Enlightenment, Haskalah, and the State of Israel

Fania Oz-Salzberger. The European Legacy. Volume 25, Issue 7-8. 2020.

To use the late Professor Namier’s famous analogy, the great frozen mass of the Jews began to melt under the rays of the Enlightenment. —Isaiah Berlin, “The Achievement of Zionism” (1975)

Israel is a dream come true and, as such, it is disappointing. The taste of disappointment is not in the nature of Israel, it is in the nature of dreams. — Amos Oz, in Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams (dir. Jonathan and Masha Zur, 2009)


Like many other modern states in Europe’s cultural orbits, Israel is a child of the Enlightenment. And like others, it is a complicated child, possibly more complicated than most. This article offers a bird’s-eye view of this complexity. Its present-day vantage point is the recent rise of anti-liberal populism and nationalism, common to Israel and other countries, but it dwells on the special resonance and painful origins of the Israeli case. The article traces Israel’s deep Enlightenment roots along with their interface with the country’s non-Enlightenment roots. The major Jewish national movement, Zionism, partially stemmed from the Haskalah, especially from the branch that nurtured the modern Hebrew language and literary culture. Furthermore, some of Israel’s founders drew ideas directly from the Enlightenment and its heirs, often linking this genealogy to selected ancient Jewish ideas that had, in turn, affected the Enlightenment itself. This is especially visible in the constitutional structure of liberal democracy, the rule of law, the independence of the judicial branch of government, and the freedom of thought and public debate.

I will be using “the Enlightenment” to denote two clusters of ideas. The first is the modern quest for political liberty, hailing from John Locke, Voltaire, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the American Founders, and combining early modern republicanism with liberal demands for individual freedom and civil equality. The second cluster is cultural, drawing on Giambattista Vico, Adam Ferguson and some of his Scottish contemporaries, and J. G. Herder.

During the nineteenth century, some elements in the political cluster evolved into radicalism, while others helped construct the foundations of modern liberal democracy. At the same time, some elements in the cultural cluster shifted toward extremist nationalism, nurtured by the Romanticist movement, and into colonialist supremacism. A more temperate current, which advocated non-hierarchic respect for cultural differences, was inspired by Vico, Ferguson, and Herder and underpinned moderate national consciousness. As a result of these parallel divisions, both Marxism and ultra-nationalism retreated from their Enlightenment roots. By contrast, political liberalism and the non-aggressive model of national culture were able to retain some of their Enlightenment heritage, and consequently remained mutually compatible.

Significantly, almost all of the physical and intellectual forces attacking European Jews in that period were anti-Enlightenment in their intellectual orientation: the Russian-Orthodox and Catholic churches, extremist Christian currents within them, the Czar’s conservative advisors, corrupt administration and paramilitary henchmen; reactionary elites of the Habsburg and Prussian Empires; anti-modernists blaming Jews for industrialization and urbanization; harbingers of modern “scientific” racism in western and central Europe; and illiberal nationalists bent on ethnic purity. To all of these anti-Enlightenment movements, which often overlapped, the Jews served as a specific and symbolic scapegoat. There was also, to be sure, rampant salon anti-Semitism in purportedly enlightened circles, from French and British well-heeled milieus to German and Austrian drawing rooms. Some of the Enlightenment thinkers themselves, notably Voltaire, made anti-Semitic remarks. Once divested of its universalist and rights-equality threads, the Enlightenment’s nineteenth-century legacy could easily dissolve into facile acculturement, or give way to rampant nationalism.

Despite its painful causes, mainstream Zionism was essentially moderate and liberal until the end of the twentieth century. It nevertheless had serious flaws, largely due to the intertwined catastrophes of the Holocaust and the Palestinian Naqba. These catastrophes were dissimilar in scope and moral intentionality, and from the viewpoint of Zionism, one was a horrible realization of its warnings. The other emanated from the diplomatic civil and military failure of Arab leaders, alongside Zionism’s negligence of equality for the Arabs, which both Theodor Herzl and pacifist Zionists (Martin Buber’s Brit Shalom group, among others) proscribed.

Israel’s existence was thus affected by external anti-Enlightenment forces and by anti-intellectual forces more than any other modern country. It also caused injuries, political and legal, which contradicted its stated Enlightenment values as spelled out in its Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the key Enlightenment principles enshrined in liberal democracy prevailed, albeit under increasing attack, and these legacies have come under attack from the political left and, more ominously, from the political right.

This article offers a road map of modern Israel’s Enlightenment legacies. It reviews the relevant Hebrew terminology, distinguishing between the partially overlapping concepts of haskalah and ne’orut, and sketches the branching out of political Zionism from the nineteenth-century Haskalah movement. The history of the young State of Israel from 1948 to the present is discussed in the context of the growing social and political tensions that gradually changed “Enlightenment”—the term itself, its political association with liberalism, and its cultural association with Europe—into a focus of hostility.

As we reach the third decade of the twenty-first century, Israel’s political scene is comparable to that of many European countries and the United States facing rising levels of populism, nationalism and chauvinism. This article traces the unique contexts of Israel’s version of the populist turn, which include: (1) the interface of Judaism and Enlightenment; (2) the sociopolitical pattern underscoring Israeli anti-Enlightenment rhetoric; and (3) the relatively early rise of anti-Enlightenment feelings, which makes Israel today a laboratory for the staying power of liberal democracy and cultural openness.

Haskalah and Ne’orut: Uneasy Synonyms

Modern Hebrew has two different words to convey the meaning of the French age de lumières and the English “Enlightenment.” The first is haskalah, and the second is ne’orut. Both are neologisms. Like thousands of other words coined by the modernizers of the Hebrew language, they were taken from semantic roots available in Biblical Hebrew, and carved out according to the syntactic rules developed by Modern Hebrew. The following concise description of these words and their immediate derivatives is thus important not only for the sake of linguistic-historical clarity, but also for this article’s central argument. While haskalah and ne’orut are today still lexical synonyms, their significance as political pointers in Israeli public discourse is markedly different. Elsewhere, I have called this phenomenon “uneasy synonyms”: partially overlapping terms within an intersecting tension field.

The older word is haskalah (השכלה), coined by modernizing Jews in the late eighteenth century to serve a double purpose: a new Hebrew translation for ‘education’ and the self-styling of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, founded by Moses Mendelssohn and his contemporaries. The biblical root for haskalah is שכל, also used by Maimonides as the Hebrew translation of the Greek logos, and denoting in our context ‘reason’ or ‘learning’. A biblical derivative, maskil, meant ‘a wise person’ or ‘successful due to wisdom’. The founding generation of the Haskalah movement used this term to describe themselves as pursuers of the Enlightenment. Maskil(im) became a conventional moniker equivalent to the German Aufklärer.

The second word is the noun ne’orut (נאורות), used in Modern Hebrew and carved from the biblical noun אור, meaning ‘light’, as in Genesis 1:3, and the rare pre-modern word na’or as a feature of divinity. Since the late nineteenth century, ne’orut has had the general meaning of progressive thinking and open mindedness. The noun/adjective na’or means ‘an enlightened person’ or ‘enlightened’.

The semantic difference between haskalah and ne’orut is politically significant. In the Israeli public discourse of recent decades, haskalah bears a positive or neutral connotation, while ne’orut, originally a positive term, is increasingly pejorative. This “uneasy synonymy” will be discussed in the last part of the article.

The European Enlightenment and the Jewish Haskalah

The Haskalah movement’s primary goals have been discussed and disputed by several historical schools. Its intellectual history has emphasized its genealogy, hailing from the German Enlightenment and Jewish-German mediators, and explored its complex roots at the crossroads of European and Jewish thought. Its social history focuses on the demographical shift of many (but not all) Eastern European Jews from secluded shtetl communities to urban life, general education, enhanced trade and the professions, and mass migration. There are ongoing scholarly debates about the Haskalah’s “Jewishness,” religious, cultural, and national; its concepts of Europe and “European-ness”; its link to the broader historical process (itself disputed) of secularization; its common denominators and internal conflicts.

