Israel’s changing identity, diversity


The State of Israel at 60 years of independence has undergone several transformations since its founding on May 14, 1948, and its identity, degree of diversity and other issues are markedly different from the vision of its founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, according to Professor Fred Lazin, the Lynn and Lloyd Hurst Family Professor of Local Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Lazin offered a major address on “Israel at 60: Israel’s Changing Identity, Diversity and Future of the Negev,” as part of a series of programs hosted and sponsored by Central Reform Congregation.

Rabbi Susan Talve of CRC introduced Lazin as “not only a great scholar, but one who is consistently described as a humanitarian, whose work is always infused by ethics and morals.” She added that Lazin is originally from Boston, was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Massachusetts, and received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. “Fred Lazin’s latest book, on Soviet Jewry was named the ‘Best Book on Politics’ by the Israeli Political Science Association.”

In his remarks, Lazin reflected on the Zionist outlook of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, and the Israeli leader who was determined to “make the desert bloom,” which was accomplished in the Negev desert, where Ben-Gurion is buried, and where Lazin’s university, which bears Ben-Gurion’s name is located.

“Today’s Israel, indeed the Israel of practically every decade from Ben-Gurion’s days until now is very different from that envisioned by Ben-Gurion and other early Zionist leaders,” Lazin said. “The collective identity, what does it mean to be an Israeli has undergone several transformations since 1948, and is continuing to be transformed every year,” he added.

“In the early days, the late 1940s and the 1950s, Ben-Gurion had a vision of what he wanted Israelis to be. Up until the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 there were a lot of changes in Israel, changes which help explain the character of Israel in 2008.”

One of the early operating goals of Ben-Gurion which took on the qualities of a myth, according to Lazin was the concept of Israel as a “Melting Pot,” a concept once applied to the United States. “The idea was that Jews from 110 different countries would come to Israel, learn Hebrew and end up becoming Israelis. Ben-Gurion had no interest in continuing separate cultures of Jews from North Africa or from the shtetl culture of Eastern Europe. He wanted a socialist, modern, very Jewish but also secular and egalitarian state with a strong Western orientation. Ben-Gurion was also interested in the Bible descriptions of ancient Israel and Judah more than rabbinic interpretations in the Talmud,” Lazin said.

Lazin said that Ben-Gurion and other Zionists of the early days of the State of Israel “did not want a Yiddish or English-speaking population; they wanted Israelis to speak modern Hebrew, and wanted most of the children to attend public schools.”

He added that Ben-Gurion made “three compromises” with his overall principles which had lasting consequences for Israel:

* The National Religious Party, originally the Mizrachi Religious Zionists were invited to join Ben-Gurion’s coalition. “The NRP was nationalistic, religious and not secular and yet its members supported the Jewish State,” Lazin said.

* The ultra-Orthodox were accommodated. “Because of the Holocaust, when Israel was founded, only 1 percent of the Jewish population could be called ultra-Orthodox, and they were given the right to establish their own private religious schools instead of going to the public schools which Ben-Gurion strongly supported. Over the years, this group has grown substantially in numbers and influence from the early days in which it was not as major a factor in Israeli decision-making and policies,” Lazin said.

* The Israeli Arabs. At the start, the Israeli Arabs were 15 to 18 percent of the Israeli population. They were originally not part of the body politic. Ben-Gurion allowed them to organize their own, separate public schools.

In the years that followed, Lazin added, Israel was to grow very rapidly in population and other ways. “Ben-Gurion for a long time resisted allowing Israel to have television. When TV did come, at first there was only one channel; now we have many, including access to Arab and U.S. TV via cable and syndication. In addition, between 1948 when the Jewish population was about 600,000 and 1960, Israel’s population grew to 2 million; today it is over 5 million.”

One of the first large groups of immigrants which Israel welcomed were Jews from Arab and Muslim lands, Sephardic or Mizrachi Jews. “At first, these Jews were stripped of their individualized culture, sent to development towns without kosher food or rabbis, and sometimes they had to work on Shabbat,” Lazin said. In more recent years, the Sephardic population has become more assertive of its religious and cultural differences, has formed influential political and religious parties and has assumed leadership positions within Israel, Lazin indicated.

Lazin indicated that after Israel’s difficulties in the Yom Kippur War, the Labor government of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was forced from office, and in 1977, Menachem Begin, leader of the Likud Party opposition became prime minister. It was during Begin’s term that the peace treaty with Egypt was negotiated with the strong assistance of then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

More recent trends according to Lazin include “the strong Americanization of Israeli society, including lots of McDonalds franchises, MTV, and very popular re-runs of American shows like Friends and Seinfeld on Israeli TV.

“Also, the influx of 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union has had a profound impact on Israeli society,” said Lazin, whose newest book is about the Soviet Jewry movement. “Some 95 percent or more of the Russian Jews in Israel are non-religious, and they were the first group to go through a direct absorption into Israel.”

Lazin said, “Israel today is a nation of dichotomies. Some 90 percent of Israelis want Israel to remain a Jewish State but do not agree on what kind of Jewish State it should be. About half of Israelis want a ‘live and let live’ approach; another half are less tolerant of differences. It could be said that diversity rather than unity more accurately describes the Israel of today, which differs from the Israel envisioned by Ben-Gurion, and which no doubt will continue to evolve and change in Israel’s next decades,” Lazin concluded.