Israel: Coming Into Its Own

Once again, the Netanyahu government is demanding that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state. Once again, Palestinian leaders are balking. As if either side knows just what a Jewish state means. It occurred to me that those who have not read The Hebrew Republic might enjoy the conversation I had with a group of my former students a few summers ago: young Israelis, struggling with this very question, to whom I gave the book's last word. I still find the conversation inspiring, as much for its moral seriousness as its views.

I assembled a group of my former business students at the Interdisciplinary Center—not a scientific sample, but not a monolithic group either: all in their late twenties, some married, some still messing around. They all live in the Tel-Aviv area now, digging in—young Israelis at their best, talkative, hopeful, diligent, liking things their own way. They had lived in other places, New York, London, Miami—India. They were determined to make their lives right where they were. There was Milly, the sparky niece of a former Likud minister, always hating the practice of law, always sticking with it; Yaacov, the religiously observant son of a Mizrahi immigrant in Kiryat Gat, already carrying himself like the family scion; Assaf, the former fighter pilot still living on his parents’ moshav, now flying for El Al and teaching yoga; and finally Yaron, the Tel-Aviv entrepreneur with a brother in New York and a genius for punch-lines. They knew something of amy views and that I wanted to know theirs. Milly, as usual, jumped in first.

“When I was five,” she said, starting with the basics, “we moved to Long Island for a while, and my father, who was from a religious home—you know, knitted yarmulkes—sent me to a Yeshiva, so that I’d learn Hebrew. Those Jews were so hostile to Israelis who were obviously not religious. My brother, who was twelve, had a little ponytail from Israel, and the Rabbi came up to him while he was waiting for the bus and just cut it off—which was, like, illegal. We went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and sat in some empty seats, and the woman there started yelling at us that seats were supposed to be paid for. The energy was awful, all about being fashionable, ‘Jappy’—you know, ‘Jewish American Princess’—I couldn’t wait to get back home.”

“That’s why I want to raise my children here,” Yaron broke in. Speaking about raising children comes naturally to young Israelis, in a way it doesn’t to Americans. Did everybody make the same decision? I asked. Yes, they said—“That, and not to make decisions,” Yaron said.

But what exactly does here mean, I pressed them. “Last week-end, my husband’s family—a very leftist family—got into a discussion. The idea of a Hebrew republic”—Milly had read an article of mine—“kicked off a two-hour discussion. We started to really get into the details—what does it mean to earn Israeli citizenship, is it to be Israeli or Jewish, what it means for Arabs here. I don’t think a lot of people here want to hear that Israel should be Israeli the way France is French.” Why not? I asked. “Because most want Judaism. They want it without repression, they want the holidays, that sort of thing. Norms, not laws. They want Kashrut along with the right, which is widely exercised, not to be kosher, in restaurants and hotels. It’s a joy not to have travel on Yom Kippur, but make it a law and everyone will drive. Norms, not laws.”

I wasn’t sure why this Israel was not like France. But before I could push back, Yaacov took things in a different direction: “I’ve gone through a change. The country used to be more united, people had more in common. But in the past ten years—call it globalization—we have become more developed, we have wanted to see more, experience more—Jews always want to jump to the head of the line. And we’ve become more like the outside world—we’ve developed and advanced. And this is affecting what we mean by Jewish and democratic. Religion reflects more primitive—well, not primitive, ancient—values, more historical consciousness, which has to keep up. Fine, I have all kinds of ideas about how Judaism might accommodate modernization. But here comes the disintegration. Seculars will say, OK, I’ll circumcise my son, but I don’t want a rabbi, I am in the center. Everybody for himself”—

“Or perhaps they can come together to support the legal conditions that make a secular society possible,” Milly broke in, obviously concerned by Yaacov’s direction, not appreciating what a profound point she had just made; “Coming together to support a society of choices is also social consciousness”—

“Yes, true, Yaacov replied, “but I still think we are too focused on ourselves, on what’s good for us, and not on the community that is all around us. My folks are from Libya and Morocco,” he says. “My grandmother tells me about how she gave up everything to make it here, and it breaks her heart that any of us would leave. They came here for a Jewish state, Jewish values, connection, safety. Now this is all weakened. How this affects ‘Jewish and democratic,’ walla, who knows, since we’ll always want to be Jewish, but democratic is a sacred word, we’ll never want a totalitarian country, so we’ll always continue the tension, a secular majority against an orthodox minority.”