The social history of the Haskalah, pioneered by Jacob Katz, explores the modernization and mainstream visibility of Europe’s Jews in the context of the rise of “scientific” racist anti-Semitism in Eastern and Central Europe, ultimately driving the millions of Eastern European Jews to migrate to Central and Western Europe and beyond. Soon after being allowed, albeit partially, into the study halls and professions of modern Europe, the Jews who embraced modernity faced a tantalizing disappointment. Government-tolerated pogroms in Russia, social and personal anti-Semitic abuse in western countries, and administrative prejudice everywhere (epitomized by the traumatic mistrial of Alfred Dreyfus in France) were a slap in the face for these newcomers to the urban middle classes.

In the fast-changing world of post-Napoleonic Europe, intellectual and practical choices for Jews became more numerous and more bewildering than before. Most of them, like most people everywhere, were not intellectuals, and their choices were often a matter of practical circumstances; but the effect of such moves on their horizons and self-grasp was portentous.

A large part of Eastern European Jews remained within the confines of the shtetl, small town or neighborhood harboring mainly traditional orthodox communities. Many other Jews adopted modern customs without seeking a compromise between modernity and ancestral legacies. Among them, a small group of scholars and men of letters, gradually spreading their ideas via journals, books, and a network of progressive Jewish schools, created the Haskalah movement.

The Jewish Enlightenment was directly inspired by the German Aufklärung and launched by thinkers and scholars based or itinerant in the Holy Roman Empire during its final decades. Naphtali Hirz Wessely, Moses Mendelssohn, David Friedländer, Solomon Mimon and members of their circle created the philosophical groundwork and the practical tools—books, journals, and schools—for the following generation of maskilim, mostly in the Pale of Settlement along the shifting borders of the Russian and Habsburg Empires. Throughout the nineteenth century, the movement flourished mainly among Eastern European Jews. From Berlin and Hamburg it spread to Warsaw, Vilnius and Odessa, and to smaller towns where young Jews were the first of their families given access to modern books, libraries, journals, and gradually also to Haskalah-oriented school networks. By the late nineteenth century, the political spectrum of the Haskalah had given rise to several youth movements ranging across a broad ideological scale. Despite their relatively small numbers, the maskilim created cultural hubs and educational institutions that changed many lives. Within those hubs the Zionist movement began to grow, a small minority within a small minority of Europe’s Jewish population.

Of all national Enlightenments, the Jewish strand was particularly saddled and enriched by voluminous pre-modern sources. It flourished in Eastern Europe, where Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire and Kant were known but not predominant, and where ancient and medieval Hebrew culture could prove a worthy partner and a powerful counterpoint to western and modernist ideologies. And, of all modern ideologies pursued by members of the Haskalah, Zionism had the unique advantage of embracing Hebrew culture as a crucial identity marker. No other Haskalah route developed such a mutual dependency with the modernization of the Hebrew language. What began as a cultural-romanticist Haskalah project, inspired by Herder and Heine, became a full-fledged national language.

Recent scholarship, drawing broadly on Hebrew and Yiddish sources, has focused on the Haskalah’s pivotal role in Jewish secularization. This term requires clarification. “Judaism” is a modern word, a child of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, which has no ancient or medieval parallels. There is no ancient word for the Jewish religion as such. The ancient appellations “Hebrews,” “(Children of) Israel,” and “Jews,” occupy a semantic space far wider than “Islam” or “Christianity.” In both ancient and modern Hebrew, each of these names can denote ethnos, peoplehood, nationhood, culture, possibly a set of values, often a lineage of memory—or what I have called elsewhere “textual nationhood.” All or any of these options can be inclusive or exclusive of religion. “Judaism,” sometimes confusingly understood as the Jewish religion, allows the same spectrum of possibilities.

This explains why secularized Jews remained Jews. They were able to abandon religion without rejecting many other Jewish legacies including language, literature, law and moral value. They could even, if so inclined, access the Jewish scriptures and rabbinic exegesis as Spinoza did, free from the prohibitive approach of orthodoxy that deemed the texts unintelligible or even dangerous to those lacking proper rabbinic training. Here was the gist of the Haskalah’s newfound liberty: the maskilim enjoyed the linguistic capability and the intellectual freedom to access and make creative use of the ancient literature, to discover unfamiliar gems of medieval literature, and to begin creating their own. Haskalah oriented schools proved a success. Networks expanding through east Europe (Gymnasia Tarbut) and west Europe and north Africa (the Alliance association, alongside its Francophone focus), taught Hebrew, and many of their pupils took up Zionism, partaking in the modernization of Hebrew for purposes of statehood as well as science.

Jewish secularization did not—nor does it today—necessitate atheism, but it places worldly knowledge and action in human hands. The distinction between divinity in the universe and a humanist this-worldliness has roots in the Talmud and in several medieval rabbis, culminating in Maimonides’ attempt to harmonize the Torah with Aristotelian science. Upon meeting Enlightenment theism, especially in its German version, this tradition sprouted with Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (1783) and a year earlier in Wessely’s Divery Shalom ve-Emet (Words of Peace and Truth), a plea to discern between “the Torah of God” and “the Torah of Man.” Written in Hebrew for a Jewish reading public, Divery proposed “general” education as better suited for some of the Jewish youngsters than the exclusive study of the Torah.

The fame of Mendelssohn’s philosophy, which also helped to convey Spinoza’s thought to Jewish readers, was complemented by Wessely’s practical plea for the autonomy of human knowledge and inquiry. It inspired thousands of young East European Jews, some of them reading forbidden texts under their yeshiva desk and others already impacted by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wake. As Shmuel Feiner has shown, Orthodox rabbis in Central and Eastern Europe were quick to attack Wessely and Mendelssohn. While not objecting to “secular knowledge” as such, they abhorred what they rightly saw as the new Haskalah epistemology where science was informed solely by facts and human analysis. Even more alarmingly, Jewish texts, including the Torah which they considered God-given, could be subjected to the same humanist rational analysis as Spinoza had brilliantly shown. There was also a practical matter: the Orthodox rabbinical and educational structures of the two main currents, the Hasidim and the Misnagedim-“Lithuanian,” were based on the exclusivity of Torah study as the true mission of all Jewish men.

Thus, without abandoning either faith or ritual, the early maskilim still posed a double threat to orthodoxy: an intellectual secularization drawing on the philosophy of Spinoza and Mendelssohn, and the practical Enlightenment project of secular education. The breach between Haskalah and traditional orthodoxy was ominously deep from its very start. If in 1950 or 1970 most Israelis would have agreed that the Haskalah had emerged victorious, by 2020 the battlefield had dramatically reopened. Both scientific rationalism and the supremacy (or at least epistemological liberty) of human agency are today powerfully challenged by ultra-Orthodox leaders, now buttressed by political messianism in the Israeli public arena.

Secularization came in many forms. Jewish secularization is not blunt atheism, but rather a reclaiming of the Hebraic and Jewish textual lineage without accepting the necessity of divine presence. The alternative to secularization was reform. Religious rituals and texts could also be removed from their orthodox abodes and rearranged by modern rabbis and leaders, mainly in urban Jewish communities in Germany and later in the United States. The modern Orthodox movement, the Conservative (later also called Masorti) movement, and the Reform movement were three cases in point.

The Haskalah translated literary and scholarly books, including Greek classics, Western authors, German philosophers and poets, including of course Mendelssohn himself, and philosophical books, including Spinoza’s writings, to traditional orthodox Jewish communities; its harbingers launched intellectual and literary journals, also in Hebrew, paving the road to a modernization of the Biblical, Talmudic and Medieval Hebrew, its adjustment to modern discourse and science, and the first great lexicographic project of Eliezer ben Yehuda. Several networks of Jewish/Hebrew schools, gymnasia and youth movements flourished in eastern and western Europe, and numerous young men and women attended non-Jewish high schools. The German universities opened their gates, within numeric limits, to Jewish men, and late in the nineteenth century also to Jewish women.

