How do Jews in Israel respond when asked what term fits them better “Jewish,” or “Israeli?” Some say “Israeli,” others “Jewish,” while many refuse to give an answer. Only a small number of “Jewish” respondents feel that they aren’t at all “Israeli,” while few “Israelis” entirely lack a sense of being “Jewish.” Even those who avoid answering simply have trouble making the choice. Jews in Israel live along a Jew-to-Israeli continuum, but occupy different, and sometimes distant, places along that continuum. These identity gaps between us are leading to distancing, polarization, and a weakening of our internal cohesion.
This article proposes that the “Jewish” and “Israeli” identity definitions are meaningful but inadequate, and that this endangers our future as a people. From where shall our help come? What we once were, Hebrews, could help us proceed together into the future.
The main problem with the “Jewish” definition is its dual meaning – national and religious. The greatest disadvantage of this dual meaning is that a large proportion of those belonging to the Jewish people in Israel are not religious. Some 40% self-define as secular, and they constitute the largest subgroup within the population as a whole. Many in this sector feel anger toward the religious establishment and resent the restrictions imposed on them in their daily lives. The distance from religion and anger against the religious establishment tend to cause significant reservation about the “Jewish” label. There are secular parents who object to the inculcation of Jewish identity in the schools, out of fear that this dual meaning will open the door to drawing their children closer to religion, under the guise of nationality and culture. A Pew survey conducted six years ago among Israeli Jews found that 60% of secular Israeli Jews self-define as “Israeli first,” while only 20% say they are “Jewish first.” Thus, those members of the Jewish people who are not religious are distancing themselves from the “Jewish” definition, out of concern that this label would enable “religionization” of their national identity.
The double meaning of “Jewish” was a significant advantage in the Diaspora. It denoted a chameleonlike Judaism. One could take on different colors in different circumstances. In countries that viewed Jews chiefly as a distinct people, the Jews could identify as members of the Jewish people. In other places, where there was more tolerance for different religions than for national minorities, the Jews could represent themselves primarily as members of a religious community.
Today, however, the religious connotation of “Jewish” poses an identity challenge for Diaspora Jews as well.
First, many young Jews who identify as such, self-define as “Jews of no religion.” A 2020 Pew survey found that 40% of American Jews ages 18-29 see themselves as Jews, but with no religious dimension to their Jewishness.
Second, the conception of Judaism chiefly as a religion makes it easier for Israel haters to delegitimize Zionism and the State of Israel, and, in so doing, to threaten the Jewish-Zionist identity of Diaspora Jews. While, in the Western world peoples have the right to self-determination, it is not acceptable for religions to have states of their own. If the Jews are not a people but primarily a religion, why do they deserve a state at the expense of what are perceived as the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people? How can a young Jewish person who grew up with the idea of Judaism as a religion respond to delegitimizing attacks on Israel as the national home of the Jewish people?
The Jewish religion, which helped preserve us as a people for many generations, can no longer play a key role in keeping us together. Most of the Jewish people – in Israel and in the Diaspora – are not religious, meaning that religion does not constitute “common ground” for all. Tensions between secular and religious people, and between the different religious streams within Judaism, are, unfortunately, causing rifts and polarization, rather than a sense of commonality. The dual meaning opens the door to De-legitimization of the Jewish people’s national home. The once-constructive ambiguity of the term “Jewish” has become destructive.
The concept of “Israeli” also has significant downsides as an identity signifier that defines who we are. First, it is not shared by Diaspora Jews. Over half of the Jewish people lives outside of Israel. These Jews cannot define themselves as “Israeli,” and we cannot connect with them by means of that definition. Second, the term “Israeli” refers to a citizenry as it also encompasses Israeli Arabs. In this sense, both they and we are Israelis. Third, but no less important, even among those members of the Jewish people who reside in Israel many are uncomfortable with the term “Israeli” as their main identity signifyer. The aforementioned Pew survey found that not only do 91% of Haredim and 80% of Datiim (non-Haredi religious people) self-define as “Jewish first,” but 59% of Masortiim [“tradition-oriented”] do so as well.
Thus, the two most common terms used to define our Jewish identity – “Jewish” and “Israeli” – do not provide a shared foundation that is broad, deep, or clear enough to ensure our future. Do we have another option?
In Quest of the Hebrews
Surveys of Israeli Jews commonly ask: Do you feel Jewish or Israeli? I’ve never seen a survey ask Israeli Jews whether they feel “Hebrew.”