“But the Arabs have to be taken into account,” Milly replied, “the demographic trends will bring us a growing Arab minority that will confront a growing Haredi minority. There will be an explosion here. It hurts me, too, to think about everything there was here, the kibbutzim, and the pioneering hats, but the question is now how to get to the 21st. century. How are we going to have a state that fits with the people who are living in it today—Haredi, secular, whatever? What will solve the social divisions, which reflects us younger people, who see things differently. We need to keep an open mind to immigration and education, to preserving a Jewish character, but find a formula to bring people together, without repression, secular and dati, Jews and Arabs. Ten years from now, I don’t want to see an Arab majority or a Haredi majority. We can start by finding a way to give Russian immigrants the citizenship they deserve but can’t get because their ‘Jewishness’ is not pure. Our tests for citizenship should become more sophisticated, and include, at least, language and knowledge of our history, like in America.”

ASSAF, THE PILOT, serene as a Buddha, now took over the controls, homing in on his conclusions as if on a landing strip. “I think there is a trend in the Western world as a whole, of which we are a small part, toward a kind of spirituality, a fatigue with the ‘me.’ At the same time, Jews have tried to return to ‘sources’ and there is a fatigue with the sources. We don’t want Judaism as such, dat. We want ‘religious’ values, spiritual values, but don’t want hatred of ‘goyim,’ or war over land, or the keeping of commandments over the lives of human beings. This trend creates a vacuum, which has to be filled by an all-encompassing frame—one that answers the individual, fullness, happiness, what religion sometimes gives you. But it has to be complete, inclusive, of Arabs, and of all the complex reality we face. And we are very, very far from this.”

“We—the people who believe this—are a minority,” Assaf continued, apparently including his interlocutors, “but an influential minority. People with political, economic, and social leverage. Small numbers, and getting smaller—but this does not mean the future is not in our hands. The vision is very far, and it doesn’t matter how vague, or resented, or mocked we are. Maybe not for this generation. But you see people working toward this vision and you have something to hope for.”

"And I mean the vision of a constitution, “ Assaf continued, “based on what is most beautiful about Judaism. We have to engender this constitution on a temporary Jewish majority, since the numbers and identities are changing all the time. Partly because of assimilation, partly because of Arabs. The responsibility of this Jewish majority generation, nevertheless, is to bring our society forward as far as we possibly can, and then perhaps evaporate. No funds for synagogues. But funds for schools that teach all students the best values of the historic Jewish people. We can’t assume a permanent majority of Jews, but we can still bring the state to the highest possible stage of humanism, social consciousness, liberal democracy, as Jews—leave something structured and more permanent, do our job and let go.”

Assaf seemed to understand that he was saying something that had been left curiously unsaid. So he moved quickly to fill in the white space: “Let’s look at what is happening elsewhere in the world, after all—there are societies more enlightened than ours, other countries originally founded on religion”—at which point Milly broke in: “But you are already conceding the loss of a Jewish state!” Assaf had thought this through: “Look, in the not too distant future, there will not be states in this sense—little by little, things are melting. If you just look at the big trend, the long years ahead, you see the direction, European integration, globalization, a human being as a human being. Religion gets you apparent solidarity, while secularism get you pluralism, a different kind of solidarity, perhaps, but not as fierce. Anyway, I choose pluralism.”

