“Who Is a Jew?” in Israeli Literature and Thought Literature, Television, Film, Theater, Art
The question of who is a Jew is not only one of identification (who am I) but also one of identity (what am I). Alongside it, another identity question exists for nearly half the world’s Jews: Who is an Israeli? Both questions are fodder for debate, especially around their interrelatedness, and their answers divide Israel’s Jewish society (and to a lesser extent also echo disputes with Israel’s non-Jewish public). It can be said that these are foundational questions that underlie the disparate visions fueling the local culture war. We chose to place them, and the way they are expressed in contemporary literature and thought, at the center of the Annual Assessment’s culture chapter.
The decision to address this issue was sparked by a recent event: A pillar of Israeli culture, the writer A.B. Yehoshua, passed away in June of this year. Yehoshua’s core argument regarding this issue was that “Israeli identity is the complete Jewish identity.1
”Among Israeli writers, Yehoshua stands out for the time he devoted to the heart of the matter of local Israeli identity and its implications for global Jewish identity. With his death, a major voice in the Israeli conversation on this issue has been lost – though Yehoshua himself had long understood that his was a minority voice, not the voice of Israel’s emerging majority.
In shaping his thinking about the relationship between the Jewish tradition of the past and the Israeli reality of the present, Yehoshua turned to a towering figure, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, whose words he quoted: “There is no Jew in the Golah (the Exile), not even a Jew like you, who lives entirely on the basis of Judaism and through Judaism, is able to live as a whole Jew, nor is there a community in the Golah that is able to live a complete Jewish life, only in the State of Israel can there be a complete Jewish life.
Only here will a Jewish culture worthy of the name develop.” Yehoshua noted that, when he “said similar things in the United States, [his] words triggered a vehement response.” Yehoshua was unsurprised by the passionate debate that ensued in North America but found the Israeli reaction astonishing and troubling. “Something has gone fundamentally wrong lately in people’s understanding of the major change in Jewish identity wrought by the founding of the State of Israel,” he wrote. He laid the blame on “religious Jews in their various types and sects.”
Yehoshua’s basic claim was that Israel’s founding had fundamentally altered the status of the Jewish people, and that this change should lead to an ideological loosening – the abandonment of aspects of Judaism that had developed for purposes of exilic survival. In an interview near the end of his life, he explained that “what remains of ‘Jew’ is a partial thing. It’s the person living outside of Israel whose national identity is exceedingly partial.
Most of the things in his life are under the control of non-Jews. He is in a gentile country, in a gentile landscape, and he lives in a religious or semi-religious enclave. I want to reorder the priorities: homeland first of all. Territory first of all. The Land, first of all. I want to move identity to the national level only. It’s no coincidence that Jews are dissatisfied with this partialness, and assimilate into gentile existence.”2
Like many of their predecessors, Yehoshua’s final two books (the last of which appeared just before his death) featured non-Israeli Jews. Yehoshua said more than once that his main interest in writing was not the story, but the conceptual message it carries (“a technical matter meant to convey an idea,” in the words of Benny Ziffer3 ). Even at the beginning of his career, he explained that he was “compelled always to seek the intellectual, symbolic side. To try to see reality as representing a general idea […] That’s actually the genre that’s most deeply mine.”4
The Only Daughter (2021) explores the difficulty experienced by Diaspora Jews in maintaining their culture in a Christian space. The novella unfolds over a few weeks in the life of Rachele Luzzato, an Italian Jewish girl living with her wealthy family in a city near Venice. She is the granddaughter of a Catholic grandfather and of a Jewish grandfather who survived the Second World War under the assumed identity of a village priest. Rachele studies Jewish liturgy and Hebrew in preparation for her approaching bat mitzvah, but at the same time she is offered the starring role of “Mary, Mother of God” in her school’s nativity play – a performance her father forbids her to participate in.
Literary scholar Dan Miron has suggested that this is a novella centered around the issue of confused, mixed identity – a topic at the core of Yehoshua’s approach, which sees the Zionist option as the means of resolving Diaspora Jewry’s divided identity. According to Miron, The Only Daughter is, at heart, an in-depth exploration of the religious option as opposed to other alternatives, partial or “complete.
” In his view, this is what prompts Rachele to taste the various possibilities on her plate. She is a Jewish girl, the daughter of a mother who converted to Judaism, and is overwhelmed by her Christian surroundings (Yehoshua’s last book, The Third Temple, also features a woman convert, a Parisian Jew, and there are many other correspondences between the two works). In her identity there is a clash between the tribal Aleinu prayer that puts her in confrontation with the religion of her Christian ancestors (“Who has not made us like the nations of the lands”), with Psalm 13, which is suggested to her as a personal substitute – an intimate prayer (“my heart will rejoice in Your salvation”) that contains no defiance of others.
Yehoshua’s views on the question of Jewish identity in the Israeli era were challenged by Diaspora Jews, who saw them as negating the possibility of a meaningful Jewishness outside of Israel, and by Israeli Jews, who saw them as an attempt to rid Jewish identity of the elements it had accumulated over the long years of exile – in particular, the religious-halachic element.