Once, we were all Hebrews. Abraham was the first Hebrew. In Egypt we were Hebrews; Joseph is called na’ar Ivri (“a young Hebrew”), and the midwives who saved the people are called Ivriyot. The slave whom the Torah commands us to free is an eved Ivri. The prophet Jonah, when discovered on the ship, identifies himself as a Hebrew: Ivri anochi.
It wasn’t only in the distant past that we were Hebrews. The notion of Hebrew, and not just the Hebrew language, was a central feature of the Zionist vision and endeavor. Jabotinsky called for the founding of a Hebrew state; the halutzim (pioneers) fought for “Hebrew labor;” the workers established a Hebrew workers’ labor union (the original name of the Histadrut, or Israel’s General Organization of Workers, was HaHistadrut HaClalit Shel HaOvdim HaIvriim); the Jewish volunteer battalions that served in World War I were called HaGdudim HaIvriim. The Jewish underground organizations were Hebrew, and when they formed an alliance, it was called Tnu’at HaMeri HaIvri – literally: the “Hebrew Resistance Movement.” The university and gymnasium were Hebrew. Even the mothers were Hebrews, as in the words of Ben-Gurion inscribed on a wall at the Ministry of Defense: “Let all Hebrew mothers know that they have entrusted the fate of their children to worthy commanders.” The entire body of Jewish legal literature, from the Torah through the modern adjudicators, is referred to in our time as Mishpat Ivri. Even the religious movement, Bnei Akiva, defined, at its founding, as its goal, “the education of a Hebrew generation”. The youth were Hebrew, the calendar was Hebrew, and even the Israel Postal Company started out as Do’ar Ivri. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which refers to Israel as a Jewish state as defined by the United Nations, mentions not only the Hebrew language, but also the Hebrew Yishuv (pre-state Jewish settlement) and an independent Hebrew people in their land. We can see the centrality of the idea of the Hebrew to the Zionist outlook in Menachem Begin’s speech of May 15, 1948, as the Irgun abandoned its underground status: he uses the term Ivri 33 times, in reference to the Hebrew underground movement and the Hebrew state, a Hebrew democracy and a Hebrew government, Hebrew heroism and the Hebrew flag. To Begin, even the rail service was Hebrew. At the new museum Anu (“We”) hangs a poster from those days put out by HaIgud L’Ma’an Totzeret Ha’Aretz (the Association for Local Produce), calling upon consumers to buy Hebrew watermelons.
Why was the idea of the Hebrew so significant in the shaping of the Jewish Zionist identity? The choice of the Hebrew seems to have reflected a desire to restore, for the “third Kingdom of Israel,” the glory of the ancient kingdom; to free Jewish identity from its exilic trappings, and to create a “New Jew” returning to his homeland to found an independent state for the Jewish people. Perhaps, as we can see in the Declaration of Independence, some viewed the term “Hebrew” as peculiar to Jews living in, or returning to, Eretz Israel, in contradistinction to the Jews remaining in the Diaspora. And, perhaps even more importantly: the choice of “Hebrew” was for many a definition of national identity that would not necessarily be religious in character.
However, once the Hebrews had founded the state, the term Hebrew did not retain (except for the language and, to some degree, the calendar) its centrality in the national identity. Maybe it was incorporated within Judaism, which has a religious and not just national context. Perhaps it became obscured within a vague Israeliness. The concept “Hebrew” that had been largely shared by the Jewish people – right and left, secular and Religious Zionist, faded. Although two-thirds of the Jews now living in Israel, according to Pew, view their Judaism primarily as a matter of ancestry and culture, we currently have no clear identity concept that gives expression to our entire tribe – secular, Masorti, Dati, and Haredi – and is sufficiently comfortable for all elements within that tribe. Many Dati and Masorti Jews do not feel that Israeliness adequately expresses their identity. Many secular Jews are uncomfortable with the term “Jewish,” due to its religious connotations. Thus, the Jewish people’s shared ethnic, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and national – though not necessarily religious – identity, has remained orphaned.
Was the modern concept of “Hebrew” prevalent only within the Zionist ethos, and in Eretz Israel?
Where have all the Hebrews gone? Have they really gone?
It is not only in Israel that members of the Jewish people have self-defined as Hebrew. In the former Soviet Union, the state designated millions of Jews with the nationality “Hebrew,” which was noted in their passports. More surprisingly, Hebrew was a common concept in the New World, particularly in the United States in the 19th century.
