Zionism was a movement to found a Jewish state. However, especially in its early formative decades, it was much more than that – it was a movement to reorder Jewish life and, in particular, its pattern of collective identity. Many of the historical streams within Zionism presented their own unique conceptions of Jewish collective identity and identification. With the establishment and the consolidation of the state and Israeli society, some of these visions, to one extant or another, were translated into social reality. Such translations, of course, entailed changes. Nevertheless, in some cardinal cases one can detect the ideological origins of some of the contemporary patterns of Jewish identity in Israel.
According to the surveys of the Pew Research Center (2016) and the Jewish People Policy Institute (2018) it appears that there are two major patterns of Jewish identity in Israel: one characterizes those who self-identify as Hilonim (secular) and the other characterizes those groups whose self-identity is delineated in one fashion or another by religion – Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), Datiim (Religious), and Masoratiim (Traditional or Traditionist) In regard to one area, the Masoratiim constitute their own subgroup, that is, differ from both the Ultra-Orthodox and the Religious and from the Hilonim.
Further analysis of these surveys shows that the difference between Hilonim and those who self -identify as Traditionist or Religious is not only, or even primarily, one of the degree of religious observance. Although there is a graded spectrum of observance of religious or traditional practices in Israel, there are significant differences between the groups regarding deeply held ideological and conceptual ideas concerning the fundamentals of Jewish existence.
Hilonim constitute approximately half of Israel’s Jewish population. Those who include a component of religion or tradition in their self-identity (Haredim, Datiim, or Masoratiim) constitute the other half. Again, the Hiloni group is not devoid of religion or practices associated with religion. A third of Hilonim keep kosher and over 90 percent attend a Passover Seder. Sixty-seven percent do not eat pork and over 50 percent always or occasionally light Sabbath candles. Sixty percent, to one degree or another, believe in God. Thirty-one percent of Hilonim believe that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. In other words, differences among the groups in regard to religious observance are a matter of degree, they are not binary or in polar opposition (“yes/no”).
Binary differences emerge, though, when it comes to the construction of Jewish and Israeli identity. Here the differences between Hilonim on the one side and Datiim, Haredim and Masoratiim on the other seem to be in polar opposition. There are also stark differences between Datiim and Haredim on one side and Hilonim on the other mainly in regard to the relationship between religion and public life. The Masoratiim often occupy a midway position in these matters; their responses are often split down the middle. Thus, their responses are very far from those of Hilonim, but equally unlike those of Datiim and Haredim. The different patterns are summarized in the following chart.
To understand these profiles, we must revisit the essentials of the Zionist project – a movement to reorder Jewish life and in particular its pattern of collective identity. We suggest that the segment of the population that self-identifies as Hiloni (Secular) is the group that carried out and underwent the Zionist revolution in the structure of Jewish identity. Or, more precisely, it consists of the literal or ideational descendants of this group. This revolution attempted to replace religion as the overarching authoritative framework of Jewish life and collective identity with a political national framework. It entailed an attempt to base Jewishness upon the “immanent frameworks” of language, political collective, and (to a certain extent) calendar, not upon religious ideals, aspirations, obligations or messianic hopes. If one lives in the State of Israel and identifies with it as expressing one’s identity, is a Hebrew speaking citizen of it, especially if one fulfills one’s citizenship duties in terms of military service and political participation, then one’s life is Jewish. Hence, religion is not a major component of Jewish identity, but national belonging and culture are; and the majority of Hilonim responded to Pew’s question about their identity, that they are Israelis first and Jews second. They also indicate that religion should be kept apart from politics; and the sense of responsibility of Hilonim to the Diaspora (as it currently exists) is not so great. The primary rationale among Hilonim for the State of Israel is “enable modern Jewish existence in a civic state with a Jewish culture.”
The Zionist revolution in Jewish identity, though, remained incomplete. Other, Haredi or ultra-Orthodox groups in the Jewish population of Palestine-Eretz Yisrael objected vociferously to this program, including the very attempt to found a Jewish national-political framework. Yet other groups, who became known as Datiim and Masoratiim attempted to reinterpret Jewish nationalism and to assimilate it (in one fashion or another) into the traditional religious framework. For all of these groups, as we have seen, religion is a much more important component of Jewish identity than it is for Hilonim. Secondly, for them, Israeliness is a realization of traditional ethno-religious Jewishness, not a replacement or a translation of it. As a result, all these groups respond that they Jewish first and then Israeli. 6 Accordingly, they also have a closer connection with the Diaspora – at least 60 percent of Masoratiim, Datiim, and Haredim feel a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need.
