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News Analysis: in Its 53rd Year, Israel Will Continue to Ask, ‘who Am I?’

May 3, 2000
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As Israelis prepare to fire up their grills for their Independence Day barbecue ritual on Israel’s 52nd birthday next week, the existential debates that dominate the public agenda are almost sure to get lost in the clouds of smoke.

But amid the smog that will descend upon the country, there is also a feeling that in Israel’s 53rd year, an intense debate about the nature of the Jewish state and the future of Zionism will heat up.

“The attempt to find a middle road between a Jewish and democratic state will be the essence of the ongoing public debate over Jewish and Israeli identity,” said Moshe Lissak, professor emeritus of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“But I don’t think that Israeli society is ripe for these discussions because as long as diplomatic arrangements with her neighbors have not been secured, it will be difficult to address these issues in a rational way.”

Experts say that after the barbecues are doused, the debate about the nature of the Jewish state will proceed along two main paths.

First, the very fundamental definition of Israel as a Jewish state is likely to face sharper challenges than ever before from Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population of 6 million. Second, the struggle between religious and secular segments of society toward defining what it means to be a Jewish state will be played out in new ways.

The impetus for the Arab challenge was provided nearly two months ago, when the Qadan family from the Galilee won the right from Israel’s High Court of Justice to build a home in Katzir, a Jewish community established by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

With that landmark decision, the Supreme Court shattered one of the fundamental tenets of modern Zionism, which sought to secure land exclusively for Jews. While ruling that it was illegal to discriminate against Arabs in land allocation, the court insisted this did not clash with the Jewish nature of the state.

In fact, Justice Aharon Barak argued that the “Jewish character of the state did not permit Israel to discriminate between its citizens. In Israel, Jews and non-Jews are citizens with equal rights and responsibilities.”

The ruling injected a new sense of self-confidence into Israel’s Arab community, which says it suffers from widespread discrimination in areas such as employment and government funding.

Mohammed Baraka, a Knesset member and leader of the predominantly Arab Hadash Party, said Israeli Arabs will now step up their struggle for equal rights and press ahead with a campaign to remove the Jewish symbols of the state: from the Star of David flag to the national anthem Hatikvah to the Jewish Agency itself.

Though Baraka said he understands this strikes at a raw nerve of most Jewish Israelis, he added, “The state can express Jewish national aspirations, but it cannot be a Jewish state if one of every five citizens is an Arab,” he said. “Healthy logical reasoning says that when the Jewish and democratic nature of the state clash, the democratic way should win out.”

Such a campaign, said sociologist Lissak, is likely to reignite dormant Zionist feelings among many Israelis.

“I fear a backlash from a large portion of Jewish society,” he said.

But at the Jewish Agency — an organization Baraka wants dismantled — Sallai Meridor, the Jewish Agency chairman who opposed the Supreme Court ruling, believes Israelis are up to the challenge, even in the face of post-Zionist trends and history books that are rewriting what once were sacred beliefs about the heroism of Israel’s founders.

“After having built the state physically, we are now moving on to the phase of adding the spiritual content of what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “I think this is a very exciting challenge.”

While Meridor believes the Jewish state must be particularly sensitive to its non-Jewish population — even using affirmative action at times — he also foresees a growing Arab trend to “de-Zionize and de-Judaize” Israel.

In addition, there will be groups of Israelis who join in and want Israel to relinquish all identity as a Jewish state. Such a threat, he said, could indeed galvanize mainstream support for a more Jewish state.

“But the true challenge is to choose to be Jewish or to stay Jewish without anti-Semites, and to be united without enemies,” he added.

Yet at the same time, Israeli Jews are likely to experience a contradictory trend. More and more Israeli Jews see different cultural, religious or political sectors within Israel as enemies, and this will make cohesion a difficult task.

Many believe the same court that gave its nod to the land challenge by the Arab family will also present a different set of challenges for religious and secular Jews.

Secular Jews feel increasingly threatened by the rising political power of haredi, or fervently Orthodox, parties. Many see the Supreme Court as a last line of defense against religious politics.

The haredim meanwhile, feel defenseless against an increasingly activist judicial system. On all sides, the rhetoric is ugly.

Ironically, the haredim, who largely do not attach theological significance to Israel as a Jewish state, are battling harder than ever to maintain the state’s clutch on Judaism.

Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the Israel office for the fervently Orthodox Am Echad group and a commentator for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, explains the paradox.

On the one hand, he said, an increasingly materialistic, secular society with a shrinking connection with Judaism, vindicates the classical haredi rejection of secular Zionism as a replacement for Judaism.

“At the same time, we are fearful that to the extent that people lose any awareness of themselves as Jews as a distinctive entity, it will make it much more difficult to reconstitute the Jewish people around its natural center, which is the Torah,” he added.

Rosenblum rejected accusations that haredim want to create a Jewish theocracy. He sees the group’s attitude toward religion and state as performing the role of a teacher.

It is this, he explained, that drove the haredi struggle against the shipment of a large turbine on Shabbat last year, in one of the odder religious-secular battles of the year and a signal of what is to come.

“The point about the turbine was that both the government and the Supreme Court basically took the position that Shabbas is an irrational consideration, and only financial consideration matters,” Rosenblum said. “On that we had to go to war.”

Meanwhile, beyond the ideological wars between Jew and Arab and Jew and Jew, there is yet a new type of Israeli emerging. They are high-tech capitalists, a breed apart from the socialist-Zionists who were dominant among the founders of the state.

The new entrepreneurs see themselves as redefining Zionism for the new millennium.

Sociologist Lissak says Israel’s high-tech boom and prosperity has not had a mitigating influence on the ideological conflicts, as might be expected, because only a small number of Israelis actually have a direct stake in the profits.

However, Neil Cohen, a partner at Israel Seed Partners, a venture capital fund that raised $180 million last month from top U.S. investors and leading Internet figures, said he believes the high-tech boom is impacting the country in bigger ways — and creating new challenges.

“We have created hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs,” said Cohen, who immigrated from London 11 years ago. “It gives us a degree of satisfaction and a feeling of pride that we wouldn’t feel if we were in the U.K. or the U.S.”

Cohen sees the building of Israel’s new economy to be as important a Zionist task as the work of the pioneers was decades ago.

Yet as the money to create jobs flows in, sweeping Israel with it into the trends of globalization, Cohen knows that the ideals of those founding pioneers will be lost on the new Israeli generation.

The first challenge is to bridge the gap between the haves of the new economy and the have nots of the old economy.

“The second is maintaining Jewish identity,” he said. “We have been so good at what we’ve done that all the things that have differentiated us from just any other nation have broken down and we run a risk of becoming just like any other nation.”

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