THE ISRAELI PHENOMENON
In case somebody desired to decipher the phenomenon of Israel, he would undoubtedly first have to deal with its borders and boundaries. And not only with their physical outline, but predominately with the subjects / objects these boundaries define and categorize. But here I do not wish to speak of center and periphery, since there are countless centers and countless peripheries.
Kalman Y. Boeta
In case somebody desired to decipher the phenomenon of Israel, he would undoubtedly first have to deal with its borders and boundaries. And not only with their physical outline, but predominately with the subjects / objects these boundaries define and categorize. But here I do not wish to speak of center and periphery, since there are countless centers and countless peripheries. And the centers, diverse among themselves, act in totally different, yet, parallel dimensions with varied geopolitical, mythological and economical meanings. If Jerusalem’s neighborhood Mea Shearim represents the intellectual center of an ancient Lithuanian ultra-orthodox Yiddish speaking community, it is at the same time only a curiosity from a previous version of Jewish life or a complete worldview antithesis to the socialist and atheist movement of kibbutzim, which had with its strategically located collective agricultural settlements determined quite a few sections of the Israeli border during the war of 1948. And there we have a traditional pre-capitalist community of Bedouins, supplementing (in times of peace) its material base with eco-tourism with main consumers being post-capitalist young urban professionals from Tel Aviv, only seeking some quietude of the Judean Desert. This is the land, where someone talked to Abraham yesterday and Jesus was born next door. And that you wouldn’t have to go to the Wailing Wall by yourself, you can fax your messages 24 hours a day directly to god himself (and if by any chance Shabbat is already out in New York, be cautious, it might not be over yet in Jerusalem).
One nucleus of the Jewish setting in Israel, up to 1948 mostly European in origin, is a modernistic Jewish national project of not so numerous Central and Eastern European intellectuals, who in the years of 1881 to 1948 constructed a base for since already 1918 democratically functioning bureaucratically organized Jewish settlement in Palestine, later named the State of Israel. 'A National home for the Jewish people', as it was stated in famous Balfour Declaration, published by the British War Cabinet. And if nothing else, the project is successful in a fact that Hebrew is today after English most commonly spoken Jewish language. This ethos, in which the kibbutzim have a very high symbolical value, still dominates. It is an ideology of a new, modern Jew, released of the tradition and the Diaspora, who is conquering the labor and the desert. Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city. Romantic Russian populism, combined with German schools and secularization of Jewish messianic thought. And with this ethos, one party dominated. It began in the year 1933, when the Jewish elections in Palestine are won by the Land of Israel Workers’ party (Mapai) and lasted up to 1977, when Labor switches power to Likud. The state is, except the lower percentage of the Ashkenazim among its cadre, still the same state. It is a Jewish national state with a democracy of an ethnical type, a space where subjects come in many categories. But if we really try to simplify, there are two categories in Israel: citizens as one and the rest of the territories as the other category (and almost a quarter of a million of not always legal temporary workers from the Third World). State statistics distinguish between Jews and Non-Jews. Jews can be born in Israel and are of Afro-Asian or Euro-American extraction, or came to Israel as immigrants. They came from more than one hundred countries with more than seventy languages. Non-Jews are Arabs (meaning, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship), who can be Christian, Muslim, Bedouin (even though they are Muslim, as well) or Druze, but also Armenians and Circassians.
The second nucleus (or the first; the order is chosen randomly) is the two or three or how many thousand years old Jewish civilization pattern, a part of a general Western Greek-Judaic-Christian-Islamic civilization complex; a pattern that exists in a number of variations higher than the number of Jews. And each one of them (as long as it is Jewish) is legitimate. Hear, o Israel: Lord is our God, Lord is One. All the Jewish communities in a wide Diaspora from Marakesh to Samarkand, Lithuania and Yemen have (except in the case of Ethiopian and one of the three groups of Indian Jews, the Bene Israel) preserved, despite visible phenotype differences, a remarkable ritual and theological unity. We could talk of two ethno-cultural groupings; Ashkenazim, living in the Christian world and mostly among the Muslims living Sephardim that, terminologically speaking, most commonly encompass old and autochthonous Jewish communities of the Middle East as well, such as those of Kurdistan or Iraq, for instance, who are not from Spain in origin. Two thirds of the Jews today do not reside within the State of Israel and these are predominately Ashkenazim, among which the communities in the last hundred and fifty years differ also in theological sense. Reform and Conservative (which means, slightly less reformed) Jewish communities appeared most of all in the lands of protestant tradition. In New York, the biggest Jewish city, they are mostly Reform. The catholic Europe remained orthodox, except the Polish lands, which have, besides the ideologists of the national revival, given birth also to two main ultra-orthodox streams; rationalist Lithuanian Judaism and popular Hasidism of Galitzia. The Sephardi version of ultra-orthodox Judaism, expressed through a strong and influential movement called Shas, has appeared only in Israel of the last two generations. But anyhow, in Israel we cannot really operate with terms, valid for the Diaspora. The Reforms and the Conservatives still have to present their case.