Many US synagogues founded in the 19th century were referred to as “Hebrew congregations.” The first American Jewish community youth centers were called Young Men’s/Women’s Hebrew Associations (YMHA/YWHA). Burial societies – organizations so crucial to their communities – were known as Hebrew Burial Associations. The Jewish weekly that began publication in New York in 1879 was called The American Hebrew. The organization founded in 1881 to assist Jewish immigrants was called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The vocational high school founded in 1884 for Jewish immigrants was named the Hebrew Technical Institute.
“Hebrew” organizations were also among the foundational elements of the federations that were already being referred to as “Jewish.” For example, the first “Jewish” federation in the United States, established in Boston in the late 19th century, had started out several decades earlier as the United Hebrew Benevolent Association.
Jewish Sunday schools were called “Hebrew” schools. The first of these appears to have been founded in 1818 in Philadelphia as the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia, by the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. “Hebrew schools” still exist today; an American Jewish Committee survey conducted this year asked respondents whether they had attended Hebrew school, along with a question about Jewish day school attendance.
Until 2003, North America’s Reform Judaism’s umbrella organization was known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), and the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary remains the Hebrew Union College to this day.
Why did 19th century American Jews choose to name so many of their institutions “Hebrew” rather than “Jewish”? They may have been influenced by British Jewry, whose chief rabbi has always been called the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The use of “Hebrew” may have reflected a desire for renewal, for a return to a glorious past, and a distancing from the negative image that antisemites had attached to the term “Jewish.” It is also possible that “Hebrew” better suited the 19th century American ethos. When the first US president, George Washington, wrote his famous letter to the Hebrew community of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, he referred to the community members not as adherents of the Jewish faith, but as “children of the stock of Abraham” (the first Hebrew). An ethnic group, not just a religious affiliation.
Thus, even if the American-Jewish “Hebrew,” unlike the Zionist “Hebrew,” was not meant to express Jewish nationality, it appears that, like the Zionist “Hebrew,” it also reflected a desire to project a “new Jew”, liberated from the shackles of the recent past but connected to a glorious distant past, modern and aspiring to a meaningful future role.
Starting in 1898, the US immigration authorities registered immigrants by “races and peoples” (and not just by the country from which they arrived). Jewish immigrants were registered as “Hebrews.” Many in the established Jewish leadership were alarmed by the US government’s application of that singular label to Jews. When the label was imposed from above, based on the notion of Jews not only as adherents of the Jewish religion but also as a group with additional salient characteristics, those Jewish leaders argued that the Jews were merely members of a different faith, and that their designation as “Hebrews” was unconstitutional. They apparently feared that such a designation would make it harder for the Jews to integrate in American society, limit Jewish immigration to the US, and perhaps even fuel antisemitism on the basis of a presumed dual loyalty. They protested against the designation, but without success. The answer they received was that the Jews are not merely a religious group, but much more.
Not all Jews agreed with the Jewish leadership elite’s view that Judaism was solely a religion. The Jewish Encyclopedia of the period refers to them as a race and as a nationality of Hebraic tradition. When the prominent opponent of the “Hebrew” designation for Jewish immigrants, Simon Wolf, tried to enlist 12 Jewish organizations to assist him in a campaign against the term, he was surprised to find that half of them did not share his view that the Jews were a religion only. When the American Jewish Committee (AJC) pushed to abolish the designation of Jews as a “race or people”, arguing that they were merely adherents of a religion, the matter sparked fierce controversy within the organization.
Even once the governmental designation of the Jews as Hebrews was rescinded in 1943, American authorities continued to see the Jews as something more than a religious group. For example, it was determined that discrimination against Jews could be considered a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, based on Jews’ national origin and ethnicity, not their faith. Just a few months ago, Jews petitioned the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education for protection based on that same provision of the Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin (not religion). Thus, a century after Jewish leaders fought the state’s characterization of Jewish immigrants as members of a race or people, Jewish individuals and organizations are seeking state protection on the basis of their Jewish national origin.
Although in the course of the 20th century, the term “Jewish” became much more prevalent then “Hebrew,” many American Jews have continued until this very day to view themselves as much more than just a religious group.
The most recent Pew survey found that a large majority of American Jews regard Judaism as primarily a matter of ancestry and culture; only a minority see religion as the main element. Out of identification as Americans, and maybe concern that being nationally defined as Jews could draw accusations of dual loyalty, many Jews define their identity in terms of a concept that is hard to find in traditional dictionaries: “Jewish Peoplehood.” Has the notion of “Hebrew” shifted to “Jewish Peoplehood” among American Jewry?
