Yadgar’s book was born out of a difficulty he found while teaching at Berkeley of recommending reading that made explicit the link between Israel’s internal sociology, culture and politics, and the wider conflict in the Middle East. He therefore decided to write about this connection through a study of Israeli nationhood, its self-identification, its treatment of non-Jewish Israelis, its position in the broader Middle East, its claim to Jewish identity and its relationship with the Jewish Diaspora. The book’s purpose is to better understand Israel’s internal workings so as to shed light on how Israel’s policy makers and intellectuals view their position in the wider region.
There are parts of this book that are impressive. These include fascinating discussions about the nature of Jewish identity and the degree to which it is Jews’ or ‘Judaism’ which is the ‘primary reference point’. For Yadgar, Judaism always preceded the Jew and he favourably quotes Leon Roth in arguing that ‘Judaism is not to be considered in terms of the Jews but the Jews in terms of Judaism’. (P.11)
From here, Yadgar develops an argument that Israel has a Jewish identity crisis because its founders placed the focus on Jews (biological) rather than Judaism (Rabbinic Tradition). This meant the founders constructed a new Zionist identity that was detached from its past while paradoxically dependent upon Orthodox Rabbis for ‘ethnic self-preservation’ (P.147). This crisis manifests itself throughout Israeli self-understanding, politics, law and wider society and deeply affects how Israel treats its non-Jewish citizens (largely Palestinian Arabs) and the wider Middle East. The discussions are fascinating and worth reading but I confess to having felt short-changed. My objection is less to do with what Yadgar writes about and much more about what he leaves out.
The first alarm bell rang when early in the book he justifies a heavy reliance on the left/liberal/secular Ha’aretz newspaper as a primary source. He is aware of the risk – ‘Readers may wonder…’ – but justifies it by arguing that as the bastion of the secular and liberal elite, this world view is the ‘foremost heir’ of the dominant Zionist ideology.
People unfamiliar with Israel may not be aware that Haaretz is read daily by under 4 per cent of Israelis. In contrast, Israel Hayom (Free paper) is read by 39 per cent and Yediot Ahronot (paid) is read by 35 per cent. Whilst it is true that parts of Israel’s elite read Haaretz and it is an important paper, many others (clearly) do not. Yediot certainly sees itself as an heir to the liberal Zionist tradition and is far more representative of the Israeli Jewish population (including elites) than Haaretz could ever be.
The core argument of the book is also worth dissecting. It is undoubtably true that some elements of the Zionist movement placed an emphasis on ‘Jews’ rather than ‘Judaism’ and thus felt free to radically construct a new identity in the land of Israel which rejected Galut (Exile) and prioritised the construction of the ‘new Hebrew’. Yet, there were other dissenting voices who were very significant and Yadgar does not reference them sufficiently.
A case in point is Berl Katznelson, a hugely significant figure in the Yishuv (Pre 1948 Jewish Community in Palestine). Yadgar mentions Katznelson early in the book in a footnote (P.26) but not his seminal 1935 essay ‘Tradition and Revolution’ where he specifically relates to Yadgar’s concerns in a discussion about which Jewish traditions need to be kept, adapted or discarded for the sake of building a creative generation in the Yishuv.
By the time the Zionist movement emerges as a significant intellectual and political force at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, it was already too late to keep ‘Judaism’ as the ‘primary reference point’ together in a manner which Yadgar (among others) seems to think existed (Personally, I have my doubts about this idea. Surely Jews and Judaism are mutually interdependent?). The rise of Sabbateanism, Hassidism, the Enlightenment, the emergence of Jewish scholarship, Jewish Socialism and the development of the Reform Movement put paid to the myth of a singular ‘Judaism’. Zionism is indeed a different and radical interpretation of the world, but so were all the others. Its reading was no more or less radical than (for example) the Bund, ultra-Orthodoxy, or the German and then American Reform Movements.
Arguments about whether Jews or Judaism are primary, are ultimately futile. Throughout Jewish history, different traditions have favoured one over the other and it seems to me to be more sensible to think of them as relational with each affecting the other to a greater or lesser extent depending on the wider context.
In fact, I would argue that as Israeli culture matures, there are developments in Israel’s Jewish identity that point to a move towards a new Israeli Judaism that is less secular than previous generations and pointedly not in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox politicians/Rabbis. In this vein it is either a mistake or unfortunate timing that Yadgar makes no reference to the December 2018 publication of a major survey on Israeli Judaism that surveyed a sample comprising three thousand Israeli Jews on a whole range of matters concerning their Zionism, Jewish identity and attitudes to Israel. As the results makes clear, 28 per cent of Israeli Jews define themselves as totally secular and 16 per cent as Haredi/National Haredi, meaning that 56 per cent of Israeli Jews place themselves on a range between these two poles. The focus by Yadgar on the elites within the 28 per cent risks giving a skewered position on Israeli-Jewish perspectives.
While there are some (rather cynical) observations about the Jewish Agency and Birthright as programmes seeking to advance Jewish-Zionist education among Israelis, I was struck by the lack of attention given to the huge number of liberal religious and secular frameworks that are working with hundreds of thousands of Israelis to develop a Judaism that is both connected to the Jewish past and deeply committed to creating an authentic modern interpretation rooted in Jewish tradition, liberalism, modern Israeli society and social justice.
One sees these developments in politics and culture as well as the flourishing NGO sector of Jewish Renewal organisations. See for example the writing and broadcasts of Ruth Calderon, the founder of the ALMA Centre is Tel Aviv. And particularly her maiden speech to the Knesset in which she gave a Talmud lesson that even engaged the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis.
Television shows such as Serugim, Hayehudim Ba’im and Shtisel all point to an Israeli society that is getting much more comfortable with exploring the multi-dimensional nature of its Jewish identity using humour and drama to both create and criticise simultaneously.
It was also striking that the book has only one passing reference to ‘Mizrachim’ (Jews originating from the Middle East and North Africa who make up a majority of Israel’s Jewish population) despite the fact that all over Israel, there is a flourishing of synagogues and other cultural and communal initiatives celebrating MENA identity. Incidentally, in that community, there is widespread rejection of the term ‘Jewish-Arab’ which Yadgar uses on page 2 (rather than ‘Mizrachi’). It is rejected because it identifies being Jewish as a religion rather than a people. This was more acceptable in the early 20th century but is far less used following the intense violence and expulsions that Jews faced in the late 1940s and 1950s. There are efforts to revive the term on the far-left and some academic circles but they are struggling to catch on. Journalist Matti Friedman’s essay Mizrahi Nation explores in detail the ways in which this previously under-emphasised population is reclaiming and celebrating its identity within the Israeli narrative.
I would also argue with Yadgar’s use of the word ‘Crisis’ in a discussion about Israeli Jewish identity, at least without a question mark. In just 72 years of statehood and 140 years since the first modern Aliya, 9,000,000 people call Israel home including 22 per cent Arab citizens. Building a cohesive and shared society is a top priority which reflects citizens’ religious and cultural commitments while simultaneously building a shared ‘common’ space. In this context, it makes more sense to think of Israel’s approach to Jewish identity as a ‘drama’ which is a developing narrative with moments of intense friction (that Yadgar stresses), and others where creativity flourishes and the temperature is cooler. The challenges and insights that Yadgar brings are often important and valid, but the overall atmosphere it conveys is not one sufficiently reflective of the society he wishes to explain.