The promise of Israeli Judaism in the next Knesset

In response to the recent Islamic terrorist attacks against Jewish communities in Europe, various political leaders reached out and told them, come immigrate to Israel! However, in an election campaign season paying little attention to issues big or small, what are the chances that the nature and future of our ties to our brothers overseas will receive any attention? What about the nature of the Zionist idea and its relevance to life in Israel today? The chances are slim, at best.

Would these issues become part of the campaign if we realized the direct connection between the number of young Israelis prepared to leave Israel for suitable job opportunities and their sense of alienation from their culture? What if we discovered that culturally enriched young people are more steadfast, motivated and prepared to fight for their country and way of life? What if it’s proved beyond all reasonable doubt that nurturing shared values among all Israeli youth, secular and traditional from all streams, reduces polarization and xenophobia? That these common values are the keystone for a more unified and ethical society? Then would this be of interest in the 2015 election campaign? I doubt it.

Monumental damage has been inflicted due to the lack of election debate on these issues. An opportunity stands before us to hold a debate which entails far less partisan volatility. How can we create a new, fresh consensus around a modern Jewish-Israeli society in which Judaism is relevant, draws on its rich history, and is essential to our shared future existence? It is a Judaism based on choice and creativity, openness, equality and respect, and, above all, commitment to a Jewish and democratic Israel.

Of late, we have witnessed a revival of discourse among Israelis on Jewish-Israeli identity.What was recently excluded from their culture is now spontaneously taking place in every part of Israeli public life: in the arts, in academia, in social activity, in the public-education system and pre-military academies, in communities and community centers, in the mainstream and even in social media. What is preventing it from becoming a truly pluralistic and relevant alternative for each Israeli man or woman is the lack of resources and a committed leadership on the national level.

The Israeli public is signaling its desire for Israeli-Judaism whenever asked. A study conducted by the She’arim organization found that 60 percent of all Israel adults believe that taking action to bolster Jewish identity is of crucial importance and that the government ought to invest in it. A Geo-cartography study conducted for the ‘BINA’ organization in January 2015 revealed that three out of every five Israelis believe that all the parties should give expression to issues of Jewish identity in their platform. The Israel Democracy Institute and researcher Tamar Herman recently released a study conducted in 2014 on the national-religious population which found that even 26% of the national-religious community support the proposition that each Jew should be encouraged to study Judaism, even in a non-traditional way.

The money is there. According to a Knesset Research and Information Center study ordered by Knesset Member Ruth Calderon from the Yesh Atid party, the State of Israel allocates over 3.5 billion shekels to religious institutions. Over the years, these funds have led to alienation, polarization and a rift between most Israeli Jews and Judaism; a bad return by all accounts on such a large investment of public funds. Significant changes can be made with the reallocation of merely five percent of the aforementioned sum. We will see and feel changes in the formal and informal education system and in the creation of new community frameworks. It would be possible to create a strong sense of belonging, a significant long term connection between different communities in Israel and between Israel and the Jewish communities around the world, common values and a new social contract between Israelis and their Judaism, all the while providing a solution to numerous social diseases which are of common concern.

The public is demanding a change. The funds are there to make the change. All we need now are more brave champions in the Knesset and the government from across the Zionist political spectrum and committed to taking action, The Israeli public will respect and reward whoever chooses to take a stand and lead instead rather than those sitting on the sidelines of one of the dramatic challenges facing the future of Jews in Israel.

While it seems that the only thing people are talking about is how to stop the spinning centrifuges in Iran or how to find a solution to the housing crisis facing an entire generation of Israelis — of course, two critically important subjects — questions should be asked what happens after the centrifuges have been stopped spinning and the houses have been built? Consideration must be given to our common narrative and reasons for our existence here together. Remember the promise of Israeli-Judaism, if not for 2015, at least for the next election which can come as early as 2017.

About the Author
Lior Weintraub is Vice President of The Israel Project, a lecturer on Diplomacy and Communications at the IDC and the former Chief of Staff at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.