad points out in today’s Ha’aretz, it’s legitimate for national majorities to seek to promote their culture and maintain their majority status, as long as they respect minority rights.

Orgad points out that Israel’s current religious definition of membership in its majority community differs from that in many other democracies:

Israel seeks Jewish immigrants, even if their culture is different from the majority one, as in the case of ultra-Orthodox Jews; Israel does not want non-Jewish immigrants, even if they study the poet Bialik and salute the flag. Holland does not have an ethnic problem with non-Dutch persons, so long as they become Dutch from the cultural point of view and accept that country’s values and language.

Orgad proposes that Israeli adopt an immigration policy that bases belonging to Israel’s majority not on ethnicity but on the acceptance of “certain cultural and national norms.” In other words, ethnic Jews would not automatically become citizens until they met certain conditions, and non-Jews could become citizens by assimilating into the majority culture.

Defining those cultural and national norms will not be easy—today there are several warring versions of what the majority culture is or ought to be. What determines one’s assimilation into Israeli culture? Knowledge of Bialik, Brenner, and Hanoch Levin? Familiarity with traditional Jewish texts? Fluency in the Hebrew language? Holocaust awareness? A country that can’t put together a curriculum acceptable to all Jews is one that hasn’t yet defined an identity that one could be naturalized into.

That’s a major reason why the religious definition of who is a Jew remains on the books —it’s as much inertia as politics.

I’d love to see Israel’s religious leaders wake up and engage in some creative discourse on how we could preserve the laudable elements of the halacha of conversion in the framework of a solution appropriate to today’s reality. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen.

So in the meantime we need to get to work on fashioning an Israeli Jewish identity that melds our religious heritage, our national history, and modern secular Hebrew culture in an open and thoughtful way.

It might look something like the culture of South Jerusalem.

5 thoughts on “Losing Our Religion: The Unfortunate Need for a Secular Israeli Identity”

  1. Huh? You agree with Gershom that Israel needs a secular identity but then you say that Israeli Jews need their own Israeli Jewish Identity? Aren’t these ideas sort of intention with one another? Isn’t the whole point of a secular identity to create something that all Israelis have in common? Why then turn around and have the government classify a whole new group of people who are *really Israeli? On the one hand such a “real” conception of Jewish identity could never be agreed upon politically, and on the other hand it would seem to undo the unity that a secular identity would promote.
    Moreover, how can you say that “the secular Israeli state’s way of determining who is Jewish… is a religious definition” with “deep in Jewish religion and history” – what “definition” are you referring to? Are you really suggesting that there is some clear criteria here?

  2. Isn’t it ironic that in a “Jewish state” it seems like the only people not afforded freedom of religion are Jews?

  3. Berger — maybe I wasn’t clear. Israeli law gives the official rabbinate the power to determine who is Jewish for the purposes of marriage, divorce, burial, etc. For the purposes of citizenship the law largely accepts the religious definition. So there are clear criteria. If you look at Orgad’s article you’ll see that he’s proposing that Israel adopt a process in use by many other countries (he uses Holland and France as examples) in which citizenship for immigrants is granted as part of a naturalization process that involves some sort of period of residence and the acquisition of knowledge about the society, its government, and its culture. Such a procedure would establish a different, non-religious set of criteria for citizenship. However, he’s not talking about an American-style definition of citizenship that is devoid of an ethnic component. Rather, he sees this naturalization process as offering not just legal citizenship but also membership in the country’s majority ethnic community.

  4. Without the religious definition of a Jew in Israel, “Jewish” would become a racial category which would exclude Arabs. Non-Jewish who would know Israeli culture still could be counted as “Jews.” Thus, anyone who immigrates to Israel could be considered a “Jew,” but anyone indiginous and non-Jewish, i.e. Arab, would be excluded from the country’s cultural mainstream. The distinction between “Jews” which would mean any non-Arab immigrant, and “Arab” which would mean any indiginous non-Jew. Under such a system, the distinction between “colonist” and “indiginous” would become explicit and formalized and then not be a theoretical criticism as it is now.

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