What makes Israel Jewish


When American, British, Argentine or any other Diaspora Jews visit Israel, they know that they are in a Jewish place since most of the people living there happen to be Jewish. The language most frequently spoken, read and written is Hebrew – a once dead language come back to life. Kosher food is readily available in stores and restaurants and, of course, in homes.

The rhythm of the week is a Jewish rhythm: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6 … and, at last, Shabbat, the only day earning a name and not just a number. The calendar is Jewish, not Christian or Muslim. Businesses and schools are closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and nobody asks why. On Purim, the Mardi Gras-like carnival spills out onto the public square; during Passover, just about everybody is eating matzah, while leavened bread is hard to find.

On the surface, then, Israel is very much a Jewish place. Nevertheless, should the visitors dig a bit deeper and ask the typical Israeli, “Mi hu Yehudi?” (Who is a Jew?), they will soon lose count of the number of varied responses.

As I have pointed out on other occasions, when I first visited Israel during the summer of 1965, when the state was only 17 years old, I was told in no uncertain terms, “Im atah rotseh l’hiyot Yehudi, atah tsarikh lagur po ul’daber Ivrit.” (If you really want to be a Jew, you need to live here and speak Hebrew.) For many Israelis, land and language are the essence of Jewish identity.

To this very day, a number of Israelis wear this secular identity as a badge of honor. Indeed, one could argue that because Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was such a thoroughgoing secularist, he ceded disproportionate political power to the religious Orthodox; to his socialist way of thinking, it was impossible that organized religion could have any future in what was certain to be a strictly secular state. Over the decades, these tensions between the Orthodox and the secular elements of Israeli society have deepened while the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) religious alternatives have been struggling to gain a foothold.

At the same time, the “pure” socialism of the early kibbutz movement has gradually yielded to capitalistic influences. Add to these competing views of Jewish identity in Israel the conflict between the “God gave this land to me” settlers and those who argue that Israel’s Hakhrazat HaAtzma’ut, Declaration of Independence, makes explicit that “The State of Israel…will uphold the full social and political equality of all citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex.” Clearly, then, Israelis – as Jews in the Diaspora – do not agree as to w  find it disingenuous of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state. After all, Israel did not make this demand of either Egypt or Jordan when they signed their peace treaties. It is absurd to require non-Jews to affirm Israel’s Jewish identity when Israelis themselves cannot agree upon the nature of their Jewishness. Since approximately one million non-Jewish Arabs and Druze hold Israeli citizenship, it is a non-starter to demand that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declare Israel a Jewish state; it is obviously politically impossible for Abbas to do, and it is, therefore, no surprise that, on more than one occasion, Abbas has made clear that, while Israel is free to define itself de facto as it wishes, there is no way he will formally acknowledge that Israel is de jure a Jewish state.

I am proud to be an American Jew; yet, I accept the fact that the United States remains a culturally Christian country. Businesses and schools close for Christmas. However, I would be deeply resentful if, as a requirement of citizenship, I were required to pledge allegiance to a Christian state. It seems to me that Netanyahu’s demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a clear and distinct violation of the democratic spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which affirms “the full social and political equality of all citizens;” “all citizens” includes the Arab minority. If Israel is to remain a Jewish state, it is up to the Jewish citizens of Israel to make it so by embodying Jewish values.

James B. Rosenberg (rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org) is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington.