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August 1, 2014 | 5th Av 5774

Culture and identity II

Galilee Diary #345, July 8, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein


As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
              -Hatikvah, national anthem of Israel, by N. H. Imber

Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people, or as a Jewish state. What makes it so? a few possibilities:

• Hebrew is the first official language
• The Jewish holidays are the official national holidays
• The flag and anthem and seal contain Jewish symbols and content
• The state sees itself responsible for Jews everywhere (e.g. Entebbe, Birthright)
• Jews have preferential treatment in immigration law (The Law of Return)
• The army keeps kosher

At the same time, over 20% of the citizens of the state of Israel are not Jewish:

• Palestinian Arabs (and their descendants) who did not leave when the state was established; among these are Christians, Moslems, and Druze
• Immigrants, mostly from the FSU, who have a Jewish grandparent, thus qualifying under the law of return, but who themselves do not identify as Jews, and may be practicing Christians or Moslems
• Circassians and Black Hebrews – non-Jewish minority communities
• Individual immigrants (e.g., professional athletes and other foreign workers) who have become citizens.

Since there is no civil marriage in Israel, all marriages are carried out by the clergy of the particular religions and denominations recognized by the government. Public schools are divided into three parallel systems: Jewish cultural, Jewish religious, and Arab; all teach a government-determined curriculum. Street signs are usually in Hebrew, Arabic and English, but sometimes only in Hebrew and English. Public television broadcasts some hours in Arabic. There are Hebrew and Arabic radio stations. Most rural Jewish communities list Jewishness as an admission requirement. In short, there almost no ethnically neutral territory.

So, the question is: what is Israeli culture? What is the content of Israeli identity? What does it mean to be a non-hyphenated Israeli? So much of our lives are lived out in contexts that are separated, and defined by ethnicity and language, that it often seems impossible to articulate any cultural elements that are common to all citizens. Which leads to the question: what will be our long-term viability as a state if we cannot create at least some common denominators to which all of us are committed? What will be the centripetal forces that will hold us together?

Operating separate school systems, at taxpayers’ expense, designed to respect and support the cultural needs of different communities, according to a European model of preserving ethnic minority rights, seems liberal and pluralistic. But maybe, in the long run, it is a huge mistake. Maybe the American vision of the public school as the creator of a cultural common denominator has something to teach us. If we have no shared culture, then what is the content of our shared citizenship? If all identity is ethnic, then who will be loyal to the state?

For years, we thought that the only “problems” were the Arabs and the Ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist fringe. But in recent years it has become clear that in wider Orthodox circles – and now even in Zionist Orthodox communities, the state as a value is open to question – there are other identities that are more central.

We’ve been debating “who is a Jew” for years. But what, exactly, is an Israeli?


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