Close observers of Israeli politics could be forgiven for thinking they have fallen into the film Groundhog Day, where a character played by Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again in excruciating detail. The Israeli electorate now faces their fourth national election in two years after the coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to agree a budget. The country is yet again in a pre-electoral holding pattern, with the exception of the Covid vaccine roll out. As the case of Northern Ireland (2017-20) showed in recent years, it is amazing how long countries can keep public services going while politicians naval-gaze and grapple with each other for one more ounce of political capital. But such naval gazing also increases suffering among those who need politicians to park political survival/ambition at the door and get on with governing justly and well.
Some Jewish-Israelis may feel a certain sense of ‘peace-related’ political momentum from the Trump Administration’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and diplomatic relations established between Israel and Arab League states (UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco at time of writing). But for Palestinians, deepening Occupation since Oslo negotiations failed to achieve a two state solution (2000) has come to feel like a near-permanent Groundhog Day. Both Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis have grown cynical and resigned about cyclical wars and ceasefires (2006-) between the Israel Defence Forces and Palestinian resistance factions in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
This post-Oslo Israeli-Palestinian political paralysis is the backdrop to my new book, Religion, War and Israel’s Secular Millennials: Being Reasonable? (Manchester University Press). While writing the book, I asked two questions:
- As a young ‘secular’ Jew, what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict post-Oslo when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just fringe figures, have used ethno-religious symbols to motivate and divide?
- What do violent political conflicts look and feel like to people who claim to somewhat distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?
For the past 15 years I have been interested in how people who describe their sensibilities as ‘secular’ or ‘not especially religious’ understand war and violence. For 12 years, I co-ran a research network which investigates how people shape their lives within and beyond religious tradition.
There is a lot of great research on how religious and ethnic symbols help fuel and can also be used to end national conflicts. But hardly anything at all has been written about how this other realm of human experience – where people have mixed feelings about religion generally and the lived religious traditions into which they were born specifically – intersects with war and violence.
Israel is an interesting case for studying these things, not least because it has experienced repeated wars but also because Judaism is central to social life, politics and state law. About 40% of the society claims to be largely non-observant hilonim (Cooperman, Sahgal and Schiller 2016). This term, hiloni, translates imperfectly into English as ‘secular Jew’. I think of this not as a religious group, but a religio-class. They are largely middle class, with about two thirds Ashkenazi or of European descent and one third Mizrahi, descended from Middle Eastern Jews.
However, Judaism fundamentally shapes the daily lives even of Jews who say they ‘only celebrate the holidays’ through ‘Jewish popular culture’ (Liebman 1998). Judaism also has a privileged position in state law, further reinforced by 2018 changes to its Basic Law, or constitutional structure. Still, I argue in the book that we can indeed study what Talal Asad (2003) calls ‘the power of the secular’ in Israel, but we need to recognize that it has a ‘Jewish valence’ (Razon 2016).
Israel has changed a lot since the 1980s. Its political elite diversified beyond the secular Ashkenazi ‘veteran’ group which founded the state and ran it for 30 years; it has shifted to a capitalist, neo-liberal economy; globalization and inward immigration have brought new ideas, including non-Jewish spiritual ones; at the same time, Jewish beliefs and practices have become more prominent in public life and politics, what some call religionization or hadatah in Hebrew; renewed debated over Israel’s status as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ (2011-18) have brought religio-ethnic identity to the forefront of popular imagination; and Israel has experienced a failed peace process and repeated wars with the Palestinians as well as a strengthened security-political-economic apparatus of Occupation. As a result, the population has moved to the right politically, and a Peace Movement which reached its high point in the 1990s has grown very small.
All these trajectories intensified during the 2000s and 2010s, when millennials, the group I studied, became young adults. In the book I focus on the ‘generational memory’ (Mannheim 1952) of hiloni millennials, born 1980-1995.
Almog and Almog (2015; 2019) published a large study on this generation, surveying 1000 people, including millennials, their parents, university lecturers and employers. I did my fieldwork in the two years after the 2014 Gaza war and built on their work but looking much more closely at how hiloni millennials see the dynamics of religio-ethnic nationalism, which has been under-studied. There is a popular perception that Jewish-Israeli society is growing more religious and also more right wing. But what does that really mean and how do people feel about it?
