Demographic, social, and cultural trends in recent years have led to a deepening of a range of phenomena and world-views that stand under a unified umbrella: the strengthening of Israel’s Jewish character. These are long-term structural trends; signs of them can be found in public opinion polls and in data relating to behavior and life style. These trends take on different forms in different populations – usually according to religiosity level – and are not distinct to any single group. The easiest to explain are those coming from the demographic increase of the “religious” and “Haredi” sectors in Israel. In recent decades, the number of Israeli Jews we can identify as having a strong connection to Jewish culture/religion, in the cognitive and the practical sense, has grown. The percentage of Haredim within Israel’s Jewish population has increased from three percent in 1990 to ten percent today.
High birth rates among the Haredi and other religious sectors continue to increase their proportion in the overall population. This necessarily leads to a strengthening of the political power of these groups and their ability to influence and shape the Israeli agenda and its societal characteristics.
A more complicated trend relates to a growing realization, especially among traditional elites and secular Israelis, of the need to “take ownership” over Israel’s Jewish character – after years in which this was neglected and left to Orthodox religious groups. A clear majority of Israeli Jews (90 percent according to the latest Pew survey) say that being Jewish is “very important” (54 percent) or “somewhat important” (36 percent). Thus, it is not surprising that in recent years there has been a noticeable expansion and deepening of the “Jewish renewal” discourse. This discourse connects various sub-groups: secular and Reform, liberal Orthodox, the formerly religious, participants in various pre-military courses, and those exposed to programs such as Taglit Birthright during their military service. All these are active to some degree in an expanding effort to shape Judaism in a manner that is not specifically religious and is more suitable for Israel in the 21st century. These groups take a sympathetic approach to aspects of religion and tradition in the public sphere, yet are wary of religious coercion and claim the freedom to decide personally on religious matters. Accordingly, the number of Israelis seeking new approaches to the Jewish holidays and the number of pre-military seminaries merging Jewish studies with a pluralistic approach is growing.
Despite trends of Jewish renewal, and expansion of Jewish learning among secular Jews, Orthodox Judaism still defines many aspects of the Jewish state up to a point that some say that Israel is the only democracy in the world in which Jews do not have freedom of religion. Israeli Jews grew up in a Jewish state, and do not know any other way of life. They do not understand what it means to live as a Jewish minority, which deepens the gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Possible Implications for how the West Relates to Israel
The inclination of many Israelis to create a fusion of Jewish and Israeli culture could have contradictory outcomes:
- The formation of a unique Jewish-Israeli culture could further widen the gap with Diaspora Jewish culture. As this trend unfolds, it will weaken the connection between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish identity in the eyes of the West (and thus also the power attributed to the Jewish people generally).
- It may distance non-Orthodox Jews from Israel if they are excluded from the formation of a unique Jewish-Israeli culture.
- It may reinforce Israel’s image as pluralistic, i.e. able to include under an updated Jewish cultural umbrella various Jewish streams in a non-coercive manner. This process could strengthen the connection between the mostly liberal Diaspora and Israel.