The State of Israel – From Adolescence to Adulthood

The actual collective picture is better than the image Israelis have of themselves. Still, the identity crisis casts its shadows on Israel’s sovereign existence, and its gravity should not be downplayed.

When you ask an Israeli how he or she is doing, the answer you commonly get is “Personally, fine.” It’s a dual response: positive about one’s personal situation, but with implicit reservations about the general state of affairs. Indeed, the overall feeling is that collective life in Israel is “stuck” – that our sense of togetherness is flawed. Do the facts support this sense of crisis?

At first glance, the answer is no. In terms of security, Israel`s situation has never been better. It is a military power whose traditional enemies no longer pose an existential threat. The economy is stable and robust, with exceptional performance in the knowledge-intensive industries of the future. On the geopolitical level, the situation is improving: Israel is on good terms with the leaders of the major powers, has signed peace treaties with its neighbors to the south and east, and has ties with the nations of the Sunni axis. On the face of it, Israel is riding a wave of success that ought to inspire optimism; yet Israelis are actually mired in “Israeli melancholy.” Why? The weak point of Israeli society appears to be an identity crisis: a dispute over the Israeli vision – the purpose of the Zionist enterprise at this time.

When the state was founded, many of Israel’s leaders expected it to bring about a resolution to the question of national identity. They believed that the creation of a Jewish political entity that would gather within it all the Jews scattered throughout the Diaspora and act as an organic unit with independent institutions, in a culturally hegemonic environment that speaks a single language – Hebrew, risen from the ashes – would succeed in consolidating the nascent society around it and disentangle the welter of Jewish identities in the Diaspora. But these expectations were unmet. It turns out, after 75 years of a “Jewish state,” that Israel not only does not represent a resolution of the national-identity quandary, but that the state itself constitutes an arena of struggle between disparate identities.

The success of political Zionism actually raised, in full force, questions that require conceptual and practical decisions regarding the character and meaning of Jewish collective existence in our time. The functioning of the Jewish state breathed life into an array of ideological visions that compete with each other to assign interpretations, meanings, and orientations to “Judaism” itself.


In the Israeli public sphere there are four competing visions regarding the state’s purpose. Each of these four proposals for a collective “life” aims to calibrate the Israeli compass so that it points in a different direction – sometimes the opposite direction from that preferred by one of the others. Each vision is supported by a (quantitatively and qualitatively) important segment of Israeli society. The visions contend aggressively for preeminence in the marketplace of ideas and in the political arena, and the result is a culture war where no one comes out on top. This is the source of the present Israeli melancholy. What are these visions?

The secular-Zionist vision seeks to grow a model enlightened society in a normal state, “like all other nations,” a state whose uniqueness lies in its Jewish nationality. Nationalism is seen as a substitute for religion. The tallit is replaced by the flag; the ancient liturgy is converted into “Hatikvah”; the role models are statesmen, philosophers, and cultural and military figures, not rabbis or poskim (decisors of Jewish law); the holy tongue is upgraded to modern Hebrew; and the responsibility for Israel’s security shifts from “our Father in Heaven, Rock and Redeemer of Israel” to the Israel Defense Forces.

The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) vision is the polar opposite. In this vision, the Zionist aspiration to normality is tantamount to forbidden “Hellenization;” “Enlightenment” in the European sense means the denial of the distinctively Jewish self; nationalism without religion is a foreign invention with no Jewish roots. The State of Israel has no intrinsic value; it is only a “management” for the Jews. The Haredim support the state because it facilitates Jewish physical survival and because it is a gvir – a deep-pocketed benefactor of the Torah world.

Religious Zionism operates in the light of a third vision: it is an ally of secular Zionism on the national side, and of the ultra-Orthodox on the religious side. But the Religious Zionist vision is not a “common denominator,” but rather an independent and distinct proposition: the State of Israel is part of a theological system – a crucial stage in the redemptive-messianic process that neither the secular nor the ultra-Orthodox share. The ingathering of exiles, “making the desert bloom,” the expansion of borders and the flourishing of Torah study are early harbingers of the Messianic age. The present generation is witnessing the certain dawning of the redemption – the first light of dawn that will gradually illuminate the entire world, propelling reality into a completely new paradigm.

The fourth vision is that of Israel’s Arab citizens. Documents detailing this vision, published by the Arab Israeli leadership over a decade ago, express a desire to eradicate all Jewish characteristics from the state so that Israel will be a “state of all its citizens.” In their view, Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and Zionism is merely a form of Western colonialism; the Zionist enterprise is in any case thought to be fundamentally flawed, and any preference for Jews over others is a severe violation of the basic principle of civil equality.

