Lifestyle & Belief

Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel still finding itself


Israelis stand next to sales promotion sign after a corner stone laying ceremony for a new Jewish neighborhood on August 11, 2013 in East Jerusalem, Israel. Israel's Housing Ministry announced Sunday the marketing of land for the immediate construction of nearly 1,200 new units in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs.


Lior Mizrahi

The Jewish High Holidays begin Wednesday at sundown. This year's "Days of Awe" bring a somber anniversary. It is 40 years since Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur. It was as close as the Jewish state would ever come to defeat and remains a trauma for the country.

Much has changed in the last four decades, though the intractable problem of Israel's relationship to the Palestinians remains unsolved. But the biggest change of all is within the global Jewish community.

What does it mean to be Jewish today for the world's 13.4 million Jews? This is not just a question of religion or heritage. It is a social question and a political question. As in all questions about identity, the answer is complicated but what makes this one unique is it has geopolitical consequences for the whole world.

In this series of analysis and commentary, Michael Goldfarb looks at the contemporary meaning of Jewishness in America, Israel and Europe. Goldfarb is a GlobalPost relgion writer and author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance.

LONDON — The stars have been out in Israel recently. Israel's President Shimon Peres, great survivor of Israeli politics and Grand Old Man of the Peace Process, turned 90.

Barbra Streisand, who rarely sings in public, gave a rousing show

Former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair sat close to the guest of honor.

They didn't have a celebration like this when the State of Israel celebrated its 65th Birthday back in May. Maybe it's easier to remember the good times, when Peres and the late former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made peace, than analyze too closely the incredible changes in Israeli society — and what it means to be Jewish in that society — since a Jewish religious settler put a bullet through Rabin's heart in November 1995.

Since then the peace process has unraveled. Israel has built a wall to separate itself from the Palestinians, withdrawn from Gaza, reinvaded Gaza twice and has embarked on a campaign of settlement building in the disputed West Bank that dwarfs anything that went before.

Peres' center-liberal Labour Party, once Israel's main party of government, has become a political irrelevance as Israeli society becomes more religious and right-wing.

This change in society is mirrored in the idea of Jewishness in Israel. It may seem redundant to talk about Jewish identity in Israel. It's the Jewish state, after all. But 20 percent of Israelis are ethnically Arab, and most of that 20 percent is Muslim.

The changes in Jewish Israeli identity can be seen in the tensions about Israeli policy in the occupied territories.

The biggest change has been caused by the arrival of one million Jews from the former Soviet Union, starting in the early 1990s.

Many of these emigres are right-wing by inclination and uncompromising by experience. It's a Russian thing, explains Lily Galili, author of "The MIllion That Changed the Middle East."

"They are Russian in the way they conceive of territory," Galili explains. "They come from this enormous country and when they get here they are shocked by the size of Israel. Is this all, they ask?"

She adds, "They take a Soviet view of conquered territory: you never give it back."

They are nationalists in a way that previously only ultra-religious Jews in Israel were. But most of the Russian emigres are not religious. Having grown up in the atheist Soviet Union, many had only a nodding acquaintance with Jewish religious practice.

"You have this huge group of secular Jews taking on the symbols embraced by the religious Jews, but they have no interest in religion," says the author. "This has caused a major crisis of Israeli identity."

But the biggest difference between the million Russians and earlier Israelis is "They came for reasons of immigration, not aliyah."

Aliyah means "going up" in Hebrew. In the modern sense, aliyah is what a Jew from the diaspora does when he moves to Israel. Since Israel's founding in 1948, close to 3 million Jews from around the world have made aliyah. One third of that total came from Russia in the 1990s — a massive number in a very short time. But many chose Israel because they could not get the right to settle elsewhere, like in the US.

Now representing 17 percent of the population, the Russians were bound to change Israel. One immediate impact has been in politics. The new immigrants bring a Soviet cultural fondness for the strong leader. Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer from Moldova, is their main political man. Lieberman heads the Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Israel) party. He was foreign minister until late last year when he was charged with fraud and breach of trust.

Lieberman's unsavory reputation doesn't seem to bother the Russian immigrants.

"They call him the Israeli Putin," notes Galili.

Perhaps the critical, insurmountable difference between the new community and the older Israeli community is that the Russian immigrants missed the foundational conflicts that defined Israel.

In the first 25 years of its existence, Israel fought four major wars against combined Arab armies. These conflicts forged an Israeli identity that was Jewish but not religious, according to historian Abe Rabinovich.  

"The wars Israel has fought with the Arabs have not been religious wars but nationalistic or ethnic wars," explains Rabinovich, whose most recent book looks at the critical sea battle that helped turn the tide of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

"The Zionists, pre-state, were not out to rebuild the Jewish temple but to establish a homeland in which a new Jew — vigorous, self-confident, and rooted could develop."

Rabinovich continues, "The Arabs resisted. They were basically objecting to an outside group laying claim to territory the Arabs considered theirs. While religion figured large in their rhetoric, they reacted as any ethnic group that had been challenged would."

But that was then. Now, according to author Galili, things are changing dramatically. "Israelis are becoming more religious. The Zionist dream was to create an Israeli identity — of which being a religious Jew was a part.”

But, Galili adds, these are uncertain times. "In uncertain times you go back to the basic and the basic is Jewishness in the religious sense. This is the ’Jewish‘ state."

For Galili this creates a huge problem in the international sphere. "We are threatened by Iran and the world because we are Jewish — not Israel, a state with certain policies. We are threatened because we are Jewish."

Galili acknowledges that the inability of Israel's enemies to make the distinction between Jews and Israel frightens her, because in her mind, there are considerable differences between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

"Our life is very different, my two sons’ lives are very different from an American Jew,” she says.

The biggest difference, aside from the fact that they grow up speaking Hebrew, is that every Israeli serves in the Army. Galili and her children have fought in wars to defend the state.

There is another thing. Only in Israel can a Jew experience the feeling of being in the majority. Galili emigrated from Poland in the mid-1950s, so she understands the difference.

"Once in my life I was a minority. I was a prominent 7-year-old communist," she says with light-hearted irony. "I cannot be a minority again."

She also acknowledges what I as a diaspora Jew often feel, that Israelis feel that they are different and more "Jewish" than other Jews. Jews differ from country to country, she says.

"French Jews are not like British Jews or Jews in Australia. We are united in some ways but separate. When I meet diaspora Jews I have a sense of superiority," says Galili.

This may explain recent findings of a Jerusalem Post poll. American Jews are deeply concerned about Israeli government policies, particularly on the peace process. But a recent poll showed that one-third of Israelis thought American Jews should butt out.

Half of Israelis polled felt that American Jews did not have a "meaningful connection" to Israel.

"Meaningful" seems a vague word to put into this kind of polling. I have never met an American Jew, even the most critical of Israeli policy, who did not feel a "meaningful" connection to the Jewish state for this reason:

In the 19th century, a Jew was a Jew — whether born on Polish or French or German soil. The discrimination that came because of that fact led Jewish thinkers to dream of creating a Jewish state. 

Zionism was invented as a political theory to deal with the lack of national soil. The reality of Israel, carved out through politics and battle, is the result. This may explain why author Lily Galili looks at diaspora Jews like me and says. "I really have this primitive belief that Jews should live in Israel."

Read Part One of this series, For American Jews, an identity crisis

Read Part Three of this series, Beyond the land of ghosts in Europe