Israel – Two Perspectives and the Zionism of the 21st Century

Last month, the Vice President of the Jewish People Policy Institute, Dr. Shuki Friedman, appeared at the Z-3 conference at the JCC in Palo Alto and spoke about the meaning of Zionism in the 21st century.

I dedicated many years of my life to the security of the State of Israel. I worked in what we call in Israel “The Prime Minister’s Office Tel Aviv” and participated in the fight to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal. I left “The Office” because I realized that the real existential struggle is not necessarily the Iranians or any other enemies from the outside, but the struggle for the image of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic state. I believed that as an ordained rabbi, whose feet are deeply rooted in the religion, philosophy and history of our people, and as a constitutional jurist whose head is steeped with the questions surrounding the structure of the Israeli “regime” and the values that constitute it, I have something to contribute to, and have some measure of influence upon, the Israeli public discourse, in the hope that Jewish state will indeed live up to its core values.

The struggle for the image of the State of Israel is not new. It has characterized Zionism from its beginning – from the First Zionist Congress, through the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and ever since – questions about the nature of the Jewish state and the meaning of being Jewish have preoccupied us Israelis. The recent elections illustrate that the direction in which the State of Israel is moving is not the one that the state’s thinkers and founders had in mind.

The election results can be analyzed in different ways. Some commentators see them as an electoral fluke resulting from the negligent conduct of some of the political players, and some believe that the trend of turning to the conservative-nationalist right is a reaction to specific events and therefore does not faithfully represent Israeli society. I think otherwise. I see these results as an expression of long-term processes that only a significant and coordinated effort by everyone who holds Israel, and its tremendous promise, dear can affect.

Dr. Shuki Friedman, appeared at the Z-3 conference

In the next few minutes, I would like to refer to these processes from the perspective of time and point to three change processes that are 30 years old or more that Israeli society is undergoing: values change, demographic change, and political change. In terms of values, Israel is becoming more conservative and traditionalist. If three decades ago those who identified as secular were secular in their practices and beliefs, today only a small nucleus of less than 20% are such. The rest of Israelis locate themselves along a continuum between traditionalism and orthodoxy. This change has a values-based meaning. Long term aggregated data show that the more religious you are, the more conservative and right-wing you are. The second change is demographic. Birthrates in Israel are clearly differentiated according to religiosity levels. The birth rate of secular Israelis is 2 children per woman, for religious-nationalists it is 4, among ultra-Orthodox Sephardim it is 5.2 and for ultra-Orthodox-Ashkenazim the number is 8. You don’t need to be a demographer to know what the current trends in Israel are and where the country is headed. The third change, which derives from these two, is political. Since 1994, the right has been on the rise, the center is in decline, and the left has all but disappeared. Only 6% of Israelis self-identify as left-wing.

Without underplaying this reality, I would also like to offer another, more optimistic view. One that provides hope for a more open and pluralistic Israel – as many of us want to see. I think there is a difference between the Israel of politics and data and the Israel of daily life. The Israel of politics screams religious conservatism. The data do not show the everyday Israel in terms of lived experience. The Israeli public sphere is alive and vibrant. It has Jewish features, but it is also very secular. The Sabbaths and holidays in Israel do not all look and feel like Yom Kippur, the day of introspection and atonement, and the demand for culture and leisure rivals or exceeds other Western countries. Surveys repeatedly show that most Israelis take a pluralistic view of issues that seem to be at the heart of the dispute over Israel’s identity. For example, on questions of Jewish identity, most Israelis are willing to accept any conversion, even if it is Reform or merely sociological. Most Israelis support the introduction of civil marriage in Israel. Most Israelis are in favor of having public transportation available on Shabbat. Perhaps even more surprising, the majority of Israelis support giving full equal rights under the law to members of the LGBTQ community. The surprising thing is that this is also true among many of those who voted for the extreme conservative parties, and certainly among Likud voters.

It is true that the general direction in which Israel is going is worrying. The more focused picture, which is accurate and deeply troubling, shows that the Israel system is under threat and may deteriorate further, especially if the balance of power between the branches of government changes, and the High Court can no longer serve as a shield for liberal-democratic values. And yet, I do not want and am not ready to read reality deterministically. The Zionism of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a vision that was not always clear could be realized. The Zionism of the 21st century – the struggle for Israel’s image – is like this. We, at the Jewish People Policy Institute, are promoting several projects, such as writing the Civics Studies curriculum for Israeli high schools, integrating ultra-Orthodox women more fully into the Israeli workforce, and more, which are aimed at bringing change. We, those who are anxious about Israel’s future, will fight for it. Certainly, identifying with Israel from here, in days like these, is a complex and challenging affair. But the other option is to give up. And whoever gives up and disengages with Israel, even from here, will actually lose the ability to influence the direction in which Israel is going. For us, for our national home, please don’t give up.

Z-3 conference