Judaism, Civil Religion, and the New Zionism

Israel Table of Contents

All varieties of Judaism--ultra-Orthodoxy, neo-Orthodoxy, the Reform and Conservative forms--together counted as their formal adherents only a minority of Jewish Israelis. Yet religion was a potent force, and increasingly so, in Israeli society. Traditional Judaism has exerted its influence in Israel in three important ways. First, traditional Judaism has influenced political and judicial legislation and state institutions, which have been championed by the various Orthodox political parties and enshrined in the "preservation of the status quo" arrangements through the years. Second, religion has exerted influence through the symbols and practices of traditional Judaism that literally pervade everyday life. Saturday is the sabbath (Shabbat), the official day of rest for Jews (although the majority do not attend synagogue), and most enterprises are closed. Jewish holidays also affect school curricula, programming on radio and television, features in the newspapers, and so on. Minority traditionalists, who extol halakah even if they do not observe all rabbinic law, also observe many folk customs. Through the years, much of the folk religion has taken on an Oriental-Jewish flavor, reflecting in part the demographic preponderance of Oriental Jews since the 1970s. Such customs include ethnic festivals such as the Moroccan mimouna (an annual festival of Moroccan Jews, originally a minor holiday in Morocco, which has become in Israel a major celebration of Moroccan Jewish ethnic identity) and family pilgrimages to the tombs of Jewish holy men. The latter have become country-wide events. Traditional Judaism has influenced Israeli society in yet a third way: Israel's political elite has selectively co-opted symbols and practices of traditional Judaism in an attempt to promote nationalism and social integration. In this way traditional Judaism, or some aspects of it, becomes part of the political culture of the Jewish state, and aspects of traditional Judaism are then enlisted in what some analysts have called the "civil religion" of Jewish society. Thus, Judaism speaks to Israelis who may themselves be nonreligious, indeed even secularist.

Of all the manifestations of religion in Israel, civil religion has undergone the most profound changes through the years, specifically becoming more religious--in the sense of incorporating more traditional, Orthodox-like Judaism. In the prestate period, the civil religion of Jewish society was generally socialist, that is, Labor Zionism. Labor Zionists were hostile to much of traditional Jewish life, to the concept of exile, and to what they viewed as the cultural obscurantism of traditional Jews. They actively rejected Orthodoxy in religion and considered it to be a key reason for the inertia and lack of modernity of exiled Jews. Labor Zionists sought to reconstitute a revolutionary new form of Jewish person in a radically new kind of society.

After 1948, however, new problems faced Israeli society--not only military and economic problems, but also the massive immigration of Jews and their assimilation. First came the remnants of East and Central European Jewry from the detention and displaced-persons camps; then came Jews from Africa and Asia. Social integration and solidarity were essential to successful assimilation, yet Labor Zionism neither appealed to nor united many sectors of the new society. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s--roughly the period of Ben-Gurion's preeminence--a civil religion was fashioned by some factions of the political elite (led by Ben-Gurion himself), which sought to stress the new Israeli state as the object of ultimate value.

Israelis have called this the period of mamlakhtiyut or statism. The Jewish Bible was the key text and symbol, and secular youths studied parts of it as the Jewish nation's history and cultural heritage. Religious holidays, such as Hanukkah and Passover, or Pesach, were reinterpreted to emphasize nationalist and liberation themes, and Independence Day was promoted as a holiday of stature equal to the old religious holidays. The archaeology of the Holy Land, particularly during the Israelite (post-Joshua) period, became a national obsession, first because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and later because of Yigal Yadin's excavations at Massada (a site of fierce Jewish resistance to the Romans after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.). At the same time, the two thousand years of Jewish history that followed the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish cultural life in the various diasporas (Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi), and Jewish religion of the postbiblical eras (rabbinic Judaism, exemplified in the Talmud) were rejected or ignored.

For many reasons, the statist focus of Israeli civil religion did not continue after the June 1967 War. These reasons ranged from the greater traditionalism and piety of the Oriental immigrants, who were never satisfactorily engaged by the more limited scope of statism; to the exhaustion of the Labor Alignment, which, after the October 1973 War, had sought to embody socialist Zionism and Israeli modern statism as a manifestation of its own identity and agenda; to the rise of Begin's Likud Bloc with its populist appeals to ethnic traditionalism and an irredentist territorial program as a challenge to Labor Zionism's fading hegemony. Begin and his Likud championed a new civil religion to embody its identity and agenda. This new right-wing civil religion affirmed traditional Judaism and denigrated modernistic secularism--the reverse of the earlier civil religion. Unlike the statist version of Ben-Gurion's time, which focused on the Bible and pre-exilic Jewish history, the new civil religion was permeated by symbols from the whole of Jewish history. It gave special emphasis, however, to the Holocaust as a sign of the ultimate isolation of the Jewish people and the enduring hostility of the gentile world.

The new civil religion (which in its more political guise some have called the New Zionism) has brought traditional Judaism back to a position in the Jewish state very different from that which it occupied twenty, forty, or eighty years ago. After the June 1967 War, the New Zionists linked up with the revitalized and transformed neo-Orthodox--young, self-assured religious Jews who have self-consciously connected retention and Jewish settlement of the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria, with the Messiah's advent. The rise of messianic right-wing politics gave birth in the mid-1970s to the irrendentist, extraparliamentary movement Gush Emunim, which in turn led to the Jewish terrorist underground of the 1980s. When the underground was uncovered and broken by Israeli security in April 1984, it had already carried out several attacks on Arabs, including, it was thought, Arab mayors, in the West Bank and was planning to destroy the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. Even before the June 1967 War, however, Orthodox Judaism had been able to exert influence on Israeli society simply because its religious institutions were so historically entrenched in the society.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress