In Search of Identity: Jewish Aspects in Israeli Culture

By Touval, Amitai | Shofar, April 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

In Search of Identity: Jewish Aspects in Israeli Culture


Touval, Amitai, Shofar


In Search of Identity: Jewish Aspects in Israeli Culture

It is a pleasure to recommend In Search of Identity to the readers of Shofar. Dan Urian and Efraim Karsh have assembled a collection of thought-provoking essays by leading academics on the issue of how and in what way Israel is Jewish. The editors introduce the themes of this book by sketching the cultural history of the State of Israel. Their concern with history is echoed by some of the authors of consequent chapters who are careful to spell out the distinct outlooks of different generations of Israelis. Another connecting thread is the openness with which the authors disclose their own opinions and hopes concerning Israel's Jewish identity. Noting the increased salience of subcultures in Israeli society in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the editors diagnose the current cultural landscape as postmodern, a situation in which "one can turn to neither tradition nor ideology for guidance" (p. 4). Other authors also share their assessment of Israeli society, and thus as I span the arc of the fifteen chapters in this volume I am introduced to a variety of provocative opinions alongside sound analysis.

In Search of Identity is divided into three parts, "Cultural Tension," "The Jewishness of Israeli Identity," and "Artistic Representations of Jewish Identity." The contributors to the first part, "Cultural Tension," describe a culture war between secular and orthodox Jews. Eliezer Shweid opens the discussion by exploring the wide gulf that separates the two warring camps. He concludes his essay, titled "Judaism in Israeli Culture," by expressing his hope that despite the drive to follow Western fashion, Israeli society may seek protection against an assimilating world culture by preserving its Jewish national and cultural identity (p. 28).

In "Secular Judaism and Its Prospects," Charles Liebman is critical of the tendency to allow the religious elite to define Judaism. Writing from a social scientist's perspective and drawing in part on reports from the Guttman and Carmel Institutes, he explores "secular Judaism," or the culture of "the vast majority of Israeli Jews" (p. 34). He opines that in the absence of research on how Israelis celebrate rites of passage, very little can be said about the salience of Jewish heritage in Israeli society.

In "Between Hegemony and Dormant Kulturkampf in Israel," Baruch Kimmerling provides a fascinating analysis of the place of religious symbols in Zionist hegemony. Several upheavals, including the rise of the Likud Party to power in 1977 and the 1982 Lebanon War, quickened the emergence of countercultures that challenged the Zionist hegemony. Kimmerling identifies three Jewish countercultures: religious, secular, and traditionalist, as well as an Israeli-Arab counterculture.

In "Shall We Find Sufficient Strength? On Behalf of Israeli Secularism," Gershon Shaked argues that the best works of Hebrew literature were produced in an environment where there was much tension between the ghetto culture and the pressures of assimilation. He notes that many religious holidays were transformed to become part of Israeli secular culture, a trend that is, in part, informed by a rejection of both ghetto and Western culture. He concludes by asserting that Israeli secularism is legitimate and has a right to blossom.

Dan Miron's "Between Rabbi Shach and Modern Hebrew Literature" is the fifth and last of the chapters that make up the first part of this book. Miron takes a hard look at Rabbi Shach's profound dislike of the kibbutzim. The Rabbi hates the kibbutzim because they pretend to perpetuate Judaism while at the same time abandoning God and "transferring the core of the matter...to the land [of Israel] and its control" (p. 92). Had the other authors taken Miron's tone and approach, this first part of the book should not have been titled "Cultural Tension," but rather, "Culture War and Enmity."

The second part of the book is titled "The Jewishness of Israeli Identity. …

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