If Jewish identity is expressed solely on the national level, as Yehoshua preached in his writings and interviews, then all those whose Jewishness and national existence are separate, or whose Jewishness is based primarily on the Jewish faith, are flawed Jews. Yehoshua lumped together those groups which, as he saw it, emphasize the religious aspect of Judaism and in so doing undermine the Zionist revolution: Diaspora Jews, religious Jews, post-Zionist Jews, and Arabs. To these groups he proposed an alternative of Israeliness, but over the years came to feel that there was no market for the goods he was offering. Israel, as he understood it, is becoming more Jewish and less Israeli.
Is this indeed the case? And if so, what is the cause? It is interesting to juxtapose the final novel of Yehoshua, who belonged to the previous literary generation, with the third novel of Assaf Inbari, a writer of the younger generation (Inbari is in his fifties), which came out this year and tells the story of three leaders of the Zionist left from the pre-state and early-statehood periods: Meir Ya’ari, Moshe Sneh, and Yitzhak Tabenkin. The book’s protagonists are idealistic but at times petty; active Zionists on the practical level, but also eager to settle scores.
They represent a new, kibbutz-oriented, socialist or communist Israel, but they also clearly bear the marks of Eastern European Judaism, the Judaism of the Hassidic shtetl. They are the Israeli generation that broke away but did not disconnect from their Jewish roots. The behavior of these leftist “rebbes” is more than a little reminiscent of the behavior of actual Hassidic rebbes, with their “courts,” the crumbs thrown to their followers, the Hassidim thirsty for mythical interpretations of everyday events.5
Inbari himself is one of the most incisive interpreters of the statehood generation – Yehoshua’s generation. In an essay he wrote about a decade ago, he quoted Yehoshua in a critical context: “If I had to come up with a one-sentence encapsulation of the statehood-generation’s identity, I’d say it’s the meaning of Israeliness as a complete Jewishness […] Israeliness as identity […] is the complete Jewishness.” Inbari posits that this outlook reflects the “sense of mastery,” the “self-satisfaction” of the “provincial” statehood generation.7
His criticism extends beyond Yehoshua to Ben-Gurion himself. In Inbari’s eyes, the post-Zionists are right to say that “Ben-Gurion indeed failed at the task of building the nation.” But in his view, Ben-Gurion “failed not because he tried to build a nation, but because he tried to build an artificial nation. There is no ‘Israeli’ nation.
There is a Jewish nation. The Jewish nation is what required a melting pot, but Ben-Gurion, who did not understand this, purported to create a substitute. In his hatred of exilic Judaism, he failed to perceive that there is a difference between a non-exilic melting pot and a non-Jewish melting pot, and this was the mistake of his life. He should have realized that the purpose of Zionism, beyond its basic Herzlian purpose, is to create a non-exilic Jewish identity here. He should have perceived that the Jewish state is a state of the Jews, not a state of the ‘Hebrews’.”
Inbari’s position is that “the Jewish melting pot requires, in general, a secular process of acclimation to Judaism and a parallel, religious process of halachic renewal.” A similar, widely-publicized, view has been championed by another Israeli intellectual of the same generation, Dr. Micah Goodman. In his book Philosophic Roots of the Secular-Religious Divide (Hebrew title: Hazarah bli teshuva)7 , as well as in follow-up articles, Goodman rejects what he calls “the temptation to reduce a complex phenomenon to a single principle.”
Judaism, wrote Goodman this year, “is a historical anomaly that cannot be reduced to a single definition or basic element.”8 While Yehoshua felt that the end of the imposed exile meant the end of the Judaism formed in the Golah, and its replacement with Israeliness, Goodman proposed acceptance of a reality of diverse Jewish options. “Is Judaism a religion, a nationality, or a culture? An answer to this question will not help us answer the question ‘Who is a Jew?’, but it will be very helpful in answering the question ‘Who is a good Jew?’ That is because a good Jew, i.e., a Jew who aspires to Jewish excellence, actualizes the phenomenon of Judaism in the best possible way.
Thus, if Judaism is a religion, then a good Jew is a Jew who believes in the God of Israel and seeks to obey and be close to Him; if Judaism is a nationality, then a good Jew is a patriot who is devoted to the Jewish people and feels solidarity with all Jews; if Judaism is a culture, and if the culture emerging in Israel today is indeed a new “floor” in the edifice of Judaism, then a good Jew is a creative Israeli who takes part in the building of a rich and vibrant Israeli-Jewish culture.”
The building of such a culture is an “ideological-conceptual project” that is already underway, Michael Mankin writes.9 Mankin finds much that is positive in this project, but also a fundamental flaw (in his view). “Liberal Israeli Judaism’s attempt to advance a statist-national Judaism comes at a heavy price in democratic terms: this is a Judaism that is concerned with shaping the story of the state, and not just of communities within it.
