Israel: How It Has Changed

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 26, No 3, Summer 1998

Israel is fifty years old. In some respects it is the same state as in 1948. In many respects it is very different. 

There is an ethnic difference. Zionism was created by Ashkenazic Jews to solve the problem of European anti-Semitism. The first Zionist immigrants were Russian Jews. Until 1949 the new arrivals were overwhelmingly European. Like most European Ashkenazim, they had experienced the capitalist revolution and its secular aftermath. In 1949 new immigrants from the Eastern world began to arrive, the beginning of a large wave of Jewish immigrants from the Muslim world. They were the substitutes for the Russian Jews who could not come and the American Jews who would not come. Since they were dark and racially distinct from Ashkenazic Jews, they faced racial bigotry on the part of their European brothers and sisters. The pioneers and the new immigrants did not mix. Contempt and resentment kept them separate. In time the barriers broke down. Intermarriage grew. A blending of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews began. Today that blending is turning into a new Jewish ethnicity. A unique Israeli gene pool is emerging. In time Ashkenazim and Sephardim will be absorbed into this new creation. Within fifty years most Israelis will be darker than Europeans and lighter than Iraqis and Moroccans. 

How else is Israel different? There is the economic difference. The Zionist pioneers who claimed the land and built the cities were overwhelmingly socialists. Some were romantic socialists, and some were Marxist socialists, but they were strong believers in collectivist economies. The kibbutz is a popular example of their creativity and success. At the beginning socialism worked. There were no grand capitalist investors. The labor unions had to develop their own industries, representing both management and workers. In time these industries became public, state-subsidized enterprises. 

But economic reality intervened. Socialism cannot produce a dynamic economy. The United States and Western Europe were setting the pace. The strengthening of the American alliance sealed the fate of socialist Israel. The Labor Party, the leftist party of the Ashkenazic pioneers, abandoned its socialist program and opened the economy to capitalist development. When the opposition Likud came to power in 1977, the capitalist culture arrived. Money and pleasure became Israeli goals, and the dichotomy between winners and losers sharpened. In time, even the welfare system was assaulted. Ironically, the chief beneficiaries of the new economy are the Ashkenazic elite, the supporters of the Labor party and the Russian immigrants who have tuned into high technology. The chief losers are the underskilled Sephardim, who are supporters of the Likud. Their patriotic agenda and their economic agenda do not coincide. Today, Israel is a first-world economic power with a big foot in the burgeoning high-tech industries. The agricultural sector is shrinking. The kibbutzim are turning into private corporations, which are becoming an intrinsic part of the Israeli way of life. 

How else is Israel different? There is a religious difference. The Zionist founders were overwhelmingly secular. They saw religion as a reactionary force inhibiting the progressive development of Jewish nationalism. The hostility to Zionism in most of the Orthodox world reinforced the Zionist disdain of religion. Zionists saw Hebrew nationalism as a vital alternative to religious identity. The first leaders of the Jewish state openly flouted Orthodox law and avoided yarmulkes as though they were the Arab enemy. The Six Day War changed everything. The victory won the allegiance of many Orthodox Jews, especially because the Israeli army had conquered the West Bank. This territory contained most of the holy sites of traditional Judaism, the most important of which was East Jerusalem. In time Orthodox immigration increased. The Lubavitcher rebbe publicly supported the Jewish state. A vast array of new yeshivas arose. Orthodox settlers organized new settlements in the West Bank. Aggressive missionary activity recruited thousands of Sephardim to fundamentalism and religious militancy. An alliance of convenience between Likud and Orthodoxy in the Knesset produced state subsidies for the yeshiva world and state support for religious intrusion. Yarmulkes were “in.” The state schools and the army were opened to Orthdodox indoctrination. 

The secular resistance to this development was paralyzed by smugness and the continuing diversion of war with the Arabs. A new majority was arising in Israel, an odd combination of ambivalent secularists, aggressive Orthodox, disgruntled Russian Jews, and angry Sephardim. Whatever religious opposition to Orthodoxy existed was ineffective. Reform and Conservative were dismissed as American imports. The only new grassroots religious development, the spirituality movement with its Judaism connection, had no political agenda. The Orthodox sector, reinforced by a mind-boggling birth rate, grows stronger and more demanding. Even if Netanyahu should fall from power, any subsequent government, even a Labor one, would have to make peace with the Orthodox. More and more of the Israeli urban environment and more and more of Israeli life is being religionized. Secular Jews are on the defensive. 

How else is Israel different? There is a military difference. The Israeli army is not what it used to be. Its former strength lay in pioneer idealism and a bold officer corps. This elite officer corps was drawn from the kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements. This source of leadership is now fading away. The present army rests on pampered recruits from the urban consumer culture.Their idealism and openness to sacrifice are no greater than those of their counterparts in America and Western Europe. Today, thousands of soldiers are Orthodox. The kippa has become a familiar part of military dress. The political agenda of Orthodox recruits is different from that of the old officer corps. The unity of the army is compromised by religious fanaticism. The Orthodox assassin of Rabin was a patriotic soldier. One of the reasons that the collapse of the peace process is dangerous is that the Israeli army is not prepared for another major war. 

What are the implications of all those changes for Israel’s future? 

If war does not come, Israel will emerge as a significant economic power. The sector of the economy that is high-tech will flourish, fueled by Israeli brainpower. There will be a continuing internal war between the secular and the religious. Many secularists will abandon Jerusalem for more secular Tel Aviv and Haifa. Political considerations will make it difficult for secularists to expel Orthodox influence from the centers of power. The new blending of Western and Eastern Jews will be less hostile to Orthodox intrusion than the old Ashkenazic establishment. Reform and Conservatism will remain on the periphery. New Age spirituality will flourish. 

Given the new majority, a true peace with the Arab world is unlikely. Israel will remain isolated in its region. It will function as a European island in a Muslim sea, defended by its continuing alliance with the United States and with enemies of the Arab world, such as Turkey and India. The next fifty years will be both similar to and very different from the first and fifty years.