EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: It is not alleged “religionization” that threatens Israeli identity and deepens the cleavages in Israeli society but the absence of a mutually accepted contemporary Jewish common ground.
The millenarian exilic experience has deprived the Jewish People of the cultural wholeness underpinning the national existence, while the religious component that maintained it during these exacting times has failed to replace the intricate web of sociopolitical and intercommunal interrelationships that had formed the foundations of Jewish peoplehood. The reappearance of the Jewish People in the late 19th century as a national actor and the reestablishment of statehood in its ancestral homeland half a century later seemed to have redressed this anomaly. Yet as shown by the intensity of the ongoing debate about the desired nature of Israel’s Jewish identity, this issue remains a major challenge for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Take, for example, David Ben-Gurion’s late 1960s comment that, “twenty years after its creation, the Jewish State I hoped to establish still doesn’t exist, and who knows when it will arise.” Significantly enough, the former prime minister spoke about “the Jewish State” rather than “the state of the Jews.” For while according to the liberal outlook, a state is little more than an institutional-organizational mechanism for managing and regulating relations among citizens and as such cannot be Jewish (however many of its citizens identify as Jews), Ben-Gurion envisaged a state that would be Jewish in its ethos, substance, and attributes – in the national, not the theocratic, sense of the word. Indeed, even during their millenarian exilic experience, where the national aspect of their identity was superseded by its religious counterpart, Jewish communal life far exceeded the purely theocratic (halachic) dimension to include philosophical thought and mythology (agada), morality, culture, social interaction, and – above all – a religious-national yearning for a return to the ancestral homeland.