Israeliness : The Zionist Idea Who’s Time has Come

President Reuven Rivlin addresses the Herzliya Conference, June 7, 2015; photo courtesy GPO/Mark Neiman.
President Reuven Rivlin addresses the Herzliya Conference, June 7, 2015; photo courtesy GPO/Mark Neiman.

By Robert Hyfler

This month, at the prestigious Herzliya Conference, Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, gave a speech that should be read, studied and discussed (not simply summarized as I do here) in both Israel and the Diaspora.

He observes that modern Israel is composed of four distinct communities, secular, Haredi, Arab and national religious – each of which occupy their own physical and psychological space. While a potential source of societal implosion, this reality also presents the opportunity for something positive and different – Israeliness. He posits four pillars of a renewed Israeli identity:

The first is a sense of security for each sector, that entry into this partnership does not require giving up basic elements of their identity…

The second pillar is shared responsibility. When no tribe is a minority, no side can escape bearing responsibility for the destiny and the future of the State of Israel, and of Israeli society in general…

The third pillar, is equity and equality. In order to ensure the partnership… we must ensure that no citizen is discriminated against, nor favored, simply because they belong to a specific sector. The current situation of structural gaps between the partners, whether in budgets, infrastructures or land, is intolerable…

The fourth, and the most challenging pillar, is the creation of a shared Israeli character – a shared ‘Israeliness’. Despite the challenges the ‘new Israeli order’ poses, we must recognize that we are not condemned to be punished by the developing Israeli mosaic – but rather it offers a tremendous opportunity. It encompasses cultural richness, inspiration, humanity and sensitivity…”

This is my midrash on what I read.

Israeliness can become the next phase of the Zionist experiment. The Zionist founders, Herzl, Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky understood, in their unique ways, that the day was coming.

Reduced to basics, Zionism itself can be stated in terms of two basic propositions – Miklat and Mercaz.

Miklat posits the ingathering of Jewish populations to guarantee their physical and spiritual survival and their integration into a sustainable citizenry. It also implies a perpetual concern on the part of the state for the safety and survival of Jews worldwide.

Mercaz is the revitalization of the historic Jewish cultural, moral and spiritual conversation begun at Sinai and now in the context of a large and dynamic Hebrew culture in Eretz Yisrael.

Moving forward with the concept of Israeliness, a state where all its citizens are stakeholders in its future, and schooled by self-interest in social responsibility, offers the greatest guarantor of its future sustainability and contributes mightily toward mitigating external threats.

A society that promotes civil and political equality models that which is best and most enduring of Jewish values and sets by example an expectation that other states must adhere to in the treatment of their citizenry and minorities. It enhances the ability of the Jewish state to speak and act in defense of Jewish communities worldwide.

Israeliness creates new ground for the global Jewish conversation and positions Israeli society as a practical every day laboratory of Jewish values.

By the inclusion of non-Jewish Israelis in the national conversation, Israeliness opens Israel to the world and continues a Jewish rooted humanism that represents that which was best in the Diaspora experience whether (imperfectly at times to be sure) in Sepharad, the Ottoman Empire, the emancipated West or America.

A state which nurtures the human potential of all, and promotes tzedek chevrati, social justice, exponentially increases its human capital.

Israeliness further allows for collaborations and problem solving in times of both opportunity and challenge. While not a panacea for all societal ills, Israeliness opens doors and eliminates roadblocks that can often hold a nation back.

Israeliness, by its very nature, would promote group diversity and allow each group, freely and at its own pace, to adapt (or not adapt) the lessons and strengths of other communities. Unique communities within the Israeli mosaic, Ethiopians, Sephardim, Jews of the FSU, would have the license and space to explore their historical roots and define their respective role in Israeli society.

Israeliness can be good for religious communities – all religious communities. It by implication posits spheres of private group religious (and a-religious) exploration where unique social and moral values and lifestyles can flourish. In a culture where Israeliness is dominant, intra-Jewish conversations can occur independent of the political competition for power and scarce resources.

The President of Israel has, through the above referenced speech, legitimized an important conversation, exciting to some, threatening to others. All who value the future of Zionism and Israel should engage.

Robert Hyfler holds a PhD in Political Science, is a product of day schools, the Brooklyn Jewish experience and Zionist camping. He has over three decades of experience in Jewish communal work. He can be reached at bobhyfler@comcast.net