Moses Mendelssohn, the most prominent mediator between the Enlightenment and Jewish sources, was at the same time the most effective conveyor of Enlightenment values to traditional Jewish settings, thus modernizing them. Locke, Voltaire, Kant, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing were transmitted to Jewish circles, first in Berlin and then further east and south, among the stellar pupils of the best orthodox Jewish schools, yeshivas, and rabbinic colleges. The Enlightenment’s major philosophical, scientific and political texts, alongside its literary orbits, were read by Jewish men and women in the original French and German or in translations into Russian, Polish, and also Yiddish and Hebrew. A hub of Enlightenment ideas became embedded in the new Haskalah journalism and literature: “general” education, acquaintance with modern languages and cultures, universal values and political models. Jewish readers, who needed no persuasion in the essential value of literacy and certain forms of critical thought, found several Enlightenment ideas both novel and bewitching: Greco-Roman legacies such as aesthetics, romanticist notions of love, modern criticism confronting religion itself, and—most poignantly—universalist civic values and the modern forms of political liberty. Jews now acquired the conceptual tools allowing them to demand equal human and civil rights, rather than merely accept them at a ruler’s whim. Liberty became a buzzword for the millions of Jews residing in East and Central Europe as they viewed their few but fortunate coreligionists in France and in the United Kingdom: The Rothschild baronets and Benjamin Disraeli personified to them the Enlightenment’s best promise to the Jews.

The Israeli historian Shmuel Ettinger put it thus:

The Haskalah had a substantial impact on Jewish development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries … Even as it provided an impetus for acculturation and assimilation … it also widened the horizon [of Judaism] to produce all the trends that prevailed among the Jewish people in the next hundred years: from Wissenschaft des Judentums, to neo-Orthodoxy in Germany, to social and intellectual radicalism and the flowering of the socialist movement among Jews in Eastern Europe, and just so to the nationalist movement [Zionism] which, in many respects, represents a direct continuation of the Haskalah movement.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the claim for Haskalah-Zionist “direct continuation,” this quote sums up the widening horizon in a nutshell. The almost miraculous appearance of such a spectrum of intellectual and political options, within a short range of time, was a direct result of Enlightenment ideas and policies. Even before liberties were actually granted—in a slow, scattered and halting process—to the Jewish citizens and subjects of several European countries, their modernizing elites were already able to voice their demands for such liberties, and to face a choice of the particular type of liberty they were aiming for. The Enlightenment granted the Jews their first language of political choice since the loss of sovereignty in the first century CE.

By the late nineteenth century, intellectual freedom was far more available than political freedom in the lives of many European Jews, particularly in the Russian Empire. In central and western Europe, the nascent civil equality and human rights augured by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic code gave way to mid-century regressions, followed by gradual improvement in the civil status of German, French and British Jews. As legal emancipation halted and zigzagged, intellectual openness grew exponentially: the sons and daughters of Jewish men allowed into universities during Napoleon’s regime lost this privilege during the post-Napoleonic regression, but still benefited from the books, academic literacy, and acquaintance with modern languages, literature and philosophy. Their grandchildren, back in the universities, included Freud, Einstein, Herzl, and Arendt.

But which political liberty was fit for modern Jews? Should they be liberated as individuals, as citizens of their disparate countries of dwelling, as members of their disparate nation states? Could they be liberated as a group? And what group? A religion, a people, a “tribe” or a nation—the self-definition of the Jews as a group was, and still is, a bone of contention among many Jews.

By the time Napoleon Bonaparte’s reforms granted citizenship and access to higher education to Jews dwelling in his empire—the small window of liberty soon closed again following his defeat—the Jews were already able to demand rights and liberty, using the language of the Enlightenment. And they had learned this language either directly from its French, German and British origins, or via the Haskalah.

The Haskalah was aimed at fulfilling Mendelssohn’s vision of a modern orthodox Jewish identity holding on to its religious legacy, while entering the modern European world of higher education, multilingualism and the liberal exchange of ideas. It was thus a framing of the Enlightenment’s major goals, similar in some ways to national Enlightenments springing up in eastern and southern Europe, inspired by the German model. Some—not all—of its major proponents conceived a modernized national consciousness for the Jews inspired by Herder’s notion of Kulturnation (cultural nationhood), and modeled on the romanticist excavation of historical languages and literatures.

For young Jewish readers this meant an innovative gateway to the treasures of Hebrew texts, now expanded from the limits of ritual and prayer usage and applied to modern poetry and prose, theater, history and philosophy. To their delight, pre-modern Hebrew proved a richly rewarding linguistic asset for poets and scholars alike. Its modernization involved the invention of numerous new words, most of which were shaped from Biblical and Talmudic origins, alongside medieval and maskilic Hebrew poetry and philosophy, and neologisms adapted from Greek, Latin and modern European terminology. Thus, while “liberalism” and “democracy” were Hebraized from their classical roots, the term haskalah itself, like safrut (literature) and even yahadut (Judentum, Judaism) could be carved out of Hebrew’s own semantic troves.

Three generations of maskilim took up the collective role of modernizing Jewish life without abandoning Jewish identity and its cultural legacy. Political nationhood and nationalism (this distinction will be discussed later) were only two of the available outcomes, and not the most popular ones. The maskilim could become European cosmopolitans or proud members of their European nation-states: German Jews were particularly patriotic, and there were Russian, Polish, Italian, French and British Jews who embraced the Haskalah while remaining, if they could, proud nationals of their home countries.

Others, who migrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and other target countries, carried the Haskalah as part of their Jewish identity to those new havens. The majority of maskilim either kept a modernized version of their Jewish religion, rituals and texts, or secularized and became “cultural Jews,” while enjoying the rich legacy of texts and ideas afforded by the Hebrew/Jewish bookcase. Others, both orthodox and secular, opposed the national aspect of the Hebrew renewal and stuck by their Yiddish textual and oral legacy. Yiddish, the seasoned world-wise everyday language of the East European Jews, was lovingly embraced by the radically secular members of the Bund, a Jewish communist movement that Stalin later eradicated. A small minority in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century opted for political Jewish nationhood, the emerging movement that became known, during the 1880s, as Zionism.

The earliest Zionist settlers, mainly from the Romanian and Ukrainian parts of the Russian Empire, were inspired by a distinct blend of ideas, ideologies and dreams. Their branch of haskalah combined Slavonic restatements of German nationalism and the Russian “return to the land” movement inspired by Tolstoy, both heavily romanticized, and embellished by Russian bourgeois attraction to the French language, classical music and literature. In creative tension with this European blend, a new Hebrew culture sprouted its own linguistic and literary seeds, gradually building a school system and a neo-folklore (much of it precious and lasting) of visual arts, song and dance.

The Jewish national movement was prophesied by Spinoza, dreamed up by Rabbi Judah Alkalai, Moses Hess, and Leon Pinsker, and launched by the pioneer emigrants to Palestine/Land of Israel bearing the name Chibat Zion (“Love of Zion”). These earliest ‘practical Zionists’ teamed up with some young members of the orthodox Jewish communities already living in Palestine, and other small initiatives, converged into the Zionist Movement led by Herzl in the 1890s. Not all Zionists were maskilim: the Romanian Jews of Chibat Zion (first migration wave or Aliyah), who built farming communities on lands purchased from absent Ottoman proprietors, were not Enlightenment figures. Their children, however, went to the new Hebrew schools, delved into the Hebrew works of the Haskalah, and left a lasting mark on Israeli politics, literature, art and public discourse.

