Certainly, Israeliness had its problems, not least of which was a dubious, if not outright hostile, attitude toward Jewish tradition. Israel's intellectual, journalistic, academic and artistic elites have long displayed a deep animosity to matters of religion and to religious people, an antipathy shared by parts of the broader secularist population. This was fanned in part by resentment at the powers of the politicized religious Establishment. Anti-Orthodox bigotry has long been the primary form of bigotry in the country, escalating after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious law student.
Beyond hostility to religion and tradition, Israeliness also had other dubious roots. There was always a strong ''Canaanite'' trend present in Israeli society, especially among its intellectual elite, which insisted that Israelis were a new ''post-Jewish'' nationality and ethnic group
(The ''Canaanites'' were a movement of Israelis in the 1950's and thereafter who attempted to detach Israeliness from Jewishness and create a new “non-denominational” Hebrew-speaking “nationality” of Israelis, one that could encompass the Arabs as well.)
As such, these new “Israelis” had little in common with Diaspora Jews and even less with Diaspora history. Many an Israeli Jew insisted that he had far more in common with the Druse
and Bedouins of the country than with Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. One of the many forms of backlash against Diaspora Jewishness in Israel was a ferocious hostility to Yiddish. Another was a wave of demonization of Orthodox Jews, which included the emergence of single-issue political parties devoted to bashing the Orthodox.
In the first decades of its existence, the celebration of “Israeliness” in Israel took many forms, including those that downplayed the role of Jewishness in the state. The curriculum at secular schools, which the majority of Israeli children attend, was largely stripped of Jewish content. Jewish history in the typical Israel school ended at Masada or with Bar-Kochba and then mysteriously rematerialized at the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Jewish religion, other than the Bible, was eliminated almost altogether from the curriculum, except in the religious schools.
The result of all this is that today many an Israeli teenager cannot complete the sentence that begins with the words “Shema Yisrael,” and few can correctly explain what the Amida is.
The celebration of Israeliness was also widely believed to offer the ultimate path toward resolution of Arab-Jewish differences. After all, there was no reason why Arabs could not follow the example of the “Canaanite” Jews and embrace with enthusiasm the new Israeliness, an
Israeliness that would transcend religion and pre-Israeli ethnicity or religion.
National challenges and “Canaanitism” aside, until recently few would have questioned the basic conclusion that secular Zionism had succeeded where all other attempts to bridge Judaism with modernity had failed. Despite the State of Israel's many serious problems, Israelis were at least not assimilating like their brethren in the Diaspora; they would always remain Jews, even if only Jews knowing little about Judaism.
How could it be otherwise, in a state where Hebrew was the everyday language of communication? Where Jewish holidays were the bank holidays? Where Jewish symbols were the symbols of state?
Moreover, the secular Zionist merging of Judaism with modernity appeared to be stable for the long run. It was not threatened by modernity even in its most extreme forms.
It is the contention here that the collapse of the Oslo “peace process” will produce a crisis of identity for Israeli Jews and perhaps for Jews outside Israel as well. More and more, questions are being raised about whether secular Zionism was ever really successful at all.
Certainly no such crisis in Israeli identity is as yet fully evident or widely recognized. Indeed, much of Israeli society and most of Israel's media and chattering classes have yet to internalize fully the fact that the Oslo “peace process” has not just stalled, but has come to an ignominious end.
Nor have most Israelis come to terms with the implications of that failure. But fail it has, and it is only a matter of time before the underlying questions will arise and force their way onto the national agenda.
(Continued Next Week)
Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa.