Gabriel Abensour


This study opened with current data on Masortiyut in Israel, aiming to provide support for two main theses. One thesis is that Masortiyut is not merely a form of religious practice, but also, and perhaps primarily, a systematic outlook on Jewish identity, on how to relate to tradition, on Jewish social cohesion, and on advancing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The other thesis is that although Masortiyut produces a single shared space, that space contains different identities that sprang from different sources. Part 2 of this work attempted to trace the Masorti discourses emerging in Israel. I argue that, in addition to the familiar Mizrahi-Masorti discourse, there are other Masorti discourses arising in the secular and the Religious-Zionist sectors. Together, these discourses are creating a Masorti web of discourse, influencing each other, giving voice to Israel’s Masorti public, and enlarging that public’s ranks. Masortiyut is thus becoming, over time, a “surname” that can be combined with the “first names” of different sectors.

We may now ask: What could the Masorti sector’s future contribution to general Israeli society be? This question is not, of course, an attempt at prophecy, but rather a call to see the emerging Masortiyut as an opportunity for decision-makers to embrace some of its tenets for the sake of a large-scale paradigm change. In what follows I will argue that strengthening Masortiyut and correctly adopting its principles could play a crucial role in advancing Israeli social cohesion and establishing a shared society capable of encompassing multiplicity within a common space.

National, religious, ethnic, and political rifts have threatened Israeli society since the founding of the state. Though well-intentioned, the Israeli melting pot and the mamlachtiyut of Ben-Gurion also failed to create a shared society. It was an assimilationist mamlachtiyut with the envisioned end product of a homogeneous society, achieved by changing the minority groups to make them more closely resemble the hegemonic group.129 This approach drew heavy criticism in Israel and abroad due to its aggressiveness, its expectation that entire populations abandon their culture and their identity, and its actual ineffectiveness – as the top-down assimilation process did little more than weaken these populations and damage their social fabric without incorporating them as equals into the majority group.130

From the ruins of the melting pot arose another, more multicultural, approach, one willing to accommodate the social heterogeneity that actually prevailed in Israel, to refrain from ranking cultures and groups hierarchically, to allow different sectors a degree of cultural autonomy, and to ensure political, institutional, and educational representation to all of the groups that make up Israeli society.131 Multiculturalism unquestionably counteracts the oppressive mechanisms of assimilationist melting-pot policy, but it is subject to the criticism that it undermines social cohesion. Its opponents object to its atomizing effect, and to the fact that it strengthens the groups that make up society at the expense of the common good necessary to a functioning democratic polity. Opponents of multiculturalism also emphasize its neoliberal side, manifesting in competition between identities and cultures, and in the fact that it actually undermines equality, social mobility, and the ability to heal societal rifts.132 We may add that in the Israeli context multiculturalism did not arise from strategic thinking on the part of decision-makers, but rather from the vacuum created when the melting-pot policy was abandoned. This is, therefore, a non-uniform multiculturalism that frequently manifests in merely formal representation and in a divisive identity discourse, but almost never in concrete decisions aimed at reducing disparities between the groups that make up Israeli society, or in furthering actual representation.

Although a balance has been struck over time between Israeli society’s main constituent groups, no substantive partnership has yet emerged. This is a society whose entire vision is embodied in the superficializing slogan “Live and let live” – recognition of multiplicity but with no aspiration to build a shared future. This problem is not specific to Israel; it typifies a large proportion of the liberal democracies, all of which are mired in ongoing social crisis. The concept of “shared society” has been developed over the past two decades by political scientists and conflict-resolution researchers.133 In 2011 the Club de Madrid, made up of a hundred former heads of state and government, defined shared society as “a socially cohesive society. It is stable, safe. It is where all those living there feel at home. It respects everyone’s dignity and human rights while providing every individual with equal opportunity. It is tolerant. It respects diversity. A shared society is constructed and nurtured through strong political leadership.”134 These lofty goals notwithstanding, a shared society is first of all the product of pragmatic thinking, rooted in the assumption that tensions between different groups now constitute a major threat to liberal democracy, while social resilience and social cohesion are elements crucial to the maintenance of a healthy and functioning democratic state, one whose institutions enjoy a high degree of public trust.135

A shared society needs a worldview common to all its component parts. In Israel, the Masorti space is where an actual effort is being made to shift from a society divided into tribes to a society of greater social cohesion. It should, however, be emphasized that even if the Masorti space can be a unifying one for most of Israeli society, it cannot encompass the entire society. Even if many secular and Haredi Israelis choose, over time, to join this shared space, we may reasonably assume that separatist poles will still exist. Furthermore, we must not forget that Israel is home to many populations that will naturally remain outside the Jewish-Masorti space. One is the Arab sector with all of its religious and ethnic subgroups. Another is the many thousands of descendents of Jews who came to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return but who are not halachically Jewish. However lenient the conversion process might become, nearly half of these descendants of Jews say that they are not interested in undergoing any form of conversion.

We may therefore posit two different channels for Masorti influence on Israeli society as a whole:

Narrow Masortiyut: The call to transform the Masorti space into a space of “both one and the other” and to recognize the importance of the Jewish component and the Israeli component in Masorti identity could easily result in a blurring of the two components. That is the danger posed by the attempt to turn Masortiyut into a new mamlachtiyut. This discourse quite justifiably criticizes Ben-Gurion-style mamlachtiyut as aggressive and obliterative, but tends not to address groups that cannot or do not want to join the new Masorti mamlachtiyut. A new social contract based on a blurring of the Jewish and Israeli components would threaten all those who are not part of the Israeli-Jewish space. This channel would ultimately result in another attempt to impose a broad Masorti-mamlachti framework on the Jewish minorities who do not desire such a framework, whether due to lack of interest in tradition or to a critical stance toward Jewish nationalism. Another, larger, question is that of the new mamlachtiyut’s attitude toward Israel’s non-Jewish populations. Either the concept of citizenship will lose all validity for them, or there will be increased effort to create ethnic homogeneity at their expense.

Expansive Masortiyut: The other path Masortiyut could take is that of distinguishing between the Israeli space and the Jewish space, and recognizing the desirable reciprocal relations between them. This path acknowledges the importance of both components in the identity of Masortim, but rather than analogizing them, it preserves duality. This is a channel of influence that allows each sphere, the Jewish and the Israeli, to veer in the direction of the other. When the Jewish space is not limited to the Israeli space, Masortiyut can significantly contribute to Jewish social cohesion, as it is not solely concerned with the political here-and-now. Also, in this state of affairs Masortiyut can expand beyond Israeliness, nourish Diaspora Jewry and be balanced by it. Likewise, when Israeliness spreads beyond the Jewish sphere, it is able to offer a social contract to all the country’s citizens, with Masortiyut as a full but not exclusive partner.

These two channels of influence, and the future of Israeli society, are not preordained, but rather the outcomes of thought and of correct policy choice. Recent years have seen representative Masorti figures strive repeatedly to orient Masortiyut in an expansive, healing, and fertile direction. On the cultural level, many have called for Masortiyut to be seen as a chance to create common ground not only between Jews but also with Israel’s Muslim minority. On the political level, there has been an emphasis on Masortiyut’s ability to promote a Masorti-mamlachti ethos that would create a shared social fabric in Israel, and to provide the foundation for a common social contract for all of the state’s citizens. These ideas are not the random thoughts of individual writers, but rather a discourse emerging within a broad Masorti space that includes nearly a third of Israel’s citizens. The time has come to translate this discourse into clear policy promoting the creation of a shared society in Israel.