Why aren’t Israelis more Jewish?

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The Western Wall Plaza. 
Credit: Sean Pavone, via Shutterstock

The Western Wall Plaza. Credit: Sean Pavone, via Shutterstock

The Western Wall Plaza. Credit: Sean Pavone, via Shutterstock

The Western Wall Plaza.
Credit: Sean Pavone, via Shutterstock

It all depends on what you mean by “Jewish.”

This week, the Pew Center released its study on Israeli Jewish identity. The survey (read my colleague Lauren Markoe’s report) was conducted in-person with 5,601 Israeli adults. It revealed a very complex, and in some ways disturbing, portrait of what it means to be Jewish in Israel.

Here is the bottom line.

Israeli Jews are not like American Jews.

Israeli Jews think differently. The report showed that a near majority of Jewish Israelis advocate expelling or transferring Arabs out of Israel.

I weep.

I will make no excuses. I will not try to put this in context. I will not recite a history of Arab and Palestinian offenses against Israel.

Because when Palestinians and their supporters do that, I don’t like it. Because every explanation invariably becomes a justification.

Purim is coming — the raucous holiday when Jews remember Esther and Mordecai’s defeat of the evil Haman in ancient Persia. The end of the book of Esther contains a description of the revenge that the Jews of Persia wrought on their enemies.

It reminds us that this tradition has a dark side, that life is not always pretty — but that we can strive to overcome that darkness.

Israel Jews pray differently.  These are the “Jewish tribes” of modern Israel: secular, traditional, religious-Zionist, and haredi (a.k.a. “black hats.”)

Let’s take secular Israeli Jews. They are involved in Jewish ritual — more than their secular American Jewish counterparts.

But: only 2 percent of secular Israelis say that religion is important in their lives. 60 percent say they never go to synagogue.

They are more secular than secular American Jews.

What’s up with that?

  • Blame it on Israel’s founders. They were anti-religious. They were fleeing from an overly passive Diaspora Judaism. The old Zionist hymn put it this way: “We have come to the Land to build — and to be re-built by it.” The purpose of Zionism was to build a new Jew.
  • The new Jew of Israel didn’t need the synagogue. The Land itself is one big synagogue. Stores are closed on Shabbat. Buses don’t run. Most restaurants are closed. Jewish holidays are national holidays. I once landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Purim; the workers at passport control and the customs agents were all in costume.

By contrast, American Jews have a “religion,” in the classic, privatized, de-nationalized, de-ethnicized Protestant sense — a realm that is separate from other spheres of life.

Which leads us to:

  • “It’s peoplehood, stupid.” Judaism has no good word for “religion.” The closest we come is “dat,” a Persian loan word meaning “religious law or custom.” So, for Israelis, Judaism is not a “religion.” It’s your tribal culture.
  • Who owns the term “religious?” If comparatively few Israeli Jews are what we would call “religious,” it might be because the Jewish state has allowed the ultra-Orthodox to hijack the term “religious.”

No longer. “Secular” Israelis are now saying: “Jewish tradition and texts belong to all of us.” Popular musicians are adapting piyyutim — sacred Jewish poems; it has become a minor Israeli cultural obsession.

On Shabbat, throngs gather to celebrate at the old train station in Jerusalem and at the port in Tel Aviv.

Israeli Jews respond to the world differently. Ethics? 70 percent of American Jews say that “leading an ethical and moral life” is central to being Jewish. Only 47 percent of Israeli Jews believe that.

Social justice? 56 percent of American Jews say working for justice and equality is central to Judaism; only 27 percent of Israeli Jews believe that.

Being smart? Important for almost 50 percent of American Jews; for Israeli Jews, only 16 percent. (And this, in “start up nation”! And this, in a place where more books exist in translation than almost any other country!)

A sense of humor?  42 percent of American Jews “get the joke”; only 9 percent of Israeli Jews are laughing along.

So, why are there such sharp differences between American Jews and Israeli Jews?

I have been playing with this idea.

There are two essential Jewish world views.

American Jews/mostly Ashkenazic/liberal religion/liberal values. It’s about the intellect, rational thinking, nuance, and irony. Social justice, ethics, smarts, and humor: totally American.

Israeli Jews/increasingly Sephardic and Arab Jews/traditional religion/traditional values. It’s a more primal, black/white world view that likes to draw clear boundaries.

This is what much of the conversation is ignoring. As Israel becomes increasingly Sephardic (Jews from Arab lands), it loses its old Ashkenazic style — in particular, the old socialist/lefty values that, in the United States, created Bernie Sanders.

Both kinds of Jews need to listen to each other, speak to each other, learn from each other, and live with each other.

Here is why. In the next generation, given demographic trends, there will be only two Jewish communities of any real significance — the United States, and Israel.

Already, there are probably more Jewish children being born whose first language will be Hebrew, than anywhere else in the world.

We need to learn each other’s languages — and I don’t mean just Hebrew and English.

I mean our world views. For the sake of the Jewish future.

The Jews are a very small people, but we are a very large family.





  • Jack

    There was a good book by the late Israeli, Raphael Patai, that noted the Ashkenazi/Sephardic differences. One of his conclusions was that Ashkenazi Jews fit the stereotype of Jews as quicker than Sephardic Jews to blame themselves rather than others for conflict with others.

    That’s a nice way of saying Sephardic Jews are less neurotic. This correctly predicts that Sephardic Jews are less likely to believe that somewhere deep within themselves is some magical, yet-to-be-discovered formula to persuade the Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence and make peace with them.

    That’s why most of the blame-Israel-first Israelis are Ashkenazi. It makes them feel in control to believe that if there is no peace with the Palestinians, it must somehow be their own fault. That’s comforting to believe if you’re a control freak, because the alternative, that the ball is in the other guy’s court and it’s completely out of your hands, is terrifying.