Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Zionist Assimilation: Israel’s Quiet (R)evolution

Whether you’re thrilled or despondent over Israel’s election results, there’s something else the results indicate that’s good news for every self-identified Zionist: in practice (albeit not necessarily ideologically) the country has successfully assimilated most previous anti-Zionists into the Zionist fold.

Some background as to how (and who) Israel has moved from then to now. From the inception of the Zionist movement at the turn of the 20th century, several Jewish movements around the world were strongly anti-Zionist. These included (among others), the Bundist Socialists and the ultra-Orthodox (Agudath Yisrael). Indeed, at the start the former had far more adherents than the Zionists. Where are the Bundists today? Basically extinct, whereas Zionists are alive and kicking.

For their part, the ultra-Orthodox did not disappear; indeed, after the Holocaust that decimated a huge proportion of their adherents, they made a striking demographic comeback, especially in Israel. Nevertheless, for the first few decades in the State of Israel this was accompanied (paradoxically or hypocritically – choose your terminology) by theological anti-Zionism, in the belief (pun intended) that only the Messiah can bring about the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. As far as they were concerned, living in Israel was no different than residing in England or the U.S. – government laws are to be abided by as long as they don’t demand transgression of Torah principles (dinah de’malkhuta dinah).

Jumping to the present, this week’s elections highlighted for the first time a trend that has been growing over the last two decades. According to polling reports, a minor but still significant number of haredim voted for a non-haredi party: the Religious Zionists (led by Smotrich and Ben Gvir). This comes on the heels of various sociological phenomena that have been mentioned but not usually put together into one jigsaw puzzle: the “Zionization” of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox. That trend can be seen in the vast numbers ignoring their rabbis’ proscription against regular cellphones (to surf the internet); others who have joined the IDF; still others who choose to live in non-haredi cities and neighborhoods (even Tel Aviv, gott in Himmel!); some thousands who have left the fold altogether (aided by the khozrim be’she’elah organization “Hillel”); and so on.

Of course, this does not mean that they have become “secular,” but rather that they are joining other variegated segments of Israeli society who are ipso facto “Zionist” by incorporating themselves into Israel’s general culture. Given the haredi virulent anti-Zionism of yesteryear, this is a major – even historic – development.

And they aren’t the only ones. On the other side of the Israeli social “divide” are Israeli-Arabs (some call themselves “Israeli-Palestinians”). It goes without saying that they started out in the early 20th century and certainly after their “Naqba” (1948 disaster) as rabid anti-Zionists. Skip forward seven decades and the situation these days is very different: they are close to constituting a majority of Israel’s pharmacists; Arab doctors and nurses are found in virtually every hospital; they’re younger and more successful families have started leaving the Arab hometowns (or mixed city neighborhoods) for residence in Jewish cities; etc.

This bottom-up trend started being paralleled from the top-down as the current, pre-election “Change Government” was the first in Israel’s history to include an Arab party: Ra’am. Moreover, in this election Ra’am increased its strength – going from four to five seats in the new Knesset, precisely because of its “functional” approach to Israeli politics i.e., no less a part of the Israeli political game as any other Jewish party. This is a reflection of where Israel’s Arab community is headed, with Ra’am’s recent electoral gain even more impressive than one might think, given that it’s an Islamist party (somewhat similar to Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties), and therefore not the most attractive for secular Arabs. Here too, this does not make the party “pro-Zionist” but rather functionally non-Zionist i.e., accepting the Zionist state and its political rules of the game.

Is there any connection between these two totally disparate sectors of Israeli society? Yes, but here unfortunately the news is less sanguine. It is precisely because ultra-national Zionists (the Religious Zionist party) are blatantly anti-Israeli-Arab that haredim are voting for it. Arab assimilation into Israeli society scares the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox who fear the “dilution” of the Jewish State’s character, specifically through potential intermarriage and in general as a result of increased Jewish secularization. In other words, it is no coincidence that Ben Gvir and Smotrich have gained significant electoral strength immediately after the inclusion of an Arab party in the government for the first time, as mentioned earlier.

The bottom line: regardless of what one thinks of the election outcome, there’s good news and bad news here. On the positive side, Israel’s former anti-Zionists are decreasing in numbers (the most vociferous anti-Zionist party, Balad, didn’t even pass the voting threshold and is locked out of this upcoming Knesset), and many Arabs are even becoming an integral part of Zionist society. On the negative side, this has raised the specter of xenophobic racism on the part of the “most Zionist” segment of society, potentially and paradoxically leading to greater social friction. Time will tell which of these two trends proves the stronger – a huge factor in Israel’s future socio-political structure.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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