For two years after 2014 Gaza-Israel war, I did fieldwork and conducted 50 in-depth interviews with a diverse sample of self-identified hiloni millennials, focusing on what it was like to come of age as a ‘secular Jew’ in Israel after the failure of Oslo; surveyed 90 of this demographic; did 20 in-depth interviews with others, many older or not hiloni; and carefully analysed public opinion polls, memoirs, media coverage, government, UN and civil society documents.
As I say in the introduction to the book there are many different, interesting books someone could have written about hiloni Israeli millennials. My long-term interest is in the intersection between violence, religion and the secular, so the case studies reflect this. I looked in detail at their feelings towards jihad and Islam; towards Jewish identity in the Israel Defence Forces; towards conflict over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount; and what it feels like to live through a violent attack. I aimed to tell new stories that would interest both scholars engaged in the comparative study of religion and violence and also Jewish-Israelis very familiar with their own society. There is still much more to write about how Jewishness, secularity and Zionism are evolving among millennials in Israel.
What was my main finding?
My research was with hiloni millennials across the political spectrum from right to left. Hiloni youth were the backbone of the Peace Movement in the 1980s and 1990s but today are fairly evenly split across the political spectrum. What I found, even among self-identified left-wingers who support a Palestinian state, was an idea that continuing Occupation indefinitely, Groundhog Day style, is ‘reasonable if regrettable’. And I found this to be related to the power of the Jewish valenced secular in Israel in a way that is not obvious at first glance.
That they would feel this way is not surprising. The popular explanation for this emphasizes conflict fatigue, the economy and immigration from the former Soviet Union. This is the generation who fought in four (and now since 2019, five) wars against Hamas and Islamic Jihad and once against Hezbollah. They grew up on the other side of Israel’s various Separation Barriers/Walls, separated physically and psychologically from Palestinians, with politicians in the mainstream stressing the exclusively Jewish character of the state. They have absorbed their politicians’ messages that while ‘there is no Palestinian partner for peace’, it’s best to concentrate on the economy and on their own lives and futures. Popular explanations also emphasize that hilonim from the former Soviet Union have swelled the secular right wing and that because the country is becoming ‘more religious’, even those ‘not very religious’ are being swept along with the tide.
However, these explanations leave out agency. People aren’t just puppets who think and do what the media and politicians tell them. We need to look beyond public opinion polls or social media to see this more clearly. To understand what is happening, I suggest we need to look more holistically at individuals’ lives and think more deeply about two things: how secular Judaism is evolving in Israel and also the extent to which millennials are influenced by globalized youth culture, including non-Jewish ethical and spiritual ideas.
We also need to think more creatively and expansively about what secular Jewishness in Israel is and how it shapes individual sensibilities – beyond, for example, how people selectively keep halakha (Jewish law) or how early Zionist settlers mobilized Jewish symbols to facilitate ethno-nationalism.
Further developing an observation Talal Asad (2003) made in Formations of the Secular, I observed what I call a neo-Romantic sensibility among hiloni millennials.
Nineteenth-century Romantics in Western Europe tried to find new ways to live a sincere, authentic life in line with their personal intuition and emotional experience. Romantics promoted greater self-expression – but also greater attachment to one’s nation. They also sought new ways to achieve transcendence beyond, but also within religious tradition, particularly via the arts. Jewish thinkers influenced by Romanticism were excited about how creative individuals could interpret Jewish tradition and develop new ways of being meaningfully Jewish for themselves, beyond rabbinical authority.
While there is no direct historical connection between hiloni millennials and the 19th-century Romantics, I found similar sensibilities among them. Like the Romantics (and also millennials around the world), my interviewees had a commitment to self-expression and emphasised sincerity and personal experience. They were interested in philosophical exploration within and beyond Judaism. Hiloni culture has also evolved. New Age spirituality and Mizrahi motifs have become mainstream, echoing 19th-century Romantics’ emphasis on emotion. The internet has facilitated even greater self-experimentation and expression than in previous generations. Economic and political conditions in Israel has increased their focus on their own lives.
Hiloni millennials, like the Romantics and indeed like Western millennials around the world, rely heavily on their own experiences as a personal moral compass to help them make decisions. ‘Personal experience’ included what happened to them and how they felt about it and also expert opinions they had independently researched. Hiloni millennials across the political spectrum saw themselves as what I call ‘fulcrum citizens’. Drawing on their personal compass, they described themselves as the most rational and moderate of moderates balancing out extremists among Palestinians and other Jewish-Israelis. They emphasized looking at the facts, at evidence – but they read the evidence a particular way. But hiloni millennials have grown up under deeper conditions of Separation from Palestinians since the failure of Oslo, so that experience is by and large within Jewish-Israeli society. This shapes their views and where their empathy often, though not always, lies.