Each of these four visions expresses a different perception of reality and entails different ways of dealing with the dilemmas that challenge Israel in everyday life. One prominent example is the attitude toward Israel’s constitutional definition as a “Jewish and democratic state” and its interpretations. In the view of secular Zionism, “Judaism” is primarily a nationality, and “democracy” is a fabric of liberal or conservative values. In Haredi eyes, “Judaism” is solely a religion, while “democracy” is simply a mode of governance. For Religious Zionism, “Judaism” is a combination of religion and nationality, while attitudes toward “democracy” differ between religious liberals and others, e.g., those identifying as Hardalim (right-wing religious nationalists). Israel’s Arab citizens object to the state’s Jewishness and want to view Israel solely as a democracy whose core value is “equality” (on the personal level, equality between citizens; and on the collective level, equality between national and religious groups).

The controversy translates into an emotional discourse on how reality should be interpreted, and the direction in which the Israeli collective compass should be pointed. It breathes negativity into relations between Israeli citizens of different population groups, undermines solidarity between the various segments of Israeli society, and erodes Israelis’ trust in the state institutions. It sometimes seems that Israel’s many internationally acclaimed achievements are dwarfed by the intensifying winds of a culture war.

There is no reason to assume that identity disputes in Israel can be settled or decided in the foreseeable future. This is true not only from a realistic point of view – none of the parties to the dispute are expected to disappear or to change their identity preferences – but also from a theoretical perspective: the melting-pot approach is considered inappropriate in a liberal world. Flowers of every kind should be allowed to bloom. Unlike the fundamentalist views that exist at the ideological margins of every sector, pluralistic liberalism recognizes that there is no reference point from which to determine who among the parties to the controversy is right, and who is wrong.


If we were to compare our sovereign existence to the lifecycle of a person, we might say that Israel has made it through infancy and childhood with flying colors: We have ingathered the exiles, created a formidable national security architecture, nurtured a flourishing economy, reconstituted our culture, and established a democratic political system with liberal characteristics. We have survived the common childhood diseases. But in the current generation – and especially now in the country’s eighth decade of independence – Israel is experiencing the typical torments of adolescence: a radically and dramatically judgmental attitude toward others; turmoil, confusion, and instability in coming to grips with reality; the impulse to test limits; and a broadening of the emotional range, sometimes to a disruptive degree. Like many adolescents, Israel is molding and remolding the clay of identity.

In its childhood, Israel was a “consensual democracy.” There was basic agreement between the different sectors regarding the state’s vision and goals. In its adolescence, however, Israel has become a “democracy in crisis,” marked by disagreement and constant conflict between different conceptions of the common good. The discord persists along the national divide, between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens; across religious fault lines, between secular, traditional, national religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews; on the social front, between center and periphery; and at the cultural level, between liberals and conservatives.

The severity of the crisis stems from the fact that unlike most multicultural countries – where each population group strives first and foremost to protect its own interests and has no aspiration to dictate the national outlook as a whole – in Israel every group has a vision that it wants to instill and impose upon everyone else. The controversy relates to the common destiny, not just to the common good.

The depth of the identity crisis is reflected in the repeated failed attempts to enshrine Israel’s most canonical document, its Declaration of Independence, in law. The agreements reached when Israel was newly born, when it was resource-poor, sparsely populated, subject to an all-out Arab offensive on its borders, and lacking a governmental tradition, are no longer acceptable in today’s reality where the state is strong, thriving, and successful by any objective comparative measure.


After the tumultuous crisis of its adolescence, will adulthood arrive with all the balance and discernment that characterizes maturity?

As noted, Israel`s identity crisis is not resolvable in the foreseeable future. It can be argued that Israel’s ideological diversity is a paradoxical source of wealth – “riches kept by the owner thereof to his benefit.” But in order to progress from adolescent turbulence to adult equanimity, we need to achieve a pan-Israeli consensus regarding the rules of conduct and decision-making on the basis of which we will manage our identity dispute. As long as it is impossible to reach a common vision that would enable the enactment of a full constitution, it is appropriate to take a second-order approach to the controversy: rules of the game that, while not silencing any of the participating voices, will nevertheless promote an Israeli public life marked by social solidarity and cooperation between the different segments of society. These rules of conduct and decision-making are the substance with which, in my view, Israelis need to imbue the uniquely Israeli term mamlachtiyut, which roughly translates as statehood – the idea of setting aside partisan differences for the sake of the state.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, coined the term even before the state was established and put it to invaluable use with his contemporaries during the crucial years of state-building. Ben-Gurion’s mamlachtiyut had the power to channel the various streams that flowed into Israel from all over into a mighty river – to turn the individual fingers into a clenched fist, prepared for any expediency. Even today Israelis experience mamlachtiyut as an adjective describing central matters in their lives, such as education, army, health, and ceremonies of various kinds. But in the past 75 years reality has changed and the challenges of the past have been replaced by new challenges, in particular an identity crisis that makes it difficult for Israelis to live together harmoniously.