As far as the connection between religion and government policy is concerned, the picture is somewhat more complicated. Datiim, Haredim, and Masoratiim believe that insofar as the state expresses traditional Jewishness, it ought not be kept separate from religion. However, each of these groups manifests this understanding in its own way. Thus, Haredim and Datiim believe that insofar as the state expresses traditional Jewishness, it ought not be kept separate from issues relating to individual religious conduct and traditional issues of religion and state such as enforcing Shabbat and prohibiting women to pray aloud at the Kotel. Accordingly, 80 percent or more of Datiim and Haredim believe that “Government policies should promote religious values and beliefs.” The vast majority of Haredim and Datiim (96 and 85 percent respectively) too, believe that the government should prohibit public transportation on Shabbat. They also believe that in a conflict between Judaism and democracy, Judaism should be favored and, furthermore, that the primary rationale for the State of Israel is “to realize fully the religious and national nature of the Jewish people” (Haredim, 84 percent; Datiim, 73-84 percent; Liberal Datiim 47 percent). Among Hilonim (of all sorts), support for this rationale is much lower: among “absolute Hilonim” only 6 percent supported this rationale and among the “slightly traditional Hilonim” 16 percent supported it.
The Masoratiim, though, seem to be divided as to whether and to what extent the Jewish-traditional character of the state requires restrictions on individual freedom and choice and limitations of democracy. Thus, with respect to questions traditionally regarded as matters of religion and state, such as Shabbat, Masoratiim tend to be divided. This divided opinion is not limited to practical questions (such as shutting down public transportation on Shabbat or allowing women to pray aloud at the Kotel) but also extends to fundamental issues regarding Judaism and the public sphere. Thus, they are also divided over such questions as the relative weight of Judaism and democracy, and the primary rationale behind the Jewish state – “to realize fully the religious and national nature of the Jewish people” (39 percent), or “to enable modern Jewish existence in a civic state with a Jewish culture” (39 percent).
At the same time, Datiim and Masoratiim emphasize that government policy should not be kept separate from religion especially in regard to national and political issues such as settling and incorporating the Greater Land of Israel, borders, and peace agreements. Thus, among Datiim, and Masoratiim significant majorities responded that, to a great or very great extent, to be a good Jew one has to support settlement in the Greater Land of Israel. Among the Hilonim, in contrast, few responded that supporting settlements was necessary in order to be a good Jew. This of course accords with the political alignment of the religious and traditional populations. Thus, according to both the Pew and JPPI surveys, among those who self-identify as traditional or religious, only about 2 percent identify as Left. The vast majority of these sectors is more or less divided equally between those who identify as Center or Right. People who identify in significant numbers as Left are to be found only among the Hilonim (14 percent), even though among that population too, the majority identify as Center (62 percent).
The Haredim responded to this question in divided fashion. Fifty-five and a half percent did not agree that to be a good Jew one has to support settlement in the Greater Land of Israel while 44.4 percent did agree. This finding underlines that despite the fact that Datiim and Haredim have similar views regarding Jewish identity and the relationship between religion and state in regard to traditional issues of individual conduct, there are, of course, significant differences between them. The nature of these differences can be seen in their differential responses to the question “Does the term Zionist describe you accurately?” Only 9 percent of Haredim answered that the term describes them very accurately and 24 percent said that it describes them somewhat accurately (33 percent in all). Among Datiim, in contrast, 95 percent said that the term describes them very or somewhat accurately. This difference reflects that fact that religious Zionists, in their own way, support Zionism as a transformative and redemptive project, while the Haredim tend to reject it (while retaining nationalist, right-wing orientations).
Thus, the differences between the various identity groups, and especially between Hilonim and the religion or tradition-oriented groups, go way beyond degrees of religious observance. They involve deeply held ideological and conceptual differences concerning the fundamentals of Jewish and Israeli collective identities and the nature of the Jewish state and public life.
The Hiloni construction of identity was hegemonic in the first decades of the state. Today, it is increasingly contested by more religious and traditional constructions of identity carried by more traditional and religious groups. This development presents a dilemma. It is certainly a positive development that Jewish identity expressions in Israel are more pluralistic and variegated. At the same time, such contestation vis-à-vis fundamental questions could threaten social solidarity and cohesion.
While this paper emphasizes what divides the various sectors of Jewish Israeli society, it must be remembered that much joins them. Majorities of every Jewish population in Israel believe that Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democracy. This reflects wide ranging agreement, of whatever sort, with the constitutional designation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and with the joint components of collective identity – Jewishness and democracy.