The ultra-orthodox and the orthodox are the ones holding, in addition to a quarter of Knesset, also the keys to the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. And they decide. Not upon who is an Israeli or who has the citizenship, but rather who is a Jew. And here the question is not a membership in a Californian Reform synagogue; the question is what is it going to be written in your identification card. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel doesn’t recognize Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism, unless these are performed according to the orthodox rules. For Beltz Hasidim, for instance, that have been for over two hundred years wearing a different kind of socks than some other Hasidim and have a valid reason to do so, only the fact that Reformed men are allowed to sit next to women during prayer (and let’s not talk about Reform recognition of same-sex marriages) is enough to doubt their Jewishness. Again boundaries unnoticed in the first round. And the question 'who is a Jew' (speaking only of religious, not ethnic, categorization), still remains unanswered. Or better, it has no final answer. Every few years, let’s say every generation it is constructed slightly differently. The answer is always a consequence of continuous ideological negotiations, of constantly new life situations. And of course, each land has its own way. Once a Jewish mother was enough. The Talmud says if someone arrives from another place and claims to be Jewish, one should believe him. This remained unaltered even in 1958 with a wave of immigrants from Poland, a part of which lived in marriages with only one spouse of Jewish extraction. For the interior minister from the United Workers’ party (Mapam), to which in its renovated form many members of the kibbutzim are still giving their votes, a subjective statement of every individual suffice. In those years Ben Gurion publicly asked for the opinion of 43 humanists, intellectuals and rabbis from all over the Jewish world and most of them chose a theological basis to the Jewish identity. When in the year 1964 Bene Israel arrived from India, their Jewishness was determined through a vote in Knesset. To this question attention was paid even by the Israeli Supreme Court, which in 1962 refused the Israeli citizenship to a catholic monk. Brother Daniel Rufeisen was baptized as a child during the Holocaust and has kept the new religion afterwards, but has, according to his own words, preserved the Jewish ethnicity, a thing that in itself provided him with the right to Israeli citizenship, despite the division between the religious and the ethnic aspects of Judaism. The Supreme Court refused to acknowledge his request and has in opposition to the Jewish religious law, the halacha, which says that one cannot give up his Judaism, decided that a convert has no right to be a Jew. Civil, secular court thus gave a priority to a collective cultural and social norm, which in this case varies from the religious one and does not see someone as Jewish, if the person considers himself to be a Christian. Being in Palestine means being a member of the religious community. Since, if you are not a member of such a community, they have nowhere to educate you, nowhere to marry you and very important, nowhere to burry you. In the Holy Land there are no civil marriages since the Turkish times, when each community was guaranteed a total autonomy in different fields of personal and other civil law, directly connected to religious traditions. This does not mean only that marriages between members of different religions are almost impossible, but also that formally are forbidden even marriages between Jews on the basis of categories from biblical and talmudic times. A member of a priestly family can, for instance, not marry a divorced woman. And what to do if a person is a totally secular Israeli who has for all of this no interest whatsoever? In recent years Cyprus developed a whole marriage industry and there is even a term for a marriage, named after certain Latin American country, whose embassy was performing such services. And these categories are numerous. Hardly arrived one million ethnically very mixed Russian Jews, who had to wait for their departure for several decades, are simply thrilled by these formalities. Besides internal categories (Cohen, Levi, etc.) that are determining personal status these groups are Jews (initially only Sephardim, today there are two chief rabbis), Jews Caraites, Jews Samaritans, Sunni Muslims, Alawi Muslims, Druse, Greek orthodox, Roman Catholics, Greek catholic Maronites, Greek catholic Melkites, Armenians, Armenian Catholics, Ethiopian Copts, Assirian orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and the list continues. In recent years Reform and Conservative Jews arrived from America, who, despite the fact that they haven’t completely found their place yet, are quickly adapting to the local conditions, especially to Tel Aviv. Each one is its own world, its own dimension. Education also comes in many forms: two state Jewish school systems, one state Arab school system and an independent ultra-orthodox one.
In Israel can the Jewish population on the axis of state-religion, as well as on the basis of daily cultural, consumerist and ideological activities, be classified in a yet another way. Here everybody is orthodox, the question is how orthodox. And each category has its own name, in modern Israeli Hebrew, spoken with a Sephardi accent. One group is the secular ones, whose life cycle does in almost everything, except in few ceremonial aspects (marriage in an orthodox synagogue, birth, bar/bat mitzvah and similar) not differ from a life of any other ‘average’ inhabitant of the Western world. It is the secular who mostly support not only a possibility of a civil marriage, but also the availability of other religious options, such as those offered by Reforms or Conservatives, who provide more metaphoric explanations to the mentioned biblical categories. Then, there are the traditional ones, who, for example, go to a synagogue for important holidays and preserve the ritual purity of the food. The religious ones are a group that, for instance, would not travel on Shabbat, but would still be sending its children to state schools and army. And last, but not least, three groups of ultra-orthodox Jews: two Ashkenazi and one Sephardic. They represent fifteen percent of the Jewish population and send their children to their own, independent schools and instead of army to marriage or religious academies, yeshivas. Quoting only a few months old TV-conducted public opinion poll among the adult Jewish population, 15% pray every day, 25% go to a synagogue on Shabbat, while 60% keep kosher and 30% do not fast on Yom Kippur. 98 percent of the adult Jewish population in Israel has a mezuzah on their doorpost, a little box with a blessing, a thing much less visible in the Diaspora. The secular and the ultra-orthodox, two opposing and at the same time codependent ideas, one located in Tel Aviv and the other one in Jerusalem. Israel and Judea. Or not. Some would somehow prefer a state with less religion, while others perhaps a religion with less state. And about a separation that might not even be possible, nothing new to report.