Salvaging Israeli Secular Culture
Erica Weiss, Tel Aviv University
In 1970, Jacob Gruber coined the term “salvage anthropology” to describe the practice of 19th century ethnographers documenting the languages and cultures of those peoples threatened by extinction due to European and American colonialism. And so, it is somewhat ironic that this practice of recording vanishing cultures is just what jumps to my mind as I read Stacey Gutkowski’s account of modern secular Israelis. This is hyperbole of course. Secular Israelis are not vanishing per se; they still comprise about 40% of the Jewish population of the state. But, they are indeed an embattled minority, who have experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes over the short history of the Israeli state. After the Israeli state was created in 1948, secular Ashkenazi Jews made up about 80 percent of the population. They defined the cultural norms of the public sphere and held most of the positions of political authority. The state’s laws and institutions were largely based on their vision of a secular European-style society. This group is sometimes referred to by the acronym Ahusalim, which is composed of the first letter of the Hebrew words for Ashkenazi, secular, old guard, socialists, and nationalists. Their political power was concentrated in the Labor Party, which dominated the Israeli establishment, unchallenged, for nearly 30 years. Today, their ranks are halved, and in the upcoming 2021 election, there are serious doubts as to whether the flagship party will even get enough votes to cross the threshold for inclusion in the next government.
While their fall has been more gradual and less violent than the overthrowing of other ruling classes, it has nevertheless been an epic downfall. Some of this is purely demographic. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, a mere 0.4 percent of the population in 1948, are now more than 12 percent, and rising fast. Today Mizrahi Jews outnumber Ashkenazi Jews, but few define themselves as secular, in no small part because the religious-secular divide was largely a European invention and was unfamiliar to them coming from the Middle East and North Africa. The same is true of Palestinian-Israeli society, where secularism is similarly foreign, and according to my research, morally suspect. But, to some extent this group also committed political suicide. The Israeli secular elites were arrogant, and convinced of the cultural superiority of their own worldview and values. (These are my words, not Gutkowski’s; I have no idea whether she would sign up to my “brutal” analysis here.) They paternalistically sought to educate and modernize religious Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and Palestinians alike, leading to resentment and anger that is palpable to this day, and ultimately for religious Jews to turn on them politically and end their hegemony.
Gutkowski’s research allows us to witness how these demographic and political shifts are experienced from the inside, in her words “how it feels”. She further offers us a window to the political nuance involved in their fall. As she notes, Israeli seculars were the base of the political left, and the base of the Israeli peace camp. The era of the Oslo Accords could be described as the “last hurrah” of this group. Their waning power has dealt a serious if not fatal blow to the left, and the peace camp has gone down with the ship. At the same time, she shows that they have largely abandoned their commitment to these values, opting for an approach of rational self-interest, an ironic shift for the group who prided itself on being the inheritors of the settler/founder’s legacy of self-sacrifice. (There are a number of grassroots religious peace initiatives emerging that might perhaps take up the “peace torch”.) One can sense from Gutkowski’s account that secular Israelis experience significant internal contradiction, and perhaps even regret. Many, especially the liberal ones, affirm the importance of religious/ethnic identity in accordance with Zionist ideology, yet are uncomfortable with the political implications of this stance. This is a portrait of a group on the defensive, and likely on the decline, which reveals very different dynamics, self-preservation rather than principled stands, than an ascendant political force.
Response to Gutkowski
Guy Ben-Porat, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Having the pleasure to read this book, I agree that studying secularity is of special significance, especially when, as Gutkowski notes, we are able to account for both complexity and particularities. To begin with, self-identification as Hiloni might contradict other sensibilities, identities and practices. Many of them, in the past and currently, will make choices and relate to religion in different ways. Thus alludes of course to the fact that being Jewish is both a religious and an ethnic definition, the two overlapping but also in tension. While their leaders use ethno-religious symbols, their interpretation by young Hilonim might be different, emphasizing the ethnic and the dividing line between “us” (Israeli Jews) and “them” (Palestinians). The ongoing conflict is often explained by “their” (Palestinian) religiosity making “them” unreasonable, a perception that can find support in the US and Europe. Consequently, they concentrate “on their own lives and futures” but also accept the massage that “we shall live by our sword forever,” which is religious but also presented as a real-world political axiom. Finally, these young millennials live in a country that is at the same time secularizing and becoming more religious, becoming more liberal and tolerant but also more illiberal. These paradoxes can be understood when we observe not only the limits of liberalization but also its boundaries.