Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982-2017

Eliezer Don-Yehiya. Israel Studies. Volume 23, Issue 3. Fall 2018.

The term, “civil religion” was first used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later introduced to contemporary social science by Robert Bella. It was applied to Israel in a book coauthored by Charles Liebman and me. We defined it as “a system that provides sacred legitimization of the social order”. Although traditional religion provides this function too, it is centered on a super-natural being, while civil religion is focused on society and its institutions, which are perceived as having an intrinsic sacred nature.

I focus on the changes in Israeli civil religion, especially those that occurred since the publication of our book on this subject in 1982. Socialist Zionism was the dominant version of civil religion in the pre-state Jewish Yishuv society. In the first years of statehood, Ben-Gurion’s Mamlachtiyut emerged as a new kind of civil religion that became the dominant symbol system of the newborn state. While Socialist Zionism emphasized the vision of a new Jewish society based on equality, cooperation, and social justice, Mamlachtiyut was focused on the State of Israel as a source of loyalty and commitment and as the main unifying factor for the Jewish people.

There are certain similarities between Mamlachtiyut and the “political religions” of the new states in Africa and Asia, all intended to reshape the culture of their societies in the spirit of modern, secular nationalism, centered on the state. Still, in contrast to the other new states, the democratic tradition of the Jewish people put considerable restraints on the power of the Israeli government to control the lives of its citizens.

After the first years of independence, a gradual decline began in the influence of both Socialist Zionism and Mamlachtiyut. It was followed by the emergence of a new kind of civil religion that was characterized by a stronger attachment to Jewish religious tradition. It derived most of its rituals and symbols from this tradition and while it reinterpreted them in a nationalist spirit, it did not remove their religious content. This kind of civil religion was also less demanding than its predecessors, placed less emphasis on the idea of the “melting pot”, and gave more room for expressions of individuality and cultural pluralism.

These changes have greatly intensified since 1982. It was reflected in the further decline in the authority of state institutions, the growing tendency to adopt individualistic patterns of behavior, and the further weakening of commitment to collective ideals and to state authorities.

These tendencies found expression in the transformation of public festivals in Israeli Jewish society where there has been a growing tendency toward “de-heroism” and “de-politicization” of festivals and celebrations. Many Israelis tend to celebrate Jewish festivals—both traditional and new ones—as private or family holidays. For them, these festivals are no longer conducted according to prescribed rules, nor celebrated in the public square, but rather in private gatherings of friends or family members.

Thus, Hanukkah was celebrated in the Yishuv and the first years of independence as a national holiday, commemorating victory and heroism, but later turned to its traditional form as a family holiday, celebrated at home or in private parties. Even Independence Day was transformed from a holiday, celebrated in public gatherings and military marches, into a festival, celebrated mainly by friends and in family picnics.

Despite their differences, all the various variants of civil religion described above shared the common perception of Israel as a state that bears responsibility for the realization of the Zionist vision and insisted on the preservation of its Jewish identity. Even the earlier secular versions of Israeli civil religion accorded significance to the Jewish elements of Israeli national culture; and while they transformed the highly religious nature of traditional myths and symbols, they did not replace them with non-Jewish ones. In this sense, all adhered to the model of the “Visionary State”, whose goal transcends the immediate material needs of the members of the national society, perceived as a moral community.

The changes in Israeli society in recent decades point to the growing support for an attitude that rejects the model of the “Zionist visionary state”, and strives to replace it with the alternative model of the “service state”, whose main function is to provide material services to its citizens.

The more radical adherents of this approach, sometimes coined “post Zionists”, reject the very self-definition of Israel as a Jewish state and call to turn it into a “state of all its citizens”. This involves giving up laws destined to keeping the Jewish identity of Israel, and replacement of Jewish symbols and rituals of the state with new ones that might be shared by all its citizens. The radical expressions of this trend are limited to a small minority within the Israeli academia and the media. There are still widespread manifestations of the weakening commitment to values of the Israeli civil religion in its various versions. One of them is the changing attitude toward Israelis who emigrate abroad. Although emigration is not a new phenomenon in Israeli society, in previous years it gave rise to hostility and even contempt in broad circles of society; emigrants were referred to, unflatteringly, as Yordim (those who left Israel). By contrast, more and more Israelis have come to terms with emigration from Israel and acknowledge the right of every person to choose its country of residence.

Another development is the growing tendency among certain circles of Israelis who belong to the academic and cultural elite to turn against what they perceive as undue impact of traditional Jewish values and norms of behavior on Israeli culture and politics. In this respect, they differ not only with the tradition-oriented version of the “new civil religion”, but also with the older secular versions of civil religion, socialist Zionism, and Statism.