The Zionist movement thus hailed from the Haskalah, but only as one of multiple options available to the vast majority of nineteenth-century Jews, residing mainly in Eastern and Central Europe. Though few would have imagined it when the first pioneers migrated to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the early 1880s, this tiny offspring of the Haskalah was to become its most successful progeny. This outcome is rightly credited to the ingenuity and creativity of early Zionism, but, tragically, it also benefited from the destruction of all other life-options, along with life itself, for much of Europe’s remaining Jewish population. As time proved, the Zionists and other Jewish émigrés (mostly to the Americas) had foreseen the calamity, if opaquely and not at its catastrophic scale.

We can now return to Ettinger’s “direct continuity” and suggest that it is only correct in retrospect. Without Nazi Germany’s genocide of Europe’s Jews, and without the Stalinist eradication of all Jewish cultural forms in Russia, a large Jewish-European population might still have existed, divided across the modern spectrum of possibilities, including descendants of the maskilim: a Hebrew-speaking Jewish Enlightenment culture, independent of Zionism. In a different sense, however, Ettinger was right. Zionism reflected, in its own microcosm, most of the spectrum of ideas available to Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (excluding those inimical to Jewish national renewal). Being a broad, umbrella organization, it accommodated agricultural socialism and urban bourgeoisie, orthodox and modernized religiosity, staunch secularism, right-wing nationalism, centrist economic liberalism, rule-of-law civil liberalism, social democracy, and even Zionist communism that enabled some early Jewish-Arab political cooperation.

The Haskalah and Zionism triggered two modernization processes of Jewish Orthodoxy. Some rabbis and believers opted for an Enlightenment-inspired renewal, becoming Liberal (or Modern) Orthodoxy. However, the mainstay of Eastern and Central European Orthodox Jews, led by traditionalist rabbis, dug deeper into the Halacha and rejected, almost en bloc, the spectrum of choices available to modern Jews and creating Ultra-Orthodoxy. This move was nevertheless a scion of modernity, taking its cue from anti-Enlightenment messianism. Hasidism, as recent scholarship has shown, was quintessentially modern in this way. Significantly, twentieth-century “religious-nationalist” Zionism was founded by liberal Orthodox modernisers, but in recent decades it drew nearer anti-Enlightenment Ultra-Orthodoxy.

Zionism is thus a partial continuity of part of the Haskalah, most prominently in its launching of a Hebrew culture and renewed attention to the biblical Jewish homeland. Zionism also took up, as we shall see, political, legal and cultural values directly from the European Enlightenment. But it also adopted, first on the political sidelines and in recent years with alarming speed, such anti-Enlightenment tenets as nationalism (the extreme edge of national sentiment), chauvinism, separatist political messianism and ultra-religiosity.

Zionism and Modern Israel’s Enlightenment Legacies

European national movements differed in their ends and means along a broad spectrum from extreme nationalism to moderate liberal nationhood. Isaiah Berlin distinguished between “inflamed” or “rabid” nationalism, bred in Germany, and moderate, “benign” nationhood, compatible with the Enlightenment. In Berlin’s view, mainstream Zionism squarely belonged to the moderate and liberal category, from its foundation and throughout the twentieth century.

By the 1990s, shortly before his death, Sir Isaiah observed the rise of nationalism in Israel which his own taxonomy had labeled “rabid,” but which he still deemed a minority opinion. Like other liberal Zionists, he glimpsed the change in the political and moral climate as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Israeli military occupation brought illiberal forces to the fore. Today, almost thirty years later, the ideological battle in Israel is far from decided. It is not, as some mistakenly think, a battle between Zionism and anti-national post-Zionism. It is a fight within Zionism itself, among its Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment components.

Zionism was a moderate national movement insofar as it inherited the Haskalah’s universalist values (adjusted to the claim for national self-definition), acknowledged the Enlightenment’s role in the emancipation of the Jews, and at times also reflected the humanistic nucleus in Jewish tradition itself. However, Zionism was primarily the outcome of a bitter disappointment with the Enlightenment’s most fundamental promises. Israeli society has blended trust in the Enlightenment with increasing skepticism, and even hostility, toward its universalist demands. In the words of historian Israel Bartal, it grew from the “tangled roots” of modernity and tradition, European and non-European legacies, and geographical diversity juxtaposed with historical diversity. The multigenerational dynamic inherent to Jewish culture was now augmented by the plethora of geographic backgrounds.

The modern Jewish national movement was encumbered by unique circumstances. With its sister-movements in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe it shared the solution, but not the problem. Jews differed from territorial ethnic minorities in the remoteness of their ancestral homeland, its quasi-legendary status and near-inapproachability, their unmatched geographical dispersion, and—not least—the theological burden associated with their diasporic state: the diaspora, for the Orthodox, was an ongoing divine punishment.

Divinity, history and geography seemed to join forces in causing this perpetual ordeal. “For our sins, we have been exiled from our land” says a prayer, and any human attempt to reverse God’s punishment was in itself a daring act of secularization. With the rise of modern vernaculars, they were also trapped in a multilingual world. Their original language was no one’s native tongue. Their religious seclusion was extreme, the visible oddity of their traditional garments invited hostility, and the constant bane of anti-Semitism now flourished in a new and modern form, alongside the old.

For millions of European Jews, the only way was an onward migration to new diasporas beyond Europe. Zionism offered a migration to end all migrations. The diaspora may have been divinely ordained, but it could be terminated by human vision and action. The political dream of Jewish sovereignty seemed incredible, but as the Ottoman Empire succumbed to its long process of decline, and Europeans were colonizing the world, perhaps a window of opportunity might open for the Jews to slip back into their ancestral place, not as colonizers but as lost sons, coming home at last, bearing the gifts of modernity and humanism to locals and refugees alike, and rekindling the glory of ancient Israel in a modern way. And as most of the founding generation of Zionists would have agreed, in an enlightened way.

The linear progression from the Haskalah to Zionism has been an accepted truth among many scholars and the Israeli general public. It is reflected in Ettinger’s famous summation quoted earlier. The same narrative is duly (and dully) echoed in the Israeli school curriculum, which tends to present the Haskalah solely as a precursor of Zionism. Somewhat equivalent to British Whig historiography, with Zionism as the telos of the Haskalah, it petered out by the middle of the twentieth century to a vague official narrative. The purported victory of Zionism over all diasporic options reigned (and still does) in school curricula, unknowingly (and ironically) echoing the German transition from the gentler Herderian ideal of Kulturnation to political nationalism.

Some important continuities indeed stand out: many leaders of the founding generation of Zionists were maskilim, or otherwise hailed from a Haskalah background. The project of renewing Hebrew as a spoken language and creating a modern Hebrew culture took hold in all but the earliest Zionist settlements. The secularity and modern ideologies prevalent throughout most of the Zionist spectrum—socialism, liberalism, and nationalism—drew directly from the Haskalah. Most of the immediate intellectual forerunners of Zionism were directly informed by Enlightenment ideas. One of them, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, born in Prussian Poland in 1795, received a rabbinic education but also read Mendelssohn, Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza. His call for Jewish resettlement of the Land of Israel was based on a realpolitik assessment: the Ottoman Empire’s weakness presented a rare opportunity for Jews to reclaim their ancestral land by the non-messianic means of diplomacy, land purchase and immigration. Kalischer was a harbinger of the Enlightenment’s earliest impact on the “return to the Land of Israel” ideal: a rational, this-worldly attitude. Maintaining his Jewish orthodox faith, Kalischer secularized the ancient Jewish prayer to return to Zion (Jerusalem) and to revive the olden days (kedem, the Hebrew word for antiquity, derives from a root also meaning “forward”). This secularization was to become Zionism.