In an era of culture war, the mamlachti approach obliges the parties to the dispute to commit themselves to inclusivity. This inclusivity rejects fundamentalist demonization of the other, is not zealous for a particular vision, does not view Israel as a battleground of all against all, and is capable of acceptance in the sense of affording full legitimacy to conflicting visions. A mamlachti code of state conduct should include a ban on incitement, boycotts, loyalty-versus-treason rhetoric, and other offensive language that undermines the legitimacy of the other. Mamlachtiyut is the order of the day because the intellectuals of all of Israel’s major identity camps have failed to adopt an inclusive strategy of coexistence with those who hold other visions. Public life in Israel is steeped in hand wringing, with no serious, principled plan for a satisfying life under conditions of controversy. That is why pluralism, which accepts the idea that “these and those are the words of the living God,” is rare in Israel; and even tolerance with its “live and let live” approach does not appear to be a core value. A mamlachti approach that would restrain discord on the social-ideological level is a proven recipe for bolstering Israel’s resilience and social solidarity, stabilizing its governmental systems, ensuring that the economy, science, and culture flourish, and restoring the balance between preserving Israel’s cultural wealth and framing it in governmental systems concerned with the common good.

Mamlachtiyut is supposed to enable Israelis not only to manage their disagreements in a mature fashion, but also to decide their outcomes, when necessary, in a mature way. As is well known, in the past generation identity disputes – which are supposed to take place in the marketplace of ideas and in the political sphere – have steadily drifted into the legal arena in Israel. There the dispute is conducted in normative language – a discourse of rights – with the aim of reaching a determination. But besides the fact that a rights discourse is unsuitable for managing identity conflicts, due to the nature of that discourse, the judicialization of the culture war is poisoning the relationship between large swaths of the public and the judicial system. Mamlachtiyut must therefore also regulate the manner in which the rights discourse seeking to decide the controversy will be conducted. It must affirm that the three branches of government, when exercising their powers in legislative, executive, and judicial activity, are charged with the responsibility of respecting the identity stratification and ideological diversity that characterize Israeli society. The future of the rule of law in Israel depends on the success of all the branches of government in conveying to the Israeli public the message that they conduct themselves fairly when encountering ideological adversaries.

The legislative branch must exert legislative authority in a way that eases the sense of alienation felt by those who are not part of the hegemony and avoids a “winner takes all” agenda. The Knesset majority must avert frequent changes to the Basic Laws, which are part of our nascent constitution. Israel does not have a full constitution or bill of rights. In this sense, Israelis live on shifting sands. Mamlachti Knesset members have to be sensitive to this and submit to the basic norms of liberal democracies, even if they are formally authorized to discard them.

The executive branch, in exercising its power – the strongest form of governmental authority vis-à-vis the individual and the public – must strike a balance between the aspiration to implement a preferred policy (for which purpose elections are held) and the restraint required in light of the needs and sensitivities of groups outside the governing coalition.

This is even more true regarding the judiciary. The judicial branch is not elected by the public and is not meant to promote the identity preference of a specific group, and so the demand that it respect the ideological controversy and refrain from determining its outcome is even stronger. Indeed, the big question now reverberating in Israel is how to regulate the exercise of judicial power in light of the court’s involvement in the identity discourse. A judicial system aiming to meet the challenge of mamlachtiyut must recognize the important distinction between issues that are the province of politics and those that are the province of law. The court must recuse itself from deciding issues of the first type.

The right way to ensure that the three branches of government meet the challenge of mamlachtiyut is to enact a “thin” constitution. This differs from a full constitution in that it does not include sections pertaining to the identity of the state and basic human rights – about which, at this moment in adolescence, it is not possible to agree – but only a section dealing with the relations between the branches of government. A thin constitution would contain chapters that bring together, with adjustments, the existing Basic Laws – those pertaining to the president of the state, the Knesset, the government, the judiciary, and the state comptroller – with the addition of what is lacking today: Basic Law: Legislation. The constitution would stipulate that the arrangements set forth in it will be safeguarded so that any change or amendment could be made only with a two-thirds Knesset supermajority. Such a constitution would lay out the rules of the game by which the ideological dispute is to be conducted. It would subdue the current fracas between the branches of government over their powers and over the ability to decide the present Israeli controversy, and it would do this without silencing any of the ideological camps that are party to the controversy.


The actual collective picture is better than the image Israelis have of themselves. The identity crisis casts its shadows on Israel’s sovereign existence, and their gravity should not be downplayed. Israelis can cope with them with a broad national consensus that transcends identity camps, and by adopting a mamlachti approach toward both the management of the identity struggles and how they are to be decided. This is the bridge from adolescence to adulthood on which the State of Israel will be able to walk in the next generation.


Professor Yedidia Stern is the President and CEO of the Jewish People Policy Institute, Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University, and a former Dean of the Faculty.