The decline of the “old” secular Zionist ideologies largely motivated the renewed attachment to Jewish religious tradition in the “new civil religion” as a significant source of national unity and identity. By contrast, secular intellectual elites in contemporary Israel do not tend to rely on Jewish religious tradition for this purpose. Although manifest ideological expression of these attitudes is prevalent mainly in these elites, their influence penetrates wider circles of the Jewish society. Thus, there has been a growing tendency to resort to cultural patterns that are not rooted in Jewish tradition. More and more Israelis tend to celebrate such festivals as “Valentine’s Day”, Sylvester (New Year’s Eve), even Christmas. What is unique about these festivals is that they are devoid of any roots in Jewish tradition or in modern Jewish nationalism and carry no association with any specific worldview, religious or secular. In this respect, these holidays also differ from May Day, which was the only holiday celebrated by adherents of socialist Zionism in the Yishuv and the State of Israel.

Various causes contributed to the changes that occurred, sometimes in opposite directions in the Israeli civil religion. One of them is the mass immigration of traditional Jews from Islamic countries in Israel’s first years. This development played an especially significant role in the decline of socialist Zionist and the rise of the tradition-oriented new civil religion.

In this respect, there was an opposite impact to the mass immigration from former Soviet countries. The secular background of most of the immigrants enhanced the secularization of the public sphere in Israel and its exposure to non-Jewish ceremonies and symbols.

The decline of Mamlachtiyut was influenced by the diminishing power of the Jewish state to engender feelings of enthusiasm and allegiance, as it is becoming more and more a mundane reality. It was enhanced by the coming of age of more and more Israelis for whom the State is a given and natural fact, which is open to scrutiny and criticism like any other institution. A significant factor in this respect is the vast expansion of an independent media that considers the investigation and criticism of the political leadership, and even of the State and its institutions, to be one of its prime functions.

The decline in the commitment to collective values was greatly influenced by the growing impact of Western, mainly American, culture on Israeli society. This is related to the process of globalization, which is instrumental in exposing Israel to the spirit of Western capitalism, with its emphasis on individualism and competition.

Likewise, attitudes towards Israel’s wars have also undergone shifts. War may enhance identification with the state and its leaders and generate a strong sense of patriotism, solidarity, and devotion. Largely, this was the effect of Israel’s first wars, the War of Independence and the Six-Day War. On the other hand, prolonged wars may have opposing results, especially when opinions differ as to their necessity or justification. A significant turning point in this respect was the 1982 Lebanon War, which became a cause of a division and controversy within Israeli society.

What are the implications of these developments for Israeli civil religion? Oz Almog argues that the more recent changes signal the emergence of a new type of secular religion, “the religion of democracy”, which replaces the “Zionist national religion”. It is centered not on the national society, but rather on the individual and on their rights and liberties, which are perceived as possessing a supreme, even sacred status. At the same time, there is a remarked decline in the position of the state institutions.

Almog claims that the only institution whose position was not harmed, but even enhanced, was the Supreme Court. He depicts the Supreme Court as a kind of sacred institute, comparable to the Sanhedrin, the ancient Israelite supreme religious court or to the contemporary “Council of Torah Sages” of Agudat Israel.

Deference to the Supreme Court does not derive from its being part of the political system but rather from its perception as a firm critic of this system and the main guard of individual rights and liberties against encroachments of the political establishment. In recent years there has been a decline in the status of the Supreme Court too, and there is a growing criticism of what is called the “imperialism of the Supreme Court”, which is shared by wide circles within the Israeli public.

The main problem with Almog’s arguments is that they are based mainly on analysis of texts written by members of Israeli social and cultural elites. There are nevertheless strong indications that despite the weakening of commitment to collective ideals in Israeli society, most Israeli Jews insist on preserving the Jewish character of their state. Moreover, Almog depicts the Supreme Court as the most sacred institution of the “religion of democracy”, which replaces the “Zionist religion of nationalism”; but in fact, many of the Court’s decisions point to its commitment to the basic values of Zionism, although it often interprets them in a liberal spirit.

It is, therefore, inconceivable to present the changes in the Israeli society as the replacement of the “Zionist religion” by a “religion of democracy”. Instead, these changes point to the emergence of a new variant of civil religion, characterized by strong emphasis on democratic and Liberal values. While they adopt a universalistic approach to the internal and foreign relations of Israel, the adherents of this variant insist on the preservation of the Jewish identity of the state.

