Proud Jews Are Also Committed to Inclusiveness

Is Israel Too Jewish?

getty images

By Abraham H. Foxman

Published September 08, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Last June, Jane Eisner participated in a private roundtable discussion at the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem about Israel’s Jewish identity. What came out of the talks was the sense that Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora face a similar challenge — how to be a modern people in a modern world while holding onto ancient tradition. This is the continuation of that discussion.

In some ways, I’m used to the idea of questioning the degree of Jewishness appropriate for a Jewish state, because the same issues arise around my organization, the Anti-Defamation League, on a regular basis. Since we fight anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, it is not surprising that some of our supporters think that we should devote even more attention to Jewish concerns, while others would like us to look outside the community even more than we already do.

My answer is that we have the right balance. Now we are strong Jews and, at the same time, fight prejudice against all. The key is that we are first proud Jews, and that allows us to do the rest.

While the question under discussion about Israel’s identity is many times more complex, I think the response contains some similarities.

Israel must first maintain a strong Jewish identity; otherwise its raison d’être will disappear. Why have a State of Israel at all if not as an expression of Jewish history, peoplehood, culture, security and religion?

That, however, is only the beginning of the story, for Israel is, as well, a democracy for all its citizens, Jewish or not.

Democracy involves fundamental rights and obligations that are unique to democracies but not to Jewishness: elections, a free press, the right of expression, minority rights and an independent judiciary.

When asked whether there is too much or too little Jewishness in Israel, our response must first place things in the context of what I already enunciated: Is Israel doing enough along the lines of Jewish identity to ensure that the primary purpose of the state, that of a Jewish homeland, is sustained?

Overall, I believe the answer is yes, manifesting itself in state symbols, cultural and literary expressions, and a common grounding in Jewish holidays and the cycle of the year. But sometimes I worry that many secular Israelis, especially as Israel opens up and gets more and more involved in the wider world, do not have enough education, particularly emotional education, about things Jewish to sustain that identity in the modern world of technological change.

It reminds me, with variations, of the discussions in America about whether Jews will remain Jews in a country where they can be and do anything they want.

The old argument assuming that Jewishness of the people in Israel will be retained simply because, unlike America, Israel is a Jewish state, could lose resonance over time.

On the other hand, there are questions that arise in a diverse society about “too much Jewishness” as a product of the fact that only one version of Judaism is fully accepted by the legal system. Those whose Judaic expression is different feel excluded and resent the exclusion. We see this manifest most recently with the Women of the Wall issue, and long before that with the “Who is a Jew?” controversy.

On top of this is the issue of civil marriage. The absence of civil marriage was long seen as unfair to individuals in special situations. Today, however, it has become a national challenge in light of the many thousands of former Russian Jews who are not halachically Jewish and therefore cannot marry under Jewish law of Israel. This is a case where “too much Jewishness,” to the exclusion of other options, is unsustainable.

On the larger scale there is the broader question of the Arab minority and the Jewishness of the state.

I am hardly a radical on this subject. I strongly believe in the primary importance and legitimacy of the Jewish symbols of the state — the flag, the national anthem and the holidays. There needs to be a stronger effort in explaining and communicating these symbols. They are, however, critical to the essence of the state.

Still, I am against doing anything that will make the Arab minority feel less included in this Jewish democratic state. Rather, Israel must continually work toward inclusion of its Arab minority by focusing on equality in many forms, including greater possibilities of national service, while recognizing Arab sensitivities concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Recent efforts in the Knesset to demote Arabic from its position as an official language of Israel is the kind of step that would be a setback to inclusion and equality and should be resisted. Such a step would send the worst kind of message, suggesting that the Jewish identity of Israel completely submerges the democratic, inclusive side. This is not what Israel and its ideals are about. This would be bad for the country and bad for its relations around the world.

All in all, I think Israel is neither too Jewish nor not Jewish enough. But it does face challenges on both sides of the equation.

Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.