Herzl himself, like several other early Zionists, had only a limited acquaintance with the Haskalah. Remarkably, he did not envisage Hebrew as the national language of his imagined Judenstaat (State of the Jews). Shlomo Avineri persuasively argued that Herzl had a stronger Jewish-traditional background than has previously been assumed, rooted in his Hungarian-Jewish family and his grandfather’s synagogue. However, Herzl’s humanistic approach to both government and economics could also be traced to his Austrian education and his abundant reading during his law studies at the University of Vienna. His political plan for the future Judenstaat was national, but not nationalistic. Harmoniously combining European values with a modernized Jewish culture and light-handed religious orthodoxy, the ‘State of the Jews’ included Jews and Arabs, the latter an equal and respected minority, all enjoying a polite bourgeois urban society, modern agricultural farms, and state-of-the-art industry.

This was, in part, a colonialist frame of mind. Herzl truly wished to Europeanize the Palestinian Arabs, and perhaps all Arabs. But he also wanted to Europeanize the Jews, turning poor and uneducated myriads into useful and informed citizens of a modern democracy. And, unlike most colonialists, he pledged civil equality and respect to all native denizens of Palestine/Land of Israel, and a full-fledged Jewish-Arab coexistence.

His philosophy of economic solidarity was an innovative blend of socialism’s best ideas and capitalism’s driving power. He adopted and expanded the doctrine of mutualism, a third-way theory bridging the free market with workers’ dignity and rights. His inspiration came from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, and Peter Kropotkin. In particular, Herzl followed a Jewish Austrian-Hungarian author whose name and book title strangely resemble his own: Theodor Hertzka’s Freiland appeared in 1890, and despite some derisive comments from Herzl, took hold of his imagination. Mutualism was more than a balancing act between capitalism and socialism: it emphasized human interdependency and advocated social solidarity.

The Jewish model, Herzl hoped, would awe the world into adopting mutualism not only within states but among them. Herzl’s Zion was a Jerusalem of international conferences and European academic culture, graced by somewhat folkloric Jewish rituals and a freely observed orthodox Sabbath. In his Judenstaat, workers’ rights were carefully guarded under the benign gaze of both the Bible and socialism. A mutualist economy implied governmental minimalism, an ideal Herzl shared with European and American economic liberals, as Altneuland reflects. Yet by the time Herzl’s short life ended in 1904, in the year Altneuland was published, the Zionist Congress he founded was anything but a harmonious assembly heading for governmental minimalism in a graceful bourgeois setting.

By the beginning of the First World War, and still located in Europe, the Jewish Congress had become the hub of Zionist federations across the continent, and a lively setting for parties formed around political world-views and particular plans (including the short-lived attempt to consider Uganda as an alternative homeland for the Jews). Beyond the annual meetings and diplomatic efforts, contours of the nascent civil society of the future Israel began to emerge in journals, youth movements and local assemblies, all teeming with energetic disputes. The number of actual immigrants to the Land of Israel was still small but significant enough to found three of Zionism’s greatest social and cultural creations: the kibbutz, the city of Tel Aviv, and a Hebrew-speaking society.

By 1914, a small but critical mass of Hebrew-speaking immigrants had embarked on an incomparably ambitious culture-building project in Palestine/Eretz Israel. The new Yishuv (Zionist Jewish settlement, as opposed to the old Orthodox Jewish community) suffered greatly during the First World War, but seeds of promise were sown by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the greatest political achievement of Zionism until then. The Declaration promised a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine under the future British mandate that replaced the vanquished Ottoman Empire. It did not pay similar regard to the region’s Arab residents, soon to be organized as a Palestinian resistance.

The political triumph of the Balfour Declaration was accompanied by a cultural accomplishment: not only a new Hebrew-speaking society, but a new ideal of the Hebrew man and woman. Herzl had delineated a utopian society balancing ancient Jewish heritage and ultra-modern technology. The Labor Zionist immigrants enriched this utopia with the social and spiritual dream of the New Hebrew Person: a biblical-modern Jew, Samson-like in his physical and mental courage, hardworking and trustworthy, healed of diaspora’s ailments, open-hearted and humane. He (art and literature favored a man, but female versions appeared too) was the trope and symbol of the Zionist classrooms and youth movements.

It may do well to note that The New Hebrew was more than a Jewish take on socialist utopias or, later, Bolshevik Realism. Those would-be Samsons had their grandparents beaten, raped or killed in pogroms, and their claim to dignity went beyond the agonies of poverty and low class. The Hebraized Alfred Dreyfus would never be humiliated again.

Both threads, Herzl’s and Labor Zionism’s, shared a basic penchant for social engineering, more typical of revolutionaries than reformers. The values to be instilled into the young Jewish minds came from a variety of sources, from German Romanticism to Tolstoyan agrarian simplicity. However, both Herzl and the founders of Labor Zionism wanted their utopias to be inhabited by modern and enlightened individuals. And both posed a breathtaking but insurmountably high standard for the Israelis of the future.

On the right wing of the Zionist spectrum, also an offshoot of Herzlian Zionism, the Revisionist movement led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky developed a view inspired by Herderian “cultural nationhood,” and more directly by Polish romanticist nationalism. Jabotinsky was a poet and an intellectual, and his nationalism was balanced by a liberal individualism. He also hoped for future coexistence of the three monotheistic religions. Nevertheless, he was among the first Zionists to predict a military conflict with the Arabs of Palestine, and advocated Jewish militarization and readiness for a tough, unsentimental fight over the Promised Land. As the Revisionist party transformed into the latter-day Likud, and especially after the resignation and death of Jabotinsky’s disciple and Likud’s first prime minister, Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s liberalism and peace hopes gradually gave way to an undiluted militant nationalism.

Labor Zionism, the dominant current in Europe and in the Yishuv, developed its own sense of “cultural nationhood” for the Jews. However, when it came to the type of government for the state-in-the-making, the socialist-Zionist leaders accepted the model of Herzl’s liberal democracy. Along with Herzl, their ultimate answer to the Enlightenment’s anti-Semitic abductors was to found an enlightened Jewish state.

This was an epochal choice. Its most prominent representatives were the future first president of the State of Israel, British-naturalized scientist Chaim Weizmann, born near Pinsk, and the future first prime minister David Ben Gurion, born in Plonsk. Both were traditionally educated, but touched by the Haskalah at an early age. Ben Gurion’s father was already a follower of the Haskalah and early Zionism, while one of Dr. Weizmann’s Talmud teachers, a maskil, gave the young Chaim his first book on chemistry—in Hebrew. During their early adulthood, both Weizmann and Ben Gurion became interested in western, mainly British, liberal thought. Their political Zionism was informed by the European Enlightenment no less than by the Haskalah. Their thirst for “general” philosophy displays the Haskalah’s shortcomings: authors residing in the Russian and Prussian empires were not authorities on political liberty. One had to turn to Locke, the American and French revolutionaries and their progeny.

The Enlightenment offered both a great problem and a great answer. During much of the nineteenth century, emancipated and educated Jews tended to ignore racist anti-Semitism, an aberration of Enlightenment science, as a temporary aberration on the path of progress. As Shlomo Avineri put it, anti-Semitism seemed “no more than the remnants of primitive medieval beliefs that would soon dissipate in the warmth of the sun of enlightenment and liberalism. But this was wrong. The Jew-hatred of the modern age was a novel phenomenon, a product of the Enlightenment itself.”

Neither Avineri nor the present writer adheres to the scathing critique launched against the Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their famous Dialectic of Enlightenment, which posits the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its legacy as the ironic forebears of Fascism and Nazism, accusing the former of amoral rationalism and mass-controlling technology. By contrast, the present article aims to show that the Jewish Haskalah and the Israeli discourse of ne’orut consistently identified the Enlightenment with humanism, pluralism, and often with liberalism. The abuse of Enlightenment by anti-Semites was a travesty, but no reason to abandon it.

