The story of the Jewish people and the story of the State of Israel are inextricably linked. This was the basic premise I began with ahead of my recent trip to Israel. I spent a week travelling throughout Israel as part of Cohort IV of the Mandel Institute’s Executive Leadership Program. We met with individuals spanning the broad spectrum of Israeli society, delving into the meaty topics of peoplehood and identity, using what we learnt along the way to inform a clearer picture of Israel today.
I hadn’t been to Israel in a few years. I go through periods of strong engagement with Israeli current affairs, and I drift out of them just as easily. Israel is like a book that I read slowly, cycling through moments of enthusiastic motivation coupled with moments of fatigue and disinterest. But regardless of what phase I might be in, the book always remains on my bedside table. I know in my core that Israel is a place and a project that I want to support, understand, and be able to explain and promote to others. More importantly, for those of us privileged enough to be in the business of Jewish community and identity building, we cannot get away from the fact that Israel is a critical ingredient to our work. So, I mustered up a renewed sense of intrigue ahead of a week of learning by beginning with this simple notion – that Israel is intertwined with Jewish communal service.
We began by spending time with members of the Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) community in Geula, Jerusalem. We learnt about the strong value set of Charedim: Their deep-rooted traditions grounded in a fundamental religious viewpoint; and their natural suspicion of change and advancement. The Charedi community is one that often lives in relative poverty, and historically they’ve mostly been content with it, but this is also a community with an alarming rate of population growth.
We saw examples of Charedim who want more. In particular we met young women who want to better their career prospects to provide for their families. Without compromising their religious values, they are willing and motivated to be exposed to a secular world in pursuit of professional aspirations, with an increasing number studying in modern institutions and with goals of entering the world of tech and business. The students we met with were incredibly inspiring: smart, gritty, and determined. The future of the Charedi community is fascinating to consider as it reckons with its relative voting power continuing to increase alongside a growing number of individuals seeking greater economic and social access.
The Religious Zionists
We then spent time with members of the Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) community in Alon Shvut, a settlement in the West Bank. We learnt about the core values of Am Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), and Torat Yisrael (Torah study), each being central to the identities of Religious Zionists.
We saw some examples of more liberal and progressive viewpoints within this community, including a female Rabbi who functions as the sole spiritual leader of an orthodox settlement community; those who believe in a two-state solution; and the presence of Hesder Yeshivot, institutions that prioritize military service alongside Talmudic study. It was intriguing to see members of this community grapple with the interplay of religion and civic discourse. But when faced with a conflict, what is the value that takes precedence? Is it Torah, is it the land of Israel, is it Jewish peoplehood?
We visited the Negev and explored the concept of the Jewish periphery. We spent time in Yeruham, an example of a Development Town, in which immigrant Mizrachi Jews were pushed to the less desirable, deserted outskirts of Israel after its founding in 1948. We saw examples of the work being done to spur continued economic development and social mobility, and we heard from younger generations about their sense of responsibility to complete their grandparents’ vision of The Aliyah.
We spent time in Tel Aviv and heard from some of the more progressive voices of Chiloni (secular) Israeli society with whom we explored the idea of secularism and religiosity not necessarily being mutually exclusive, but perhaps interrelated; the ability to attain spiritual solace through a life dedicated to liberal and secular values.
We heard from leaders behind the protest movement. We felt their anger and pain, and we heard many talk about a Plan B, one that involves giving up on the dream and leaving Israel. But we also heard alternative visions for a future Israeli society, ones that call for greater regionalization and the formation of a federal system with individual states or cantons, affording greater self-governance to the various tribal identities of Israeli society. The leaders of the protest movement believe that the judicial reform is merely a symptom of a broader issue. In their eyes it is about the preservation of liberal values: democracy, freedom, and equality.
Then there are those that would argue that the protest movement contains contradictions, and that the fight for democratic values leaves out the importance of representing the Arab Israeli community. We spent time in Sakhnin, an Arab city, hearing from diverse voices within Arab society. We learnt about the disenfranchisement that many Arabs feel living in Israel. According to 2022 data from The Israel Democracy Institute, 85% of Arabs believe Israel is a racist nation and 7 in 10 believe that Israel is responsible for the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But we also heard them speak about the enhanced quality of life and economic opportunities they are afforded as Israelis. We saw examples of work being done to bridge the gap and promote coexistence through social programs, education, and financial investment.
The Many Faces
To state the obvious, Israel is a complex nation and at the heart of those complexities is the question of collective identity. We spent the week meeting with individuals from different groups of Israeli society, and we used these experiences to learn about and better understand the communities, or tribes, that they represent. But in reality, people can only truly represent themselves. The crux of these encounters was in opening up and getting to know people for who they are. No one can tell you how any of Israel’s current challenges will be resolved, but one thing that is certain is that it will come from people recognizing people, seeing each other as individuals, and doing the hard work to remain in dialogue, even and especially when it is difficult.