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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

‘As I look, there is a lamp stand entirely made of gold with a bowl on top of it: it holds seven lamps, with seven pipes for lamps on it’. (Zechariah 4:2)

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From Zionism in Crisis

By Meyrav Wurmser

Middle East Quarterly – Winter 2006


"Jews" Versus "Israelis"

The Israeli war of colors continues to be a battle over the essence of Israel and Zionism. Since the withdrawal took place as planned, the religious-national camp, which had been reenergized by its campaign, is asking itself what remains of its beliefs and on what basis it can continue to claim ownership of the Zionist enterprise. Some have called for the end of their alliance with secular Israel and are choosing to turn their attention to forging bridges into the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community.[28] Others are engaging in a process of soul-searching by seeking to determine why religious Zionism has failed to attract most Israelis.


But since the withdrawal, the terms of debate have changed. There is not only an argument over land and the occupation but also a cultural war between two parts of Israeli society: Israelis who believe that the Jewish state cannot exist without a strong connection to the Jewish religion, and Israelis who think that Israel must become a secular society. This culture war represents a schism between the secular "Israelis" and the religious "Jews," both of whom believe that they should determine the nature and character of the state.


The extent to which at the core of Israel's identity crisis is the uneasy relationship between Jewish nationalism and religion was evident during the 2005 Independence Day. During the holiday, the daily Ha'aretz newspaper asked various writers, artists, intellectuals, and rabbis to define Israeli identity. As a part of this project, the paper listed a dictionary of words and slang that reflect the essence of Israeli society. Dominating the list were terms that reflect pushy, impolite behavior. The list indicated the reality that many prominent Israelis define the essence of their national identity as no more than a mood or a code of behavior. Such an un-Jewish definition of Israeli identity reflects a typical Jewish paradox: the ongoing modern Jewish attempt to escape Jewish destiny, to define one's own identity—just as did the early Zionists who were building a secular Jewish state.


The predominant question with which Israelis from across the political spectrum must now grapple is whether Israel can continue to exist as a Zionist state without some connection to Judaism. Prominent thinkers on the left, such as writer Amos Oz, claim that not only should Israel become secular but that this is also the only way to turn it into a modern and moral society. In a sweeping attack on the settlers and their religious observance, he wrote that "to be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him, and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates."[29] In response, writer Naomi Regan, who is sympathetic to the settlers, wrote that Israel cannot be divided into "us" and "them," or into "Israelis" versus "Jews." "Only in the world of fanatic left-wingers, such as Amos Oz, the nation is divided," she wrote. The lives of both parts of the nation are too intertwined, she continued. Everyone serves in the same army, and there are too many points of contact between religious and secular Israelis to speak about a split in the nation, she argued.[30]


Disengagement has proven to be a defining moment for Israeli society, not just vis-à-vis future relations with the Palestinians but also regarding the actual nature of the Jewish-Israeli state. The debate has transcended questions of territory; it has been an argument over Israeli identity and the essence of Zionism. The dispute has touched the nerve of Israeli society: the relationship between Zionism and Judaism, between nationalism and religion. The tension over Gaza is a proxy for a deeper argument over who Israelis are and what they want to be. Like many democracies that fought violent civil wars, Israel at fifty-seven is struggling—so far not violently—to define its soul.


Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.