Avi’ezer Ravitzky

By Avi’ezer Ravitzky

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In 1949, a year after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Anglo-Jewish author Arthur Koestler wrote Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine, 1917-49, in which he attempted to predict the future of the society emerging in the Jewish state. Koestler wrote that it was difficult indeed to foresee the direction which this new Hebrew civilization would take, but that “one thing seems to be quite clear: Within a generation or two Israel will have become an entirely ‘un-Jewish’ country.” Already, Koestler stated in 1949, young people born in Israel were quite distinct from diaspora Jews: “With each generation this contrast is bound to increase,” culminating in the creation of a Hebrew identity and culture that would be completely foreign to anything the Jews had known.
Thirty years earlier, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen offered the opposite forecast about the fate of the Jewish society the Zionists sought to create in Palestine. According to Veblen, if the Zionists succeeded in gathering the Jews to their new state in their ancient land, they would isolate themselves completely from the wider world and concentrate solely on their particularist heritage, on “studies of a talmudic nature.” The Jewish people would no longer be exposed to modern European culture; this, in turn, would remove the conditions that until then had encouraged outstanding Jewish individuals to turn outward and contribute decisively to Western culture and modern science.
Which of them was right? The answer depends to a great extent upon which social, cultural or ideological group one chooses to look at. At one extreme, many Israelis are heading rapidly toward Koestler’s vision of total alienation from Jewish culture and historical consciousness. At the opposite extreme, however, many are trying with all their might to fulfill Veblen’s opposite vision: They have broken completely with everything external, universal and modern, and remain totally aloof from the world which those things represent—including Zionism, the modern national revolution of the Jewish people.
Unlike other modern revolutions, Zionism undertook to bring about an almost total revolution in the people’s human and national reality. It sought to move its sons and daughters away from their lands of residence, from their native tongues, from their way of life and their occupations. In practice, it waved all the banners at once—social, cultural, political and economic—and as a result had difficulty maintaining any sort of continuity with the experiences of the past. The political sphere required not just a change of political regime or liberation from foreign rule, but the creation of a new political entity, ex nihilo.
In this light was Zionism’s complex relationship with Jewish tradition born. Zionism was accompanied by an open revolt against the religious way of life and traditional modes of thought. At the same time, however, Zionism was also a movement of rebirth and the renewal of what had once been, long before. This tension was not just between the sacred and the profane, nor between the religious and the national. It was embodied in the modern Zionist act itself, in the national revolution in its own right. Zionism strove to make the Jewish people a normal people, dwelling on its own land, speaking its own language, responsible for its own fate, free from foreign subjugation, and maintaining a proper internal social structure. To attain this normalization, however, the Jews had to undergo a unique process, one that not only was not normal but which hardly had any parallel in history. What was routine in the life of other peoples (a national territory, a spoken language) in Israel’s case demanded special energy, and was necessarily bound up with a unique historical drama—as if to say that Jewish national normalization is inherently anomalous.
Is Israeli society doomed to engage, sooner or later, in a culture war? Is the Zionist synthesis necessarily marching to its demise? Why are the social agreements that were effective for an entire generation no longer sufficient, rejected today by various factions among the Israeli public?
Shortly after the establishment of the state, the religious and secular segments of the public came to agree upon an unwritten political arrangement which enabled them to live together even absent theological or ideological agreement. This arrangement worked well at the time in spite of, or possibly because of, internal contradictions. Under the arrangement, for example, public bus transportation was prohibited on the Sabbath (except in “red Haifa”), but traveling in taxis or private cars was permitted. Such a solution cannot easily be justified on grounds of consistency, under either Tora law or the principles of secular liberalism. No one was fully satisfied with it, but neither did it leave anyone alienated or defeated. It was this (partial) frustration which also ensured the arrangement’s (partial) success.
In recent years, dissatisfaction with the status quo has come out into the open. Resentment continues to grow on both sides. Many Israelis now demand either a fundamental reworking of the political agreement or the formulation of a new one. Almost fifty years have passed since the old compact was reached, and in this period, naturally, Israel has undergone profound changes in the various components of society: In the political and demographic spheres, in the realm of ideas and values, in the economic field, and in other areas as well. In the early days, some nine hundred yeshiva students were exempted from military service; now the yeshiva students number in the tens of thousands. In the past, when the consensus was reached regarding transportation on the Sabbath, only a few individuals owned their own automobiles; today most families own at least one car. From each side’s perspective a wide discrepancy developed between the terms of the original agreement and its present-day, tangible consequences. Moreover, the political and social consensus of the past was based mainly on an error maintained by both sides: It was assumed by each camp, for its own reasons, that the rival represented a transient historical phenomenon.
