Steve Kramer

Who Are the (Jewish) Israelis

There is concern today by many in Israel that some Israelis are unappreciative of their Jewish heritage. Author and journalist Shmuel Rosner has challenged this by suggesting a new paradigm for most of us, whom he calls, “Jewsraelis.”

The background

Since Israel’s independence in 1948, Israelis have changed radically. There were always Jews living in the Land of Israel. By the 19th century, the Jewish population was mainly devout Jews in Jerusalem and other ancient cities. As author and journalist Matti Friedman said in a recent interview, “Jews were always part of the Middle East.  Every Arab city had a Jewish quarter.  Jews didn’t come here in 1948.  They were here.”

The major Zionist impetus towards a modern state of Israel came from Eastern European secular Jews (Ashkenazim), mostly from Russia. Overwhelmingly, these modern Zionists were secular in their beliefs, but nevertheless they were well educated in the Bible and yiddishkeit (Jewish way of life) in general.

After WWII, the nascent state’s population was greatly increased by survivors of the Holocaust, mostly from Europe. Closely behind them were an even greater number of Jews from the Arab lands of North Africa, the Levant (eastern coast of the Mediterranean), and Arabia. These Jews were forced from their domiciles of thousands of years because of the victory of Israel in 1948 and/or Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. These Jews were often more devout, less worldly, and less educated than the European olim (immigrants).

David Ben-Gurion and his cohorts welcomed the Mizrahi immigrants (those from Muslim lands) ambivalently, sharing the popular notion that they were primitive i.e. religious and uneducated. “[Some contemporary] academics promote the view held by many young Mizrahim that discrimination did not end with their parents’ generation. The children—who, in large part, were born in Israel—continue to face discrimination and cope with social and economic handicaps.” (Middle East Forum, Spring 2005)

In the 15 or so years since the above article appeared, Israel has changed dramatically in every way: economically, socially, demographically, and religiously. Today, Israel (despite its outsized but necessary military budget) is in excellent economic shape compared to its peers, has a high standard of research and innovation, has gone through a sea change of “intermarriage” which has all but wiped out any differences between Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, and is experiencing a steady increase of interest in Jewish sources and customs by secular Israelis.

With this as background, Shmuel Rosner has written a book about “Jewsraelis,” whom he explains are Israelis who observe both Jewish and Israeli customs and espouse beliefs that combine Judaism and Zionism. (This definition excludes anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox.) In his Commentary article (12/2018) entitled, “The Lazy Jew — Keeping Jewishness Alive,” Rosner writes, “There is a new Jew, and she lives in Israel. The new Jew practices Judaism like no Judaism before it, and like no Judaism anywhere else. It is a Judaism unique to a place and to a time. Israeli-Judaism – an amalgamation of tradition and nationality.”

I would say that even Israelis who disdain religion, practice Judaism merely by living in Israel. The non-religious Jews are immersed, as are all of us, in the Jewish ambiance of Israel. Even Jews who have left Ultra-Orthodoxy retain their sense of Jewishness.

Rosner backs up his thesis with statistics: a large majority of Israelis (72 percent) believe that an “Israeli” is a person who celebrates Jewish holidays or serves in Israel’s army (68 percent). Almost all Israelis (97 percent) attend a Passover Seder and 60 percent believe in raising the national flag on Israel’s Independence Day. “Yes, for most of Israel’s Jews, the flag – designed to resemble the Jewish prayer shawl — is a component of Jewishness.”

Regarding Hanukkah, 75% of Israelis light candles every night of the eight-day holiday, giving a relatively minor Jewish holiday a high status. Students have a vacation from school during the holiday and everyone enjoys sufganyot (donuts) and other baked goods cooked in oil to represent the miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted not one, but eight days, after the liberation of the Second Temple from the Greeks (actually, they were mostly assimilated Hebrews). Rosner says, “In Israel, one is surrounded by Hanukkah and hence must surrender to Hanukkah. No special effort is required.”

While Israel uses the standard Gregorian calendar, Israeli culture follows the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashana is the start of the new year, on Yom Kippur (not mentioned in the article) the streets are devoid of cars, which are replaced by kids on bicycles, and most people refrain from eating. Sukkot (Succos) is holiday time for students and most workers, and on Purim, all the kids and half the adults wear costumes to celebrate the holiday. Most families insist on having family dinners on Friday night (82 percent), even if Shabbat candles are not lit. Even the spring holiday of Shavuot (Shavuos) is widely celebrated. One reason: TV commercials repeatedly remind Israelis to buy dairy products for the traditional Shavuot dairy delicacies.

Rosner concludes his article by stating that Israelis don’t worry about the future of Jewishness. The overwhelming majority, 86 percent, are confident that their children will be Jewish Nearly as many, 79 percent, are confident that their grandchildren will be Jewish.

This is the great gift of living in Israel: Jewsraelis don’t have to be “religious” to be Jewish here. When Michal and I are abroad, we don’t eat meat or shell fish, maintaining our level of kashrut (kosher standard). In American eyes, that makes us “religious.” But we’re not Orthodox, which is the American synonym for Jewishly religious. We’re traditional, living in a kosher home (very easy in Israel), lighting Shabbat candles, observing the ubiquitous Jewish calendar, and surrounded by other Jews. It’s a great life!

Journalist and author Shmuel Rosner and Professor Camil Fuch’s Hebrew language book will be published in English translation soon. I’m sure it will be well worth reading.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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