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Israeli Identity 101

The recent Pew Survey on Israel, conducted from fall 2014-Spring 2015 examined the religious identity of Israelis. The survey was comprehensive in scope – beyond any previous survey of this type. Over 5,500 Israelis were interviewed face to face, some 3,800 Jews and 1,700 non-Jews.

Jews constitute about 80% of Israel’s citizens, with Arab Citizens (Moslems, Christians, Druze) at 20%.

Among Israeli Jews, support of Israel as a Jewish state was wall to wall. Do you support the right of Aliya for all Jews? 98% answered affirmatively. Do you believe that the existence of Israel is critical to the survival of the Jewish people? 91% answered affirmatively, including a surprising 65% of those identifying as Haredi (ultra-religious) a sector known historically to be anti-Zionist and at best ambivalent towards the State of Israel. Among all the other Jews surveyed, 96% supported that statement.

Israeli Jews not only believe in the premise of Zionism, they are its product with 93% responding that they are proud of being Jewish. Pride in who they are is not unique to Israel’s Jewish citizens. Moslems, Christians and Druze, all responded similarly concerning their identities. Israel not only nurtures Jewish identity – it also provides a secure space for religious minorities to express themselves freely.

In short, almost all Jewish Israelis believe in Israel as a Jewish State, as a refuge for Jews and as the center of the Jewish people. After almost 70 years of independence, one of the basic premises of Zionism is confirmed as the core belief of Jewish Israelis, Jewish identity in Israel is secure and proud.

This is the essential message of the Pew survey: OVERWHELMING PRIDE AND SUCCESS OF ISRAEL. Yet with all the success and optimism conveyed by the results, the Pew survey is disturbing in some ways, revealing contradictions and conflicts that are a part of life in Israel, challenging us to act in order to sustain and build on this success,

Demographics of Israel favor further divisions into sectors rather than a strong Jewish-Zionist center. Each sector has cultural characteristics and core beliefs. In addition to the cultural chasms between Jewish and Arab citizens, among Jewish Israelis social divisions based on religion is striking. The “haredi”, “dati” and “secular” identities reflect far more than religious affiliations and beliefs. They are constructed on deep communal norms, and there is very little crossover between them. Political scientists have used the term “consociational” to describe societies in which power is shared by separate cultural/religious sectors, each having collective rights. Lebanon provides one example of consociational democracy, as does Belgium. Israel is not a consociational democracy, but the survey showed that Israeli society shares many of its characteristics, and may be developing into one.

One striking Pew result that demonstrates this is that among Israeli Jews, beliefs and practices are cross-generational in each sector. The 18-29 year olds believe and do what the 55-64 year-olds believe and do in almost exactly the same percentages. For those who believe that the primary purpose of education is to convey culture and belief to the next generation, Israeli sectoral life has had some resounding successes, and this seems particularly true among secular and haredi Jews.

Yet there is a price we pay for consociational living, and this is reflected in the Pew Survey. Prejudice, fear and suspicion govern relationships with the other groups. The vast majority of Jews responded that Arab Israeli leaders do not want peace. The vast majority of Arabs responded the same way about Jewish leaders; The fact that almost half of Jewish Israelis want to expel or transfer the Arab population is engendered and fed by national conflict, yet undoubtedly is connected to ethnic sectors living separate lives with very few opportunities to know each other. Yet secular and haredi Jews are in most ways no less disconnected from one another than Jews and Arabs. The vast majority of haredi and secular respondents said that they would be very uncomfortable if their children married someone from the other sector, and secular Israelis are more comfortable with their children marrying a Christian than a haredi Jew. Religious pluralism suffers: a majority of Jews, including a quarter of the secular sector, oppose permitting Conservative and Reform rabbis to perform weddings.

Recently President Rivlin’s office published a paper on inclusion in which it defined four emerging sectors in Israeli society around the school systems – State, State- religious, Haredi and Arab. Noting demographic trends that show half of 1st grade pupils will soon be Haredi or Arab, the paper states that in the future Israeli identity will be defined in the meeting ground between these sectors.

With all due respect to President Rivlin, this approach to our future provides no response to the challenges of nurturing a healthy, Zionist Israeli center. I am a pluralist. I oppose discrimination against minorities and celebrate diversity, but if the Jewish State is to thrive, its public space cannot merely be the consociational meeting ground for a number of “tribes” sharing the same geographical space, but with little else in common. Defending ourselves in the Middle East and serving as the center for Jewish People are not challenges that can be led by sectors, each pulling in its own direction.

Israel’s public educational systems, rather than being designed to break down barriers and prepare children for citizenship in an open society, reinforce cultural and religious divisions. Thus it is hardly an accident that the 29% of Jewish Israelis who responded that they are “masorti” (traditional) are the only group that also responded that they have significant social connections among all the other Jewish sectors. Why? Jews who identify as masorti don’t have their own political parties and government-funded educational systems, youth movements and cultural institutions, which reinforce sectoral living.

Unlike the secular, religious and haredim, the self-identified masortim have none of the characteristics of a sector. Some ride on Shabbat and some don’t. Their children attend secular and religious schools. They are from Sephardic and Ashkenazic backgrounds. They represent a spectrum of political views. Furthermore, if one measures behavior rather than self-identification, many Jews who identified in the Pew Survey as “secular” also fit well into the traditional group (e.g. one third of secular Jews keep kosher at home, half of them light candles on Friday night).

This is the key group: the 40%-45% of the Jewish population that doesn’t fit neatly into a category or run its own school system, nor does it vote for one political party around which a sector revolves, nor does it even seek to be a sector. But it does need to be served and recognized as the critical group, as the lynchpin of sustaining the Jewish-Zionist and democratic character of the State of Israel, as the group capable of dialogue with all sectors and holding Israeli democracy together. The people in this group have no political party or educational system to serve their needs, and the mainly secular parties for whom they vote take them for granted. What can we do to strengthen this non-secular silent plurality of Jewish Israelis?

This is why I believe so passionately in what we do at the Schechter Institute, why on a personal level my wife and I sent our four children to TALI schools and encouraged them to be active in the Noam youth group. The vast majority of children in TALI schools (and for that matter in Noam) are not from Conservative/Masorti families and are not likely as adults to join Conservative congregations, but they will belong to a large Jewish-Zionist center. They will soon have to serve in the IDF and then as adults lead the way for Israel’s future. To meet this challenge, they will need to be able to connect emotionally and intellectually with their Jewish heritage and with Jews around the world. They will need to have a healthy appreciation for diversity and respect other ways of life, Jewish and non-Jewish. We need to provide for them the educational infrastructure that nurtures and informs their Jewish identity, preparing them for active citizenship in a robust Israeli democracy.

Eitan Cooper is the Vice President of the Schechter Institute. He joined the staff of the TALI Education Fund at Schechter in 2000. He has been involved in Jewish-Zionist education as a teacher, tour educator, fundraiser and administrator, for over 30 years.

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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