This grave disappointment was also a biting insult for Jews who considered themselves proud Europeans, or proud citizens of their countries. Racist anti-Semitism not only endangered, excluded and demeaned them; it also held a gleeful mirror, parodying the Age of Reason in its vile physiognomic science. This humiliation might have turned a majority of the Jews into rampant nationalists. It did not. Nor did the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath. Present-day Jewish-Israeli nationalism, ensuing from national and global processes in the realms of sociology, politics, and armed conflict, also reflects a delayed aftershock, reworking the collective Holocaust trauma into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Theodor Herzl and his cofounders of the Jewish Congress took the moderate path. Prior to Herzl, the earliest Zionist migrants from Romania and Russia, spearheaded by Chibat Zion, intended to purchase and farm small plots of the ancestral land, not to claim sovereignty. This “pragmatic Zionism” continued in Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine, while Herzl’s “statecraft Zionism” grew in Europe and took its political shape there. The turn from a trickle of migrant settlers to a process of state-building required a political philosophy. The choice was liberal democracy.

This was not a trivial decision, but it fitted familiar patterns in Jewish history. Biblical politics, the Talmudic culture of debate, pre-modern Jewish community assemblies (kahal), and Haskalah freethinking all belonged to a genealogy of quasi-democracy, with roots older than Athens. It also fell in line with the Enlightenment’s republicanism and nascent democratic tendencies, not least because the Jewish Scriptures affected Lockean liberalism and the American revolutionaries more that most scholars, until recently, have acknowledged.

It was not by chance or manipulation that pre-state Zionist institutions were partially shaped as an embryonic democracy. This was a grass-root demand. Thus, for example, the Second Zionist Congress, convened in Basel in 1897, heeded public pressure and granted equal votes to female delegates. No sovereign country in the world, and very few political organizations, accepted gender equality in parliamentary politics at that time.

Due to its progressive spirit, coupled with the tentative standing of Jews in many European countries and the delicate nature of landless diplomacy, the Zionist Congress had to project respectability. Herzl, in particular, cut an aristocratic figure during his short-lived career. He and his colleagues depended on the goodwill of European diplomats, ministers, and eventually leaders, setting their hopes on the German Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultan. Yet the republican contours of Herzl’s project, including parliamentary democracy, the separation of powers and the rule of law, promised more civil liberty than any imperial regime could afford. It might have been diplomatically wiser to plan a benignly autocratic regime for the future State of the Jews, but the Jews would not have it.

Enlightenment in Israel’s Constitutional Law and the Juridicization of Ne’orut

The State of Israel was founded three years after the end of the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews. Never before had the enemies of the Jews been so totally identified with the enemies of the Enlightenment. In a plenary meeting on 29 November 1947 the United Nations, whose founding Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflected Enlightenment values, voted for a Jewish state and an Arab state cohabiting in the Palestine/Eretz Israel territory upon the termination of the British Mandate. For Zionist Jews (and for many other Jews and non-Jews in the world), this was the Enlightenment’s victory over its detractors. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read by Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv on 14 May 1948, is a liberal-democratic and humanist document, offering peace to Israel’s neighbors, civil liberties to its citizens, and goodwill to the international community.

The word “democracy” itself, appearing in earlier drafts written by jurists, was removed from the final text. An early draft by jurist Zvi Berenson, a future Supreme Court Justice, described the State of Israel as a “free, independent and democratic Jewish state,” which formulation remained in further revisions by senior jurists. It was removed by Ben Gurion’s ally and future prime minister Moshe Sharett. Ben Gurion’s own careful reworking of the text left “democracy” out, despite the Declaration’s clear democratic tenet. This omission is explained, persuasively in my view, by Ben Gurion’s preference for the biblical terms rather than the Greek one. Despite his documented admiration for Pericles and the Athenian democracy, Ben Gurion held a firm view, inspired by the Haskalah, that biblical Israel already nurtured democratic principles: his vision for Israel was a Jewish-inspired democracy. He saw no contradiction between the Jewish and the democratic legacies; in fact, the Jewish foundations of modern democracy were stronger, in his view, than the “western” foundations, and ought to have become a universal model.

The terminology of Enlightenment was similarly present in the Declaration conceptually, but not verbatim. Sharett’s near-final draft called upon “the enlightened world” to “stand by the Jewish people as it establishes its homeland.” Ben Gurion removed this sentence in his final editing, in line with his emphasis on Jewish historical agency rather than begging for international protection. Nevertheless, the Declaration displays two major Enlightenment legacies: equal human rights to all and human agency in history.

The most famous omission in Israel’s Declaration of Independence is the word “God.” Its preamble emphasizes the Jews’ spiritual and human endeavors to return to the holy land during their long history of exile. Alongside this overtly secular approach to modern Israel’s foundation, the Declaration deftly combines Haskalah adherence to Judaism’s humanist legacy with modern Enlightenment values. This is reflected in an oft-quoted passage:

The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.

The Declaration’s authors debated the mention of God, and compromised on the ambiguous expression “the Rock of Israel” (tzur yisrael), signifying the Almighty to religious Jews, and Jewish continuity (or “eternity”) to secular Jews. The mention of the “prophets of Israel,” rather than Mosaic Law or the Talmudic halacha, reflects the Haskalah thinkers’ preference for the prophets’ universalism over the halacha’s Jewish separatism.

Ben Gurion’s final draft of the Declaration thus combines the two Enlightenment legacies of free (secular) human agency and liberal democracy. It posits the new State of Israel as a unique marriage of revived ancient Jewish democracy and modern European liberal humanism. While the Declaration’s democratic tenor comes from the European Enlightenment, its emphasis on Jewish particularity hails from the Haskalah. It is a credit to the Haskalah, and also to Ben Gurion, that the Jewish particularity they celebrated happened to be the most universalist of Jewish legacies, the prophets’ message of justice, equality and peace.

It is difficult to analyze the unique sense of a secular miracle that many of Israel’s Jewish citizens experienced in 1948. For a while, the messianic or secularized-messianic elation could easily fuse with the humanist rationalism of the Enlightenment. A majority of the Jewish Israeli public and most members of Israel’s first cabinet, Knesset, and judiciary were atheists, but the epochal unveiling of modern Jewish sovereignty easily lent itself to messianic language. The socialist roots of Zionism, which affected many more Israelis than its liberal roots, were also conducive to a language of human redemption. It did not contradict Israel’s bid for membership in “the enlightened world.” Nor was the Declaration’s liberal language a mere bow to the United Nations Charter, the Universal Proclamation of Human Rights, and the prevalent lingo of postwar diplomacy. Ben Gurion and his co-signatories were able to look back to Herzl, soon to be reburied in Jerusalem’s newly named Mount Herzl (formerly, in Arabic, Asharfa Hill), and say that his political will had been fulfilled.

Viewed from 1897, from Herzl’s hotel balcony in Basel, Israel’s Declaration of Independence could indeed look like the long-awaited alignment of the Enlightenment and the Jews. The odds against this symbolic alignment had been enormous. The Nazi decimation of Europe’s Jewish population (including at least a million Zionists hoping to emigrate to the national homeland); the 1948 Arab-Jewish war in which 1% of the country’s Jews were killed; the Palestinian calamity, with a smaller ratio of fatalities but with hundreds of thousands suffering the horror of exile; the lesser known misfortune of the Middle Eastern Jews; and the undoing of the United Nations two-state plan—this quick succession of cataclysmic events could not deprive the young State of Israel of the celebratory moment of its foundation, and it chose to do so in the language of the Enlightenment.

History, however, is seldom the stuff of celebratory closures and harmonious homecomings. The ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War of 1967, the hampered Israeli-Palestinian peace process and decades of murderous terror (Palestinian, and more rarely Jewish), eventually overturned Israel’s political balance and impacted its international standing.

In the months following the Declaration of Independence, 600,000 Palestinians were made to leave their land by fear, force, and/or the erroneous expectation of returning victorious. Another migratory process brought over a million Middle Eastern and North African (Mizrahi) Jewish refugees to Israel, testing the young state both financially and culturally. Many Mizrahi/Sephardi emigrants were already engaged in Zionism and identified with its goal. However, the largely Ashkenazi state infrastructure and the Zionist principle of cultural assimilation, well-meaning but sometimes a mere alibi for Ashkenazi/European cultural supremacism, caused pain and insult for years to come.