New ways to study political violence and the secular
Besides a story about ongoing Occupation and hiloni millennials post-Oslo, the book also intervenes in comparative academic debates about religion, ethnic nationalism and political violence. In these, the ‘secular’ remains often taken for granted and under-theorized. The book considers: what do national conflicts articulated by some of their participants in religio-ethnic terms ‘feel like’ to ‘secular’ people? The case study powerfully demonstrates the many ways in which these conflicts feel ambiguous. This is not surprising. People have mixed feelings about most things - even grand social schemas (like Zionism) into which people are heavily socialized by their families or the state.
But to understand more about how this ambivalence works, we scholars much need to pay greater attention to the individual level. The literature on religion and conflict has had surprisingly little to say about the salience of religio-ethnic symbols to individuals, something Brubaker (2015, 10) briefly notes but does not fully unpack.
For example, I found that religio-ethnic solidarity in an era of religio-ethnic mobilization is both as important and less important than we might have thought to individual ‘secular’ Jews. Yes, Jewish solidarity was important. No, face-to-face encounters with Palestinians did not necessarily breed cross-national solidarity. Yes, stereotypes – about Palestinians, about other Jews – were held, believed, repeated. Yes, Zionism and state discourse shaped what people said and often how they lived. But all along the way, personal experience mattered far more than Zionism or Israeli national identity to what people felt. Sometimes however, as in this case of Occupation and Separation, personal experience is only with one’s own group. This is why state ideology and discourse can seem so powerfully determinant but when we probe below the surface, individual factors matter more.
In the book I develop a new theoretical framework to help us understand how attitudes to religion and political violence respectively intersect and shape one another. This frame uses Bourdieu’s conceptions of field and habitus, married to Schutz’s conception of the lifeworld. It has the potential for broader application to the study of religion and political violence for a range of case studies.
However, this framework comes with the caveat. We cannot assume a priori that ‘secular’ individuals’ attitudes towards political conflict and religion do intersect in ways which impact conflict. For example, I told participants prior to the interview that they would be asked about two topics: 1) how they feel about being a secular Jew 2) what they think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This allowed participants to reject the idea that there were any connections in their views on the two topics and for rejection to be accounted for in the analysis.
This project also benefited from a methodological toolbox for studying the individual which has not yet been used to study religion and political conflict. The Nonreligious Studies literature has spent the past 15 years exploring: How do people draw positively on resources within and beyond the traditions into which they were born and live to fashion their worldviews and meaning-making practices?1 Scholars have produced rich, empirical research on a variety of non-Western, non-Christian case studies of individuals and their close social networks, including on the Arab world, Turkey, Japan and South Asia, problematizing Protestant-tinged terms ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ as categories of analysis. Read in conjunction with a vibrant literature on Judaism, some of these insights were adapted to the case. This is one more step along the road, but there is still much more to explore.
1 Lee (2015) defines the nonreligious as ‘all positions which are necessarily defined in relation to religion but which are considered to be other than religious’ – including atheism, agnosticism, humanism, rationalism, and some forms of spirituality.
Almog, Tamar and Oz Almog, Millennials: Generation Snowflake? London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2019.
Almog, Oz and Tamar Almog, Generation Y – Research Report. Haifa: The Samuel Neaman Institute for Policy Research Press, 2015. [Hebrew]
Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Brubaker, Rogers. “Religious Dimensions of Political Conflict and Violence”, Sociological Theory 33, no. 1 (2015): 1-19.
Cooperman, Alan, Nehal Sahgal and Anna Schiller. “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society.” Pew Research Center, 8 March 2016. www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/.
Lee, Lois. Recognizing the Non-religious, Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Liebman, Charles. “Secular Judaism and Its Prospects.” Israel Affairs, 4, no. 3-4 (1998): 29-48.
Mannheim, Karl. "The Problem of Generations." In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, 276-322. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.
Razon, Na’amah. “Entangled Bodies: Jews, Bedouins, and the Making of the Secular Israeli.” Medical Anthropology 35, no. 3 (2016): 291-304.