Why is all this important?
Our sense of personal and collective identity influences our major life choices. Where to live, with whom to start a family, what kind of education to secure for our children. Young Israelis have to decide whether and how to serve in the IDF; young Diaspora Jews have to choose whether to live as Jews and whether they want and are able to cope with antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
The level of solidarity between us affects our strength as a collective. The coronavirus pandemic gave us a glimpse of the challenging tension between those to whom Jewish learning and prayer are sacred, and those for whom individual freedom and the right to protest rank highest on the value scale. Limit synagogue services but permit demonstrations, or vice versa? The shared identity and solidarity between Israel and Diaspora Jewry impact the willingness to fight for each other – to vigorously take action in capitals across the globe when Israel is under fire, and to send young Israelis to rescue Diaspora Jews from natural disasters or oppression. Our ability to project power outward is also affected by our inner cohesion as well as its perception. Israel is esteemed internationally not just for its present-day technological achievements, but also for being a millennia-old civilization, and for our shared strength as one people.
Jewish cohesion, so crucial for our survival, is currently under great pressure from without and from within. The worldwide tension between those holding to tradition and those seeking new horizions, and between patriotism and globalism, also influences polarization within the Jewish people. Israel is polarized between the religious/traditionalist and the secular/universalist camps. American Jewry is torn between the Orthodox and conservatives, and all the rest. The gap between Israel and the Diaspora is widening due to the essentially different life circumstances between a Jewish-majority country and a minority community in the Diaspora.
What held us together as a people in the 20th century is now less relevant to Jews’ identity and their sense of togetherness. The trauma of the Holocaust and the drama of Israel’s founding followed by the Six-Day War are much less meaningful and identity-shaping for the generations born decades later. Family ties have also weakened. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jews migrated from Europe and the Middle East/North Africa to Eretz Israel and the West. A great many of them had first-degree relatives in distant geographical locations. My mother kept in touch with all of her cousins in America. Her great-grandchildren are almost completely unacquainted with relatives of their generation.
The great question for the Jewish people in the 21st century is that of what will keep us together. If not Judaism or Israeliness alone, then what? The answer can be found in other elements that make us a people; in our peoplehood or, in other words, in the concept of “Hebrew.”
In contrast to Judaism, which also has religious connotations, and Israeliness, which does not include Diaspora Jewry and also applies to Israeli Arabs, Hebrew can express our shared identity as members of a single people, whether religious, secular, or traditional; whether in Israel or the Diaspora.
Most members of our people agree on a definition regarding what it is to be a Jew. One instructive finding of Pew’s 2015-2016 comparative study of American and Israeli Jews was that a broad consensus exists in both of these large Jewish communities, which together amount to nearly 90% of the Jewish people, that Judaism is first and foremost a matter of ancestry and culture. Even if they do not specifically use the term “Hebrew,” the vast majority of Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish people – Am Israel.
What are the salient characteristics of our Hebrew peoplehood? A shared ethnicity and sense of belonging to an extended family – a special tribe; an almost innate fear of enemies and haters that fosters a sense of mutual responsibility; the view that the State of Israel is the Jewish people’s national home; a unique and rich common heritage and culture; Hebrew as a common language and cultural foundation; shared sociocultural values, such as an emphasis on family, study and education, community, and tikkun olam; pride in our uniqueness and in our people’s contribution to humanity.
We are, above all, one people, one tribe, a single extended family, with a glorious heritage and unique contribution to mankind. We have to strengthen what is common to us: the sense of mutual responsibility, Israel’s centrality in Jewish life, the experience of our common tradition, the pride in our uniqueness and contribution to humankind, our mutual familiarity and interaction, and the sense of a shared destiny.
The first Kingdom of Israel stood for a century, until internal rivalries split it into two separate kingdoms, Judah and Israel. Again, a century passed from the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom until internal discord helped the Romans conquer Judea. If we do not invest in what we share, it could happen a third time. The tremendous challenge faced by our people in the 21st century is that of reinforcing our commonality as a source of strength and thriving. This commonality has a nearly 4,000-year-old name: Hebrew. The label “Hebrew” may not feel natural to us, or roll off the tongue. But what it represents is the shared identity that is so vital to us as one people. As the prophet Jonah said: Ivri anochi. We are Hebrews.