A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Chapter Three: The Civilian

[Previous Posts: Intro, The Traditionalist, The Cultural Jew]

The civilian is one of the more inscrutable versions of the non-observant Jew. He doesn’t really stand out in a crowd. If it weren’t for the fact that he speaks Hebrew and is in the majority in a state with an overwhelming Jewish majority and identity, you might not peg him for such. Indeed, there is little difference between him and other middle-to-upper class urbanites in the Western world. Many of them refer to themselves first and foremost as Israelis.

The civilian’s knowledge of Judaism from his surroundings (family, school, cultural references &c) is often minimal to non-existent. Their primary frame of reference of “being Jewish’ is the fact of their Israeli citizenship. As such, Jewish holidays are merely neutral civilian holidays to them, perhaps ones with interesting culinary attributes, but nothing more. Holidays related to the State, such as Independence Day and Memorial Day have just as much, if not more resonance for the civilian.

There are two primary types of civilian attitudes to Jewish identity:

The Republican

The republican understands their Jewish identity primarily in terms of their service to the state. Ergo – if I serve in the army and risk my life, pay my taxes and have my kids stay in Israel, then that is “Jewish” enough for me. In return I don’t want anyone to tell me how to live or be a Jew.

The republican, and their more emotionally attached variant – the nationalist, is thus outraged at Jews who don’t “pull their weight” in terms of national service. This means the Charedim who don’t go to the army or pay their share of taxes or celebrities and “yuppies” who find ways to duck army service.

This has bearing on the conversion debate in Israel. To a republican, anyone who shoulders their civilian burdens like the rest and observe the Jewish civilian calendar should be automatically accepted as a member of the tribe. It is thus since the potential convert has joined the “bond of fate” with the rest of the Jewish people.

The Liberal

In a post I wrote in the past, I discussed the “other Israeli right” – the civilian-liberals. In a nutshell, there was always a strong bourgeois and individualist presence in Israel. Although they did not win elections by themselves, they always exerted a powerful influence on economic and social policy, influence that increased from the mid-60s on. Although they had a heady presence in the right (the Likud is a combination of the liberal parties and Herut), the left also became more “liberal” as time went on.

Without going too much into the details, much of what we call the “political left” today transformed from the 60s to the 90s into a “new left”. Whereas before, it was a more classically socialist and collectivist left, from 1967 onward, it increasingly became focused more and more on individual rather than collective rights (free market, freedoms to get married &c). Indeed, the only justification for calling the “left” as such is its increasingly dovish policy with regard to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Aside from that, their policies are little different from conservatives and classical liberals that want to do everything possible to free the individual from the clutches of the state.

The spread of the “democratic (re: liberal democratic) faith”, as Oz Almog calls it, penetrated much of the urbanite populace. This includes important segments of the elites such as much of the media and the legal profession on both sides of the bench (lawyers and judges). It has replaced the collectivist-national faith for many, a sentiment expressed daily in the pages of the most openly liberal and non-Zionist paper – Haaretz.

The liberal’s attitude towards their Jewish identity is a deeply ambivalent one. On the one hand, many have imbibed the idea of “Jewishness” as “universal high-level morality” as understood from a selective reading of the Nevi’im. This is bolstered by an idea by which the fact that we suffered the Holocaust places a special burden on us to be a “light unto the nations” and be especially sensitive to the needs of other suffering populations. One can see this in the recent debate regarding the deportation of the children of foreign workers (i.e. “Jews don’t do this” &c).

The liberal’s primary problem is the attitude towards the state as a Jewish one. The past two decades have seen a very bitter and difficult struggle between Zionist liberals and non-Zionist liberals. The former wish to see a “Jewish and democratic” state with a solid Jewish majority and identity (which is a major reason for them to object to holding Yosh). The latter want to turn Israel into a “state of all its citizens” and/or a bi-national state with no Jewish meaning. The former have an emotional and intellectual attachment to their Jewishness at least in latent fashion, the latter see themselves as cosmopolitans.

Indeed, the latest anti-settlement brouhaha of the “national left” needs to be understood in this context. After years of intellectual domination by the non-Zionist liberals, the Zionist liberals such as Amnon Rubinstein, Ruth Gavison, Ben-Dror Yemini and Gadi Taub are trying to “take back the left” from the moonbats. One can legitimately disagree with their anti-settler stance while still understanding the importance of their struggle.

So that’s it for the civilians. Next post, we’ll wrap it up with an epilogue discussing what all this might mean for us Orthodox Jews and the Jewishness of the country. I will also include a select bibliography of sources for those interested in learning more.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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1 Response to A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Chapter Three: The Civilian

  1. Pingback: A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Epilogue and Select Bibliography | QED

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