This implicit assumption was a prime factor in the long-term escalation to open conflict. In the past, it was easy for everyone to express tolerance and solidarity toward those they regarded as becoming, at least potentially, like themselves; today, however, one is expected to act in the same way toward those who clearly intend to maintain a separate identity and “otherness.” To reach the same end now requires acceptance and reconciliation of a type not called for in the past.
The politics of Zionism brought together for the first time various types of Jews from all the different streams, and also created a common public domain for them. As long as each saw the other as either an anachronism or a passing accident of history, no one troubled himself with genuine dialogue. Today, it seems that such dialogue is taking place—accompanied, it is true, by anger and harsh words, but taking place nonetheless.
This dialogue is the result of processes in which once-marginal groups (Sephardic Jews, the Orthodox, the Revisionists) gradually moved to the center, and even intellectual schools that opposed political Zionism (Reform Judaism, the Haredim) have become involved in the workings of the Zionist state. The Reform and Orthodox movements, for example, now seek to influence decision making in Israel, especially over such matters as the Law of Return and other issues which determine the character of the state. As a result, the “Jewish state” today is depicted more and more as the arena for the debate over contemporary Jewish identity, and less and less as expressing the victory of one worldview and one identity.
In Israel of 1948, one could speak of a single dominant pattern for the “authentic” Israeli, which was to be a unifying factor in society and a role model for the rest of the population. It was only later that more peripheral groups came to the fore and openly questioned the prevailing model. These groups then entered the centers of popular culture and government power. Undoubtedly this undermining of the hegemony of the “new Jew” is exacting its price today, leading to struggle and conflict, and threatening to undo the Israeli self-image. But as heavy as the price appears at times, this process also signifies social liberation and cultural pluralism. It provides an existential home for “other” communities, and establishes for them new centers of social identity.
Furthermore, the many studies that have been dedicated to the question of Jewish-Israeli identity have shown a continuum between the opposing cultural and social poles, a diverse human tapestry stretching from one extreme to the other. For example: Less than one-quarter of male Jews declare they are fully Sabbath-observant and put on tefilin every morning, but more than three-quarters attest that they fast on Yom Kippur and, surprisingly enough, fifty-six percent declare they “believe wholeheartedly” in the revelation at Sinai. In other words, the majority of the population falls within this range, expressing varying degrees of affinity to, or alienation from, religious tradition, practice and belief.
Still, the optimistic impression these facts often leave must be tempered with some reservation. Do polarization and alienation occur only when the public is divided down the middle into two camps? On the continuum lie intermediate groups in society who undoubtedly make positive contributions, but these are not enough to deaden the sting of political-social polarization. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that the bulk of Israeli creativity in the literary, philosophical, religious, artistic and advertising fields comes decidedly from the poles, not the middle. Tora literature is being produced in quantities unparalleled in Jewish history, while at the other end of the spectrum, Hebrew creative works flourish equally well. In other words, the elites who lead intellectual life in Israel are found at the extremes, whereas the rest of the continuum offers no tangible expression accessible to the population as a whole.
A distinction must be drawn, therefore, between the practical, existential and ritual plane, and the realm of spirit and creativity. The first sphere, embracing the tangible aspects of human life, contains important tools for bridging the gap that has developed between the two camps. But it will not suffice to blunt the polarization in the second realm, where cultural, ideological and political ideas are to be found.
Such a state of affairs does not allow for simple, harmonious solutions. Therefore we must agree, at the very least, to a shared social contract—which may in the future contribute to a deeper mutual understanding—for the rules of discourse and decision making, if not necessarily for belief and lifestyle. Encouraging solidarity and brotherhood on the day-to-day level, even if not on the ideological and theological level, will be enough. We must foster a common language, if not necessarily common words.

Prof. Avi’ezer Ravitzky is chairman of the Jewish Philosophy department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For a more extensive treatment of the topic discussed in this essay, see Avi’ezer Ravitzky, Religious and Secular in Israel: Kulturkampf? (Position Paper No. 4, the Israel Institute for Democracy).

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