Faced with the harsh political reality of the 1950s, economic hardship, massive immigration of Jewish refugees, the buildup of Arab hostility, and the throes of postcolonialism and the Cold War, Ben Gurion’s and Sharett’s governments compromised on several Enlightenment values they deeply cherished. The worst compromises in domestic politics were the civil inequality of the Arab Israeli population and the adoption of the Jewish-halachic family law. Beyond Israel’s borders, Enlightenment values faced dire compromises after the 1967 conquest of former Jordanian, Egyptian, and Syrian territories inhabited by Palestinians (and, in the Golan Heights, Druze).

Between 1948 and the 1960s, Arab Israeli citizens lived under emergency laws limiting their freedom of speech and movement, though not their voting rights and most other human rights. This deprivation of crucial liberties was partially amended thereafter, and the Israeli Supreme Court, citing Enlightenment values, was a key player in this process. But other, subtler civil inequalities persisted between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, perpetuating a disturbing gap between reality and the self-professed values of Israel’s founders and leaders.

A different aberration from the Enlightenment values of the Declaration is the relationship of religion and state. Most of Israel’s legal codex is modern and secular, based on western traditions and combining the Anglo-American and European-Continental legal systems. In the same vein as the Haskalah movement and the Declaration of Independence, Israel’s legislators and judges made symbolic gestures to the ancient Jewish law and the universal humanism of the ancient Hebrew prophets. In some cases, notably contract law, Talmudic ideas are genuinely relevant to modern concepts of justice. However, Israel strictly enacts religious Jewish law in such areas as public transportation on the Sabbath, and, most controversially, family law.

An early compromise between Ben Gurion’s ruling Mapai party (the leading faction of Labor Zionism) and the Jewish religious parties allotted most aspects of family law to Israel’s religious institutions. To date, each of Israel’s religious communities (Jewish, Muslim, Druze, several Christian communities, and others defined by law) follow their religious practices in most matters pertaining to birth, marriage and death. This is an aberration from the country’s otherwise liberal laws governing civil society, and despite catering to all religious minorities, it gives leverage to the Jewish majority and the Chief Rabbinate. Israel is the only democracy where civil marriage, and hence interfaith marriage, is unrecognized by the law.

These “Enlightenment deficits” in Israel’s legislation run parallel to its democratic deficits. The universal human rights promised in the Declaration are still imperfectly bestowed on Arab citizens as a national minority, on all citizens in family law, and, most clearly, on the non-citizen Palestinians living directly under Israeli occupation in parts of the West Bank. Both issues, and several others, are intertwined. They reflect Jewish nationalist and/or Jewish Orthodox biases in Israel’s constitutional law, creating a field of tension with the liberal intentions of the Declaration of Independence.

We now turn to Israel’s judiciary and its attempts to rectify some of the Enlightenment deficits mentioned above. It is important to note that we are now in the territory of ne’orut, not haskalah. In the crucial first decades of the State of Israel, the two words parted ways, with ne’orut increasingly identified with the academic, juristic and liberal milieu of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and intellectual elite.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded in 1925, gathering a small number of scholars and students, mostly Jewish European immigrants. Its first president, Yehuda Leib Magnes, emigrated from the United States. He was joined by the German-Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem and the Lithuanian-born historian Joseph Klausner, educated in Heidelberg and member of Odessa’s Zionist circle. Their number grew rapidly and tragically during the 1930s, as the Nazis’ rise to power drove thousands of German Jews to Palestine/Eretz Israel. Among them were Buber, Else Lasker-Schüler, and hundreds of other thinkers, writers, scholars and academics. Particularly notable among them, in retrospect, were dozens of Jewish lawyers born or educated in Germany. This group was to become the founding core of Israel’s judiciary, especially the future Supreme Court.

Aufklärung (enlightenment), the German word and concept, became part of the lexicon of Jerusalem’s scholarly elite. University professors and schoolteachers kept using the term haskalah to denote the eighteenth-century European movement, but haskalah mainly connoted the Jewish Enlightenment, creating confusion. It also simply meant “education” in any sense, including anti-Enlightenment education. Thus haskalah could not signify the set of humanist and universalist values so dear to many of Jerusalem’s intellectual refugees. Hence the rise of the term ne’orut.

The word na’or (“enlightened”) appears in the Bible as a trait of God. Maskilic Zionist thinkers and writers, including Asher Ginzburg (Ahad Ha’am) and Shmuel Yosef Agnon, used it to signify a nation or a person of modern culture and education, as in the English enlightened and the German aufgeklärt. By the mid-twentieth century, the word was widely used in academic circles. Its derivative noun, ne’orut, appeared in the 1950s-1960s.

In a co-authored paper, Eli Salzberger and I have shown how the terminology of ne’orut, especially in the phrase “the enlightened public,” became an important part of the vocabulary of the Israeli Supreme Court. The prominence of German-born or German-educated justices during the first three decades of the Court’s existence created a natural bridge between Weimer Republic liberalism and Israel’s top judiciary. The terminology of ne’orut was natural to their milieu, which included the first Minister of Justice, Pinchas Rosen (born Felix Rosenblütt), and the first President (Chief Justice) of the Supreme Court, Moshe Smoira. Some of these jurists, such as Comptroller General Uri Yadin and Justice Zvi Berenson, had contributed to the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence that included direct references to democracy and enlightenment. The German-Jewish judges and those educated in Weimer Germany never counted more than a-third of the Supreme Court’s members, but their impact was the strongest, juridically and conceptually.

While differing in their philosophical approaches to law, the Supreme Court justices of the 1950s-1970s mostly shared a common European background and a commitment to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. In the young State of Israel, they were the standard-bearers of the great tradition of Jewish liberal jurists of the Weimar Republic. Their faith in the German Enlightenment’s legacy was firmly rooted. Unlike the radical Jewish philosophers Horkheimer, Adorno, Scholem, Buber, and Walter Benjamin, the Jewish lawyers did not criticize the Aufklärung but cherished its values. Thus Justice Moshe Landau coined the term “the enlightened public” (hatzibur ha-na’or), and saw the judge as “a faithful interpreter of the accepted views of the enlightened public, of which he is a member.” Justice Alfred Witkon spoke of the enlightened public’s wish to belong to “the family of the enlightened nations” or “the entire civilized world”; the Supreme Court, he wrote, ought to represent this public.

The self-identification of the Supreme Court with an unspecified enlightened public, which it ought to represent, was not immediately challenged. The Supreme Court used the vocabulary of “enlightened public” sparingly, but it appeared in landmark court cases and pivotal rulings in the areas of private law, constitutional law, freedom of political association and freedom of speech.

The “enlightened public” dovetailed with another major principle adopted by the German-educated judges, the concept of Rechtsstaat, a state ruled by law. During the early decades of Israel’s history, the Court balanced civil liberty with support of the nation state, in line with the national liberalism developed in Imperial and Weimar Germany. Ironically, this German legacy worked in favor of the young Israel’s separation of powers and judicial independence, safeguarding it from Weimar’s fate.

The Assault against Ne’orut

The legal and cultural discourse of ne’orut faced little challenge until the late 1970s, when the Likud party first won the general elections. Since then, a buildup of messianic nationalism and the rise of Mizrahi/Ashkenazi identity politics have changed Israel’s public discourse. Anti-Enlightenment populism, buttressed by the internet and the social networks, has been one of the main results of this change.

