Toward a Renewed Jewish Identity

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Last month I argued that Israel’s long-range survival depends upon substantially strengthening the Jewish component of Israeli identity (“Jews and Staying Power,” Oct. 21, 2005). Only a reinvigorated Jewish identity can provide the internal unity, attachment to Land, and national morale necessary to confront a future in which Israel will continue to confront neighbors bent on its destruction.

For many, any discussion of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state conjures up visions of a Torah state-lite and fears of incipient theocracy. For that reason, it is important to understand what forms a reinvigorated identity would take. Such efforts to foster a connection between modern-day Israelis and the historical Jewish people have nothing to do with a state run according to halacha.

Jewish identity is first and foremost a matter of education. Among the enumerated goals of the Education Act of 1953 were: to “teach Torat Yisrael and the history of the Jewish people, . . . to know Jewish tradition.” Talmud, biblical archaeology, and Tanach were all integral parts of a curriculum designed to create a sense of attachment to the historical people of Israel.

That goal is further from realization with each passing year. Once Israeli youth knew the highways and by-ways of the country, could name dozens of agricultural settlements, and attach Biblical verses to the sites that they visited. Today their knowledge of Israel often extends no further than the local mall and the nearest beach. When he was Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, Natan Sharansky announced that less than one-half of Israeli high-school students have even visited Jerusalem. Many have traveled more extensively in India and the Far East than their own country.

Israel Academic Monitor documents the extent to which the state is funding post-Zionist professors who travel the world warning against the dangers of a Jewish state. Professor Amnon Rubinstein recently provided examples of the self-destructive impulse of the kibbutz movement. The United Kibbutz Movement publishes an academic journal that “habitually condemns the kibbutzim as a colonialist phenomena,” and Hashomer Hatza’ir appointed the University Haifa’s Ilan Pappe, a leading supporter of international academic boycotts of Israel, as head of its Peace Research Institute.

Until Yoram Hazony raised a hue and a cry in The New Republic, the Education Ministry was hell-bent on publishing a high school history textbook whose photographs portrayed the Palestinian refugee problem as the primary consequence of the War of Independence, and which described Israel’s shooting down of six Syrian MiGs as the proximate cause of the Six Day War. Reviewing the textbook, Hillel Halkin lamented the absence of any reminder to the ninth-grade reader “that he belongs to the people he is reading about; . . . and that their story is his story.”

THE ISRAELI SUPREME COURT has played a large role in limiting the state’s ability to inculcate any sense of Jewish identity. Part of the “agenda” of Professor Ruth Gavison that renders her unfit, in Court President Aharon Barak’s view, to sit on the Supreme Court is her effort in recent years to flesh out and give content to the Basic Laws’ description of Israel as a “Jewish state.” That effort does not sit well with Barak, who in his famous debate with his colleague Menachem Elon defined “Jewish” at such a level of abstraction as to be synonymous with his vision of democratic rights.

The draft constitution of the Israel Democracy Institute, the body most heavily involved in this area, would strike down any law that has its source in religious law. Thus the Jewish state could ban the sale of whale meat on ecological grounds but not the sale of pork. That approach reflects the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, most notably in a long line of cases eviscerating Knesset legislation dealing with the production and sale of pork products. The Court rejects the idea that reminding Israeli Jews of those things for which Jews have shed their blood in the thousands or forging a link of identification between modern Israel and the historical Jewish people could constitute a valid legislative purpose.

THE DISDAIN consistently shown by the Israeli government for Jewish holy places further severs the connection between modern Israelis and their past. Thus the Muslim Wakf has been left unimpeded to carry out whatever work it desires on the Temple Mount and to unceremoniously dump historical artifacts from the Temple period into garbage heaps. The chief Israeli negotiator on Jerusalem matters at Camp David has written that he approached the Temple Mount as an unwanted burden.

Yasser Arafat intuitively recognized that nothing could weaken Israeli resolve more than renouncing our ties with the Land, and that is why he pushed so hard to force Israel to acknowledge that the Temple Mount is more important to Muslims than to Jews. “The very word ‘Land’”, writes Uri Elitzur, has been removed from the enlightened Hebrew vocabulary. Whoever dares to mention it is stigmatized as a worshiper of idols, who bows down to rocks and graves.”

Finally, a renewed Jewish identity would mean tapping the wellsprings of Jewish idealism. Perhaps the greatest “sin” of the treatment of the Gaza evacuees lies in that failure to relate to their idealism as a valuable national resource and to acknowledge their communitarianism as hearkening back to an earlier, more idealistic moment in Israeli history. Instead the evacuees have been deprived of their dignity, and left without homes and jobs. Too little effort was made to allow them to preserve their communities. Their “ideology” has been treated by courts and prosecutors as something uniquely pernicious, justifying extra severity and the abandonment of all legal protections.

Settlement of the Negev ranks at the top of national priorities. And yet the government made no effort to tap the idealism of the Gaza settlers for establishing new Negev settlements, which could serve as a magnet for idealistic youth from all over the country, and has still not done so to a sufficient degree. Instead the Gaza settlers have been left to rot in overcrowded hotels and under the corrugated tin roof of the “City of Faith,” while their communities disintegrate.

To describe the various barriers that have been erected to Jewish identity in Israel – in the educational system, the judicial system, through governmental indifference to the sanctity of our holy places, and the failure to draw upon the idealism of the most committed segments of our population – is to prescribe the solutions as well.

In no case does removing those barriers require steps inconsistent with Israel’s character as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Published in today’s Jerusalem Post.

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2 Responses

  1. Alexander says:

    Ori Pomerantz wrote:

    Is there any way to convince chilonim (Jewish non observant Israelis) that they should care about it, that it’s not a threat and an excuse to tell them what to do?

    Sure, many ways:

    Distribute educational books, CDs and mp3s
    Promote independent Jewish TV and radio
    Teach orthodox Israelis how to reach out to their neighbors.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Given how trustworthy the Israeli government is, is there a way to encourage Jewish identity without relying on it? That is, is there any way to convince chilonim (Jewish non observant Israelis) that they should care about it, that it’s not a threat and an excuse to tell them what to do?