Redefining What It Means to Be an Israeli

Natalie Davis, a secular Jew who emigrated to Israel from Britain four years ago, recalls that the one aspect of Israeli society she had not been prepared for was the deep divide between religious and secular Jews.

"Here in Israel, it's black and white. You are either religious or not. In England, you can be gray.... It's a huge divide that I knew about, but I didn't realize the extent of," she says as she orders the latest foreign rock music at the Tel Aviv recording company where she works.

"I came here for Zionist reasons, but now that I am here, the Zionism is less important," says Ms. Davis, the only member of her family to emigrate to Israel. "For me being Jewish is less about religion and more about identity."

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Jew in November has sparked a quiet revolution in Israel that could prove to be a watershed in the struggle between secular and religious Jews for the soul of Judaism. Those forces committed to a modern interpretation of Jewish law and the establishment of a liberal democracy have received a huge boost since the assassination of Mr. Rabin.

The hearts-and-minds battle to redefine the meaning of Jewish identity is being played out in Israeli schools and universities.

In February, the Israeli Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport published a 215-page book on tolerance and democracy entitled "For My Brothers and My Friends" - a direct response to the shock of the Rabin assassination.

The book, targeted at teachers in religious schools that account for about 30 percent of Israeli pupils, traces the compatibility of democracy and religion and strongly counters the interpretation of Jewish law that Yigal Amir cited as justification for his assassination of Rabin.

The book quotes Jewish writings that contradict extremism, violence, and intolerance and reinforce values of peace and tolerance. "The book is not a textbook as such but rather a guide for teachers in the religious school network. Teachers are expected to pass the information on to pupils during the course of their teaching," says Education Ministry spokesman David Baker, who adds that it has been well received.

The Education Ministry's program includes workshops and joint outings, such as archaeological digs, between Jews and Arabs, and workshops at the Knesset (parliament) and Supreme Court.

More than half of Israel's 4.5 million Jews are secular - not actively practicing their religion but identifying themselves as Jewish. The rest are either Orthodox Jews (about 30 percent) or ultra-Orthodox (about 18 percent).

In Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox community is growing, religious Jews could someday take over control of the government. In the rest of Israel, the trend is toward a more secular society.

Tensions between the two communities were brought to a boiling point in the days before last year's Israeli-Palestinian agreement that endorsed the handing over of parts of the West Bank - regarded by religious Jews as an integral part of Israel as it is described in the Bible - to Palestinian rule.

The divide between religious and secular is as crucial to Israel's future as that between Arab and Jew. The Rabin assassination revealed how deep the divisions run.

"It was a shocking event that has had a profound impact on Israeli life," says Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi. "Israelis had always perceived the threat as external - whether it came from Nazis, anti-Semites, or Arabs. The assassination marked the internalization of evil for the Jewish people. There was a profound sense of the poison from within and the need to respond to it."

While spreading Middle East peace, the revolution in information technology, and the growth of Israel's market economy are forces working against reactionary interpretations of Judaism, the battle between religious and secular forces appears to be far from over.

"Israel was built on the belief in a utopia," says Shalom Rosenberg, a religious Jew who is a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Zionism was successful because it was a collective endeavor, not the summation of individual efforts alone," Professor Rosenberg says.

He sees the proliferation of a global Western culture, the predominance of television, and the information revolution as a threat to religious Jewish values. But he says that in the end religious Zionism will triumph.

Zionism - the movement that supports the setting up of the state of Israel - is seen by many Israelis today as a romantic notion that was necessary at the birth of the country but has now outlived its relevance, Rosenberg says.

"But I believe it is still necessary because it is very dangerous to lose the concept of utopia and hope," he says, adding that a commitment to a language and a place were not enough to sustain Judaism without a spiritual purpose.

"The basic conflict between Jewish and Israeli identity is unresolved. This is the most important spiritual problem facing us. What is happening today is that the Jewish nature of the state is being put into question," Rosenberg says.

The battle between secular and religious interpretations of Judaism could be the main struggle within Israel over the next few years., Rosenberg says. "But I am not afraid of it.... We will win."

Advocates of Israel as a modern, liberal democracy have a different view. Ezrahi, the political scientist, says that the future will be determined by three groups: secular Jews, orthodox and traditional Jews, and the 1 million Israeli Arabs.

"These three groups will be able to function harmoniously only in a state with a constitutional framework that is inclusive rather than exclusive," he says. "The same principles that guarantee the freedom of secular Jews in the Jewish state will also protect non-Jews.

"The reality is that once Israel becomes an international crossroads culturally and economically and a major player in international and regional politics, it is likely to become a more open society."

Hirsh Goodman, editor of the Jerusalem Report, says the old values are being replaced by new ones, but that Israel is still the best place in the world to live as a Jew.

"Israel is becoming modernized very quickly, and some of the primary core values have changed.

"The old glue is being diluted. But it is being replaced by a new glue ... and it's a much healthier glue," Mr. Goodman says.

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