In the 1980s and 1990s a sea change occurred in two areas, intellectual and political, that together created a wave of criticism against the Supreme Court and its cultural circles, the Labor-Zionist and liberal-Zionist middle-class, the mostly secular and Ashkenazy “old elite.” In the intellectual arena, academics began to critique the Court’s concept of Enlightenment, the liberal-democratic ne’orut. Drawing on critical theory and postmodernist critiques of cultural and political hegemony, they singled out the idea of the “enlightened public” to denote the Ashkenazi liberals. The judges were now seen as imposing their legal hegemony on other groups, especially the Mizrahim and the religious, who were deprived of fair representation in the halls of justice. The radical critics associated the Court’s cultural uniformity with Labor Zionism’s longtime political predominance prior to the Likud’s victory in 1977. Their work conflated the Labor party, and later the whole of Israel’s political left wing, with the judicial branch of government, under a conceptual umbrella of sociological privilege and cultural hegemony.

In parallel to the postmodernist critiques, largely identified with the academic political left, an assault was launched from the political right. The last decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of right-wing nationalism and populism, which produced street-level and (later) academic targeting of the Enlightenment discourse used by Israel’s founders and judiciary. The victory of Begin’s Likud party, hailing from the early Zionist nationalist Revisionist party, upturned both the Labor and the Ashkenazi dominance. Begin, born in Poland, used populist language in mobilizing many Mizrahi voters’ genuine dissatisfaction with the long-governing Labour coalition. As prime minister, however, he maintained a deep respect for liberal values, including human rights and civic equality for Jews and Arabs, and for the independence of the judiciary.

The tide turned again in the early 1990s, when Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, an outstanding heir to its Enlightenment tradition, introduced a doctrine of judicial activism in support of liberal-democratic and human rights. Justice Barak’s legacy, pejoratively dubbed “the judicial revolution,” coincided with Prime Minister’s Yitzhak Rabin’s and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s peace talks and signing of the Oslo Agreement, which granted the Palestinians a measure of self-rule and allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organization into the Occupied West Bank.

Henceforward, the Israeli Supreme Court was identified by right-wing opinion leaders as a sidekick of left-wing liberals, a non-patriotic or anti-Zionist hub of unelected “old elite” snobs who care for Arab rights more than for Jewish nationhood. Chief Justice Barak was seen as the chief culprit. His critics singled out his use of the terms ‘ne’orut’ and ‘na’or’ as an emblem of the high judiciary’s cultural arrogance and condescension.

In the wake of the Oslo Agreement and a new wave of Palestinian terror attacks (triggered, indeed, by a 1994 massacre of Palestinians by a Jewish terrorist), nationalist-religious populism in Israel reached a pitch of aggression toward the Labor government. In November 1995, a religious-nationalist law student assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent electoral victory, and his lengthy terms in office (1996-1999, 2009-to the time of writing) have seen a major rise in rhetoric against the “old elites,” epitomized by Tel Aviv, the academia, and the kibbutzim. With the arrival of the Internet, and especially the social networks in the 2000s, the political debate was awash with anti-Ashkenazi, anti-liberal and anti-secular rhetoric.

Quoting academic catchphrases and using the social media, some of the Supreme Court’s most outspoken critics (including Netanyahu himself, indicted for three charges of corruption in 2019) continue to accuse the Israeli judiciary of hypocrisy, bias, and even downright dishonesty, all cached in a junta-like exercise of hegemony. Such criticism, while outspoken, is not in itself anti-Enlightenment. But during the 2010s the critics joined forces with ultra-Orthodox assaults on the judiciary’s liberal and human rights “bias,” and hence on Enlightenment itself. Feminism, LGBTQ, liberalism and Enlightenment are seen as a common enemy.

It is important to note this recent and substantial shift in Israeli anti-Enlightenment rhetoric: if earlier critics of the Supreme Court and the academic elites denounced their pretense to Enlightenment values, usually putting the words ‘na’or’ and ‘ne’orut’ in inverted commas, in the last few years Enlightenment is being tackled head-on. The set of values identified with the European Enlightenment and the Haskalah, including rationalism, secularism, social justice, political moderation, and universal human rights (but excluding the exact and natural sciences) is now under attack. Extremist rabbis media personalities, and network influencers, merging ultra-nationalism with atavistic Orthodoxy, are currently launching attacks against feminism, LGBTQ, universal human rights (branded as catering to the Arab enemies), the peace-seeking left. They are thus challenging the core values of universalism and humanism, which they consider inimical to Jewish ascendancy and messianic expectations.

Comparable processes contributed years later to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in the United States and to that of several other right-wing leaders in Europe. Israel’s nationalist populism preceded Trump’s ascendancy by a few years, but has since been gleaning active assistance from Trump and his social media supporters. In Israel, however, the Enlightenment vocabulary is under a singular attack, and the relevant terms have become almost taboo, cautiously avoided by liberals.

At the time of writing, as Israel tackles the economic and political repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis, the term ne’orut is almost dead, but the Enlightenment legacy’s core values are regaining ground across the political spectrum: the application of reason and science for human improvement, civil justice and the freedom of speech


The recent assault against Enlightenment in Israeli politics and the media signals not only the rise of populism and nationalism, as in many other countries, but more specifically the narrowing down of the spectrum of choices for Israeli Jews.

As Isaiah Berlin has shown, modern political liberty, both negative (defending individual freedom) and positive (allowing civic participation), is the product of Enlightenment’s reworking of pre-modern political concepts within modern frameworks. Negative liberty in particular encompasses the essentially modern defense of the individual and his/her spectrum of choice, political and otherwise, regardless of ethnic or religious identity, gender and race. Positive liberty implies that all people could in principle become active citizens in their country. For nineteenth-century Jews, these liberties were especially new and precious: in the positive sense by enabling them to enter and affect politics in their home country or in the future Jewish homeland. In the negative sense, they were finally at liberty to define their Jewishness as they chose, religious, cultural and/or national, or opt out of it altogether without intellectual or political repercussions.

“The creation of the State of Israel,” Berlin wrote soon after the fact, “has rendered the greatest service that any human institution can perform for individuals—has restored to Jews not merely their personal dignity and status as human beings, but what is vastly more important, their right to choose as individuals how they shall live—the basic freedom of choice, the right to live or perish, go to the good or the bad in one’s own way, without which life is a form of slavery, as it has been, indeed, for the Jewish community for almost two thousand years.” For Berlin, Zionism would never become a sole alternative for the Jews. It was not a dogma, but an enabler of choice. At its best, Zionism drew on Enlightenment and Haskalah sources to create an unusual interface of liberty and nationhood: the very optionality of nationhood making individuals free, even if they opt against it.

This scope of liberty is now in danger of diminishing. The tide of extreme nationalism in Israel, coupled with ultra-Orthodox anti-secularism and anti-Enlightenment and the rejection of humanism, threatens to close that great window of opportunity that Herzl, Weizmann (who was Berlin’s personal friend), and Ben Gurion opened for Jews worldwide. Free choice of Jewish belonging and identity is further thwarted by the recent rise of yet another type of modern anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond. It is disguised as rampant anti-Israelism, which denies any legitimacy to Zionism or to the State of Israel. One thing both of these extremes have in common is their ignorance of almost every complexity explored in this article. Fortunately, they are not the only forces at work. Israel’s Enlightenment values, or its liberal humanism by any other name, is the focus of an ongoing battle in politics and in the public sphere. Such a battle is not unique to Israel, but its proponents may find support in Israel’s singular legacies.

The freedom of speech—which Israelis use vehemently, if not always politely—is strongly rooted in the ancient tradition of Jewish debate, criticism and plurality of views. The legal gist of Hebraic and Talmudic scriptures can help the democratic judiciary keep halachic fundamentalism at bay. The Torah’s compassion for the downtrodden and the prophets’ passion for social justice are often quoted by social activists. One of Israel’s foundational debates is about the best interpretation of the Jewish legacy, and the new woes of Covid-19 and a deepening democratic crisis are lending new force to the humanist and liberal interpretations.

Perhaps, as Herzl and Ben Gurion predicted, Israel’s history-burdened society can still chart a new course where the best Jewish and Enlightenment bequests would correspond and prevail.