Are Israelis still Jewish?

Many years ago, in 1974, I talked with an elderly Rabbi from Novgorod (Russia). He appeared saddened and disappointed as he shared his thoughts with me: “Our people have not wielded a weapon or organized an army for almost two thousand years.” At that time, I was young, and our discussion revolved around Israel’s involvement in one of the various wars and acts of violence

In 2023, after half a century, most Holocaust survivors have passed away, and many of their children have also left us, leaving behind a generation of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have not experienced the tragedy of the Second World War and the horrors of Nazi-Fascist persecution. This age structure is particularly true in Israel, where the population is younger compared to Europe. Israeli citizens have grown up in a unique social, ethnic, political, and geographical context that distinguishes them from Western Europeans. They don’t know what it means to be a minority. The Jews from the regions of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires, where they once constituted a significant portion of the population, had little connection to the Western milieu. Millions of Jews emigrated to the United States from those regions starting in the 19th century. While facing discrimination like other newcomers, they gradually integrated into American society alongside Italians and, shortly after, the Irish immigrants. Jewish culture, after the trauma of Nazi persecution, has nearly vanished in Europe and has undergone significant transformations in North America.

Today, Israelis are a people who have become alienated from Jewish culture. They are no longer Jewish primarily in terms of culture, let alone religion. Having embraced the process of secularization, many Israelis are non-believers, and their Jewish identity is predominantly traditional and, above all, ethnic. It is worth considering even the racial aspects of Jewishness, given how Israel determines citizenship and immigration rights. Does the discussion on acquiring Israeli citizenship for immigrants follow the same terms as in Europe?

Of course, there are still numerous Jews in Israel and around the world who practice deep religiosity and spirituality, engaging virtuously with their faith, much like followers of other religions.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the religious fanatics of Judaism. However, it is essential to differentiate between religious fanaticism and religious sensitivity (which applies to all religions). True religion builds on culture, continuous interpretation (scriptural exegesis), and adaptation to contemporary conditions. Hence, religion is the opposite of fanaticism, which clings to empty rituals and ancient precepts detached from reality, often serving as a pretext to justify opportunistic actions.

Unfortunately, the Israelis have primarily erased the Jewish culture that once emphasized peace and coexistence.

Historically, Jews, especially Ashkenazim, were predominantly artisans and urban retailers. Others pursued nomadic lifestyles, working as street musicians, performers, junk dealers, chimney sweeps, and living in poverty, with a few exceptions. Among them, some individuals resorted to illicit activities. In the eyes of Gentiles, their way of life resembled that of the Roma community. Their distinct religion set them apart, contributing to their identification — and discrimination — and bound them together as a community.

In the pages of history, Jews have often been despised and marginalized, much like other impoverished minority groups. However, it is essential to acknowledge that Jews, along with the Roma and other people without a territory or away from their homeland, found integration within societies due to the roles they played and the natural human tendency to relate to others peacefully, generously, and with curiosity. The appreciation for diversity has always thrived among people. Regrettably, Gentiles occasionally reminded Jews of their collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, particularly during times of crisis or power struggles. It is noteworthy that Christian Zionists have shifted the blame for deicide to the Romans since the establishment of the State of Israel. We can observe this shift in several Hollywood films, such as “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” where Charlton Heston, the protagonist, emerged as a staunch supporter of the NRA while remaining a devout Christian conservative, or, as some may label him, a Christian Zionist.

From the 19th century onwards, in the Western world, Jews pursued liberal professions, politics, and industry, owing to the rise of secularization, the bourgeoisie, and the recognition of universal human rights. Remarkably, they integrated exceptionally well into the new bourgeois society than other ethnic groups. During this period, Judaism’s essence diminished, leaving behind empty rituals, traditions, and distinctions, as the shared religion of modernization and capitalism took precedence. It is essential to acknowledge that until the Second World War, vibrant multicultural cities in Central and Eastern Europe housed diverse communities, including poor and wealthy Jewish communities, living alongside Germans, Russians, Poles, and various other populations such as Ukrainians, Roma, Hungarians, Turks, Tatars, and more. While occasional conflicts and discrimination did arise, it is worth contemplating a revisionist approach to history, emphasizing the millennia-long coexistence, tolerance, and collaboration among different ethnic groups, as exemplified by Ivo Andrić in his book “The Bridge on the Drina” or Isaac Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin” just to quote a couple.

It is imperative to recognize that not all instances of prejudice can be attributed solely to generic anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. We often use these terms as pretexts for various motivations. The portrayal of anti-Judaism in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” for instance, demonstrates negative stereotypes alongside cases of integration between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. This portrayal differs from anti-Semitism, a new term and attitude that emerged in the 19th century and persisted until the mid-20th century. Similarly, the alleged anti-Semitism of today, if we can still employ the same term, is distinct from that of almost a century ago. Likewise, Zionism, an ideology that emerged over a century ago, does not align seamlessly with the current landscape of global geopolitics.

In conclusion, historians and scholars in political science are responsible for proposing interpretations that offer valuable insights into contemporary issues. It is incumbent upon scholars to develop fresh ideas that transcend the worn-out narratives of years, decades, and centuries, as these narratives fail to resolve present-day problems. Unfortunately, this task is not without challenges, as the cultural crisis within the Western world reflects in the conformism present in academic circles and a culture that often becomes subservient to governments or influential power groups.

The question remains: who will step forward with the courage to abandon ossified interpretations and embrace a virtuous and novel vision for the future world? Through such an audacious commitment, we can hope to foster a deeper understanding of the multifaceted history of Jews and pave the way for a more inclusive and enlightened future.

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