Israeli society is characterized by a deeply polarized discourse, with potentially dangerous consequences for the nation’s future. In this eighth decade of the state’s existence, the Israeli public square resounds with the kind of internal discord that toppled the Jewish commonwealths of the distant past. The Jewish People Policy Institute has, for this reason, undertaken activity in the spheres of research, policy planning, and education to strengthen the cohesion of Jewish society in Israel.
This study sheds light on a fascinating possibility for strengthening Israel’s shared society and Jewish cohesiveness offered by the Masortim and by Masortiyut (Traditionalists and Traditionalism).
In recent years it has become customary to speak of the four “tribes” that make up the entirety of Israeli society – the secular, the national religious, the ultra-Orthodox, and the Arab. That is how former President Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin categorized the “new Israeli order” in a speech he delivered at a 2015 conference early in his tenure of office. But the president’s speech made no mention of the Masortim. This is a common oversight because Israeli Masortiyut is not organized as a group: it has no political representation, no educational stream, no recognized leadership, no declared vision, or other attributes that could define it as a sociological group in its own right. But the cost of ignoring Masortiyut and the Masortim is high, as it causes us to overlook worthwhile options for strengthening the shared society in Israel.
In this study, Gabriel Abensour, a research fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, sheds light on the phenomenon of Masortiyut in its various, sometimes counterintuitive aspects. He provides a thorough introduction to a public whose definition is vague but whose importance is enormous. It should be noted that, in contrast to what is commonly thought, nearly half of Israeli Jews do not classify themselves strictly as “secular,” “Dati,” or “Haredi.” And although recent decades have seen a decline in the share of those who unequivocally define themselves as Masortim (only 19% of Israeli Jews), Masortiyut is flourishing as a secondary identity: the study shows that 45% of Israeli Jews self-identify as Masorti-secular, Masorti-religious, and the like.
The first part of the study is concerned not only with the quantitative aspects of the Masortiyut phenomenon, but also with its qualitative social aspects (e.g., the relationship between Masortiyut and ethnicity, political affiliation) and values (e.g., issues of religion and state, Jewish-Arab relations, the character of the state). Contrary to prevailing preconceptions, the Masorti Jewish population has a unique outlook all its own. It is not an approach of “both one and the other” – both the religious and the secular worldview and way of life – but rather a different and distinct outlook with its own characteristic features, which are discussed in depth in the present work.
The second part of the study looks at Masortiyut’s potential as a new social paradigm for Israeli society as a whole. Abensour argues that Masortiyut is not merely a form of religious practice, but also an outlook on Jewish identity. What used to be regarded as ethnic folklore of a largely personal and communal character has been translated over the past generation into a true post-ethnic proposition for shared society in Israel.
Masortiyut permits the flourishing of a variety of Jewish identities that rest on a foundation of broad consensus. Unlike the categorical, strictly-defined identities by which Israeli Jews are commonly classified, the Masorti identity, according to Abensour, is “porous” – it absorbs things from other identities yet stands on its own, nonetheless. Masortiyut raises the possibility of a softened ideological sectoralism: its status as a secondary identity promotes the existence of a Jewish “common denominator.”
Masortiyut is a soft identity. It is not based on loyalty to an informing principle such as “There is a God” or “There is no God,” but rather on the relationship between people and the generations that preceded them. Different Masorti subgroups emphasize different identity markers, and each group has its own specific heritage, but despite these differences, as Abensour notes, “the mindset […] is quite similar. Each subgroup seeks to broaden its horizons by actualizing its personal heritage within a broader national-Masorti story.”
I warmly congratulate Gabriel Abensour on this impressive scholarly achievement. He illuminates what is generally thought to be an elusive phenomenon and shows us how the Masorti identity can function as a source of meaningful influence in advancing Jewish social cohesion in today’s increasingly fractious Israel.