In recent years, there is a growing tendency, especially among certain intellectual circles, to create and propagate a new system of values and symbols, which they call “the movement for Jewish revival”. Like the “new civil religion”, it is positively oriented to the Jewish religious tradition, and perceives it as a prime source of national identity, although its followers are not committed to the entire set of the norms and commandments of this tradition. However, the “new civil religion” is largely a widespread popular trend without a coherent and distinct set of norms and institutions of its own, and it heavily relies in this matter on orthodox religious Judaism. By contrast, the “movement for Jewish revival” is a much more ideological group and most of its adherents belong to intellectual circles. While they perceive the religious tradition as a rich source of values and symbols of Jewish identity, they challenge the claim of orthodox circles for a “monopoly” on the interpretation of Jewish tradition and stand for a pluralist approach on this matter.

This finds expression in the establishment of distinct educational institutions, which encourage a pluralist approach to the study of the Jewish sources and some are naming themselves “secular Yeshivot” or “secular Batei Midrash”. This movement also differs from the older secular variants of Israeli civil religion in its attitude toward the sacred sources of traditional Jewish religion as well as in its perception of Jewish history and its position on such issues as Diaspora Jewry and the Holocaust.

Both socialist Zionist and Mamlachtiyut sharply differentiated between different periods of Jewish history and different types of traditional texts. They exalted the Biblical period and relied on myths and symbols that they drew from it. They disregarded the long period of Jewish diaspora and adopted the “negation of the Galut” approach that denigrated the traditional culture of Diaspora Jewry. By contrast, the adherents of “movement for Jewish revival” do not share the sharp differentiation between the different periods in Jewish history, and they reject the attitude of disregard and even contempt toward the history and traditional culture of Diaspora Jews. This is largely related to the attitudes concerning different types of Jewish sacred texts. While the older versions of civil religion perceived the Bible as a major source of values and symbols of legitimization, they virtually ignored the Talmud or adopted a critical attitude toward it.

By contrast, the adherents of the movement for Jewish revival attach considerable significance to other sacred texts of traditional religious literature. It is manifested in the growing number of non-orthodox learning circles and educational institutions, which are engaged in the study of religious texts, such as Talmud and Midrashim and rabbinic literature.

These practices attest to certain unique features of the movement for Jewish revival. In contrast to the older secular versions of civil religion, it does not seek to replace the traditional concepts with entirely new ones or to transform their form and content. Instead, the adherents of this movement strive to maintain and foster strong links with the religious tradition by getting a thorough knowledge of its basic texts, without being committed to their binding authority.

The movement strives to cooperate with religious Zionist circles in its activities. Thus, they cooperate with these circles in the organization of “Tikunei Shavuot” devoted to the study of Torah and there are those who are seeking to open their Batei Midrash to both orthodox and non-orthodox students.

The various versions of the civil religion differ in various aspects. Among them are the attitude to the traditional religion, the position on social and economic issues, the centrality of the State of Israel as a major focus of loyalty and solidarity, and the degree of commitment to particularistic or to universalistic values.

The common feature of Israeli civil religion in all its various manifestations is the identification with the self-definition of Israel as a Jewish state. This actually excludes the non-Jewish citizens of Israel from the community of the Israeli civil religion. In this respect, Israel clearly differs from most Western countries in which the basis of civil religion is the common citizenship of the state.

While Palestinian nationalism may serve as a kind of civil religion for Israeli Arabs, Israeli Jews who support the idea of Israel as a “state for all its citizens” might find it very problematic to design an alternate civil religion for this purpose. This is because the overwhelming majority of both Jews and Arabs do not share a set of values and symbols on which a common civil religion can draw. At the same time, due to the unique nature of the Jewish history the option of creating a unified symbol system based on the common Israeli citizenship seems to be unrealistic.

The orthodox circles in Israel, too, cannot be counted among the adherents of Israeli civil religion. This is because for them beliefs and practices of traditional Jewish religion rather than the institutions and laws of the national society are the highest source of authority. There are those in the orthodox community, especially the Haredi sector, who are firm opponents of civil religion, as they view it as a modern form of idolatry.

In practice, many Israeli orthodox Jews, especially the religious Zionists, adhere to the basic values and symbols of the civil religion, even if for them the ultimate source of their authority is the divine Torah. Moreover, due to the far-reaching changes that the religious Zionist community has undergone in recent decades, most of its members are among the most ardent adherents of the civil religion in its most nationalistic version.

The changes that occurred in the Israeli civil religion varied in nature, timing, magnitude, and their social and political implications. They also differ in their audience and point to various and even opposing directions. Thus, while on the one hand there are indications of a decline in the commitment to collective values and symbols of a national nature in circles of secular elite, there are on the other hand indications for a growing adherence to them among religious and right-wing circles. This is related to the distinguishing mark of the contemporary civil religion of Israel. In contrast to earlier periods, by now there is no one dominant version of civil religion and rather it is marked by a plurality of trends and attitudes.