That is, it does not advance an intra-Jewish project but rather a project that encompasses the entire state and citizenry while still conducting itself as though it were an intra-Jewish project. Israel’s Palestinian-Arab community is thus entirely excluded from this essential discussion regarding the nature of the state.” This view is somewhat reminiscent of Yehoshua’s, and of similar opinions expressed decades ago by other Israeli intellectuals who wanted to separate the Jewish religion from the Israeli nation. Among these intellectuals was Joseph Agassi, who explained that only such an undertaking “would make a true relationship possible with Jews who are not Israeli and with Israelis who are not Jews.”10
There is, of course, no single answer to the question of whether the challenge posed by the state’s Jewishness to relations with Israel’s non-Jewish minority and with non-Israeli Jews represents a fundamental flaw, or one that can be overcome. But data on the views of Israeli Jews and non-Jews, including data gathered by the Jewish People Policy Institute, indicate that Israel’s Jewish public does have trouble clearly distinguishing between the issue of shared identity among Jews and the issue of civic partnership among all Israelis. Thus, many Jews in Israel respond in the affirmative to the question of whether in order to be a “real Israeli one has to be Jewish.”11
The impression that emerges from the data amassed by all of the recent studies on these topics, is that a majority of Israeli Jews do not want to convert Jewish identity into Israeli identity – not in the manner of Agassi and not in the manner of Yehoshua. This is not the place to address the differences between the two (and there are differences).
However, a degree of caution is warranted with regard to these data, which are influenced considerably by question phraseology and answer options. A JPPI study conducted this year found that Israelis often tend toward responses that resonate with Yehoshua’s view. For example, four out of ten Israeli Jews agree that serving in the IDF is a signpost of having joined the Jewish people. A two-thirds majority of secular Jews feel this way (64%), while among the more traditional groups agreement is lower (traditional-not very religious – 36%; traditional-religious – 18%, and so on). This is a view that indicates the possible Israelization of Jewishness.
However, one should not infer from such a view that there is significant willingness among Israeli Jews to obscure or abolish the state’s Jewishness. Based on data from JPPI’s 2021 Pluralism Survey, most Israeli Jews feel that Israel merits the “Jewish state” designation.12
When the follow-up question is examined, of how Jewish the state should be, 40% said Israel should remain “about as Jewish as it is today” – while the majority either want Israel to be “more Jewish” (37%) or “less Jewish” (23%). In any case, only a tiny minority (1%) would prefer that Israel cease to be a Jewish state. And this latter figure is, of course, very important because it allows us to identify a general shared desire (for a Jewish state), despite strong disagreement over how Jewish the state should be and over the nature of that “Jewishness.”
1. “Who Is Israeli?” Haaretz, 2013.
2. Israel Hayom, 2021, https://www.israelhayom.co.il/magazine/hashavua/article/6619684
3. Haaretz, 2022, https://www.haaretz.co.il/gallery/literature/2022-06-14/ty-article-magazine/.premium/00000181-61cb-da8f-a5e3-f7db8e240000
4. “Writing Prose,” a talk with Menachem Perry and Nissim Calderon, included in Yehoshua’s essay collection The Wall and the Mountain (1989).
5. See: Anita Shapira, “Who Wins, History or Literature?” Shmuel Rosner, The Hedgehog and the Fox, 2022. https://kipshu.com/shapira-three-books/
6. “The Generation of Collapse,” Assaf Inbari, http://inbari.co.il/krisa1.htm
7. Philosophic Roots of the Secular-Religious Divide, Micah Goodman, 2019, Dvir.
8. “To Belong and to Believe,” Micah Goodman, Makor Rishon, May 2022.
9. “Two Approaches to Israeli Judaism,” Michael Mankin, Hazman Hazeh, Van Leer Institute, https://hazmanhazeh.org.il/israeli-judaism/
10. Between Faith and Nationality: Toward an Israeli National Identity, Joseph Agassi, revised edition, 2019.
11. This is a phenomenon that is not unique to Israel: see “Who Is a Jew? Try ‘Who Is a Hindu’ and You’ll Find a Few Similarities,” Shmuel Rosner, HaMadad, July 2021. https://themadad.com/%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95-%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95%D7%93%D7%99-%D7%A0%D7%A1%D7%95-%D7%B4%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95-%D7%94%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%93%D7%99%D7%B4-%D7%95%D7%AA%D7%92%D7%9C%D7%95-%D7%9B%D7%9E%D7%94-%D7%A7/#.YwQ0amgzaUk
12. The statement presented to non-Jewish survey respondents was: “A democratic state should be a ‘state of all its citizens’, that is, a state that does not emphasize the national or religious character of any specific group.” The share of non-Jews who agreed with this statement was very high, 91%, with no significant differences between population groups, ages, religiosity levels, or religions. Of course, the question of how the respondents understand the concept of “a state of all its citizens” is open to speculation. This concept, which has been common in Israeli public discourse since the 1990s, has taken on a variety of meanings.