Assaf had finished—simplicity after complexity. Religious imagination was assured in this vision, but not state-supported religious institutions. National and ethnic feelings were assured, but not nation-states or “ethnocracies.” Yaron took this all in and found his opening:

“I don’t think we have a real democracy here, or that Israelis know what this is. Either you have democracy or you don’t, sort of like sex—Bill Clinton not withstanding. And perhaps we shouldn’t strive for a democracy if the people here aren’t ready for it. I grew up largely in America, which is a democracy, though since Iraq, they’ve been doing not very democratic things for many years. But as long as we have this religion in the background, we have this optical illusion called democracy. I agree with most of what Assaf said. You look at Europe, and the Treaty of Rome is the top thing. But we have to be patient. Ireland, say, which was founded on a religious distinction, still tries to avoid issues that will inflame Catholics. We’ll have to do the same here.

The debate was suddenly joined from all sides, point upon point, things we had all heard before, but could not be said too often. Why secularize? Did that really mean repressing religion? No, that meant giving freedom to religion; it is orthodox religious authority that represses freedom. Does democracy mean majority rule? No, it means much more. Were we not all proud to be Jews, and yet was not the Jewish religion racist? But could not racialism be retired by focusing Jewish identity on national life—the language and culture of the new Jewish nation? Always, the logic circles back to ordinary freedoms.

“Clinton said a wise thing,” Assaf began, summing things up; “He said, ‘The things that are good in America are able to fix the things that are bad in America.’ I think the same can be said of Judaism, which is ultimately about the hunger for justice, knowledge, the truth. Freedom is very much a part of this—it, too, is truth. It works on people over time, and plays into our hopes. So all we can do is work to create the conditions for freedom to evolve.”

Milly had to leave and was growing impatient. She had a dream and was itching to share it: “Jewish and democratic is a cliché. OK, there is a Jewish majority and majority rule, but also all of the contradictions—inequalities for some citizens since they are not Jews, laws that privilege rabbinic things, which bother us more or less, and the anger from people who push off religion because of radical rabbinic power plays. But if I could shut my eyes and open them to a Jewish and democratic society, this is what it would be like a year from now.

“First,” she said, as if drawing conclusions for all the assembled, “everybody should celebrate their holidays, the Sabbath, commandments, as they please. I don’t eat milk with meat and shrimps, but I drive on Shabbat. My husband doesn’t agree to the diet. Whatever is good for whomever. Each in his or her own way, Jews and non-Jews. But on Yom Kippur, there should not be cars in the streets, not because it is forbidden, but because that’s the custom. Two, I want a country in which young people would not have to think about going abroad for freedom or money. Three, I want a country with a lot of immigration from all over the world, not only Jews, but people who feel connected to our Jewish history and struggle—because of the holocaust, or the Bible. People who won’t have to ‘convert’ to acculturate. Four, we have to preserve the Jewish character without assuming Jewish force, through education, experience. I want to see a country where people say they are ‘Israeli.’ When I was in America, I didn’t say I was Jewish; I said I was Israeli—Israeli. It is based in Judaism, but that is not its essence. In fact, maybe we should punt this ‘Jewish and democratic’ designation and just say Israeli.”

This might have been the last word, but it was not. Their conversation went on for hours more, though I listened less and less to their specific points, and sank back into a loving admiration just for the way they made them—the way parents do with their grown-up children more often than they’d care to admit. But I also felt a rising disquiet, thinking what a misfortune Israel would suffer if, after all, more of these remarkable young people would get caught up in futile escalations or just left the country to pursue their freedom. This was not a hypothetical fear. I thought again about that poll, that nearly half of Israel’s young people “do not feel connected” to the state, while a quarter of them do not see their future here.

Israeli leaders, centrists all, will tell you how appalled they are by that poll. Some question the willingness of young people to sacrifice, blaming themselves for tolerating hedonism. Some will publicly lament how the Jewish state was supposed to be a “light unto the nations.” Perhaps they could just learn from the nations for a while.