Gabriel Abensour


This study examines Masorti (traditionalist) identity in contemporary Israel. It distinguishes between Masortiyut (traditionalism) as a new cultural-Jewish discourse that began to emerge toward the end of the 20th century, and Masortim, people whose way of life is traditional and who are not necessarily aware of the intellectual discourse surrounding Masortiyut. The first part of the study offers an analysis of data on the Masortim themselves, based on information processed by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the many surveys conducted by a variety of organizations over the past decade.

The study is divided into two separate and complementary parts: Part 1 analyzes information on the Israeli Masortim, their self-concept, their share of the total population, and their views on an array of topics central to Israeli society. Part 2 investigates Masortiyut as a cultural-ideological discourse that has been steadily emerging since the late 1990s. In that part of the study, I argue that the web of discourse is a space of multiplicity, and that we should therefore speak of “Masorti identities” in the plural.

The data analysis in Part 1 yields a number of important findings on Israel’s Masorti sector:

The percentage of Israelis who define their primary identity as “Masorti” has been declining continuously in recent decades, but more and more Israelis identify with Masortiyut as a secondary identity. Although 19% of Israeli Jews identify as “Masortim” (as a noun), some 45% are prepared to identify as “Masortim” (in its adjectival form) when they are given the option of being “Masorti-secular,” “Masorti-religious,” and so on.

Masorti identity is still associated with Mizrahiyut (“Orientalness” – Mizrahim or “Oriental Jews” are Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Middle Eastern/North African countries, and their descendants). However, more and more non-Mizrahim (Ashkenazim, Jews of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi background, people whose ethnic roots lie in the Former Soviet Union, etc.) also self-define as Masortim. This is especially true when the Masorti identity is secondary. Although Israeli Masortiyut unquestionably arose and coalesced among Jews of Middle Eastern/North African background, it has now become a post-ethnic phenomenon.

The findings show that Masorti identity is not confined to the sphere of religious practice. On the contrary, the Masorti public is highly heterogeneous with regard to everyday religious practice, dovetailing with Orthodoxy at one end, and secularism at the other.

The findings show that the Masorti public has a worldview that distinguishes it from the secular and Dati (religious but not ultra-Orthodox) publics. The Masortim, as a group, strongly believe in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In Masorti Israel, not only are the Jewish and the democratic elements necessary to each other, Judaism is perceived as pertaining to culture and heritage, rather than as a religious category.

The Masorti public is essentially pluralistic, opposes coercion of any kind, and supports both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, for the secular and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) alike.

Masorti pluralism is not philosophical and declarative but rather practical and existential, and manifests with particular strength in conflictual situations. When such situations arise, Masortim prefer pragmatic compromise between the parties over principled, unequivocal positions.

The second part of this study examines the discourse on Masortiyut as a cultural-ideological option for Israeli society as a whole. The findings show that other discourses exist alongside the well-known Mizrahi-Masorti discourse, ones that are emerging within the secular and Religious Zionist sectors. Together, these discourses are creating a web of Masorti discourse, influencing each other, giving voice to Israel’s Masorti public, and enlarging that sector’s ranks. In this section, I posit the existence of four major and shared foundations for these three Masorti discourses:

Porous identity: This is an identity that is not characterized by dogmatic-ideological thinking and is therefore able to absorb new ideas and even expand its boundaries in response to those ideas. It stands in opposition to the categorical and impermeable identities of strict secularism and Haredism.

Loyalty to tradition An aspiration to shape Jewish life in Israel based on ongoing dialogue with it.

Autonomy and interpretation: Loyalty to tradition includes attention to all the voices that, to date, have shaped the wide-ranging Jewish heritage. However, this does not mean that people subjugate themselves to tradition or adhere to it with blind obedience. The Masorti sphere is characterized by an autonomous approach to tradition, presupposing that we may choose from within it those things that are appropriate for today’s Masortim. This autonomy also encompasses a degree of interpretation, which itself enables the Jewish spectrum to be extended in a non-anachronistic manner.

Moderate Jewish nationalism: The Masorti sphere is a project underway in the Israeli here and now, based on acceptance of the idea of Jewish nationalism and an attempt to reconstruct the relationship between the religious and the national, without one overriding the other.

This section concludes with insights regarding the capacity of the new Masortiyut to strengthen Israel’s shared society, and to rebuild the relationships between its various tribes and sectors.

I would like to thank the researchers at the Jewish People Policy Institute who read and improved later drafts. Special thanks are due to Professor Yedidia Stern, Dr. Shuki Friedman, Prof. Nissim Leon, Dr. Dov Maimon, and Dr. Shlomo Fischer. I am also grateful to Dr. Channa Pinchasi and Yafa Benaya for sharing their insights with me. Finally, I wish to thank Shmuel Rosner, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism, the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, and the Israel Hofsheet movement, which allowed me to use surveys they had conducted and data they had collected over the years.