Commentary Magazine

Israel’s Political Challenge

To the Editor:

As a relatively recent oleh and a long-standing admirer of Ruth R. Wisse, I found myself in agreement with her perception of the melding of Israeli culture taking place here [“Notes Toward an Israeli Jewish Culture,” October 2013]. As she points out, there might be some hyper-extrapolating of a few poignant anecdotal encounters. But I now have four years of such encounters, and they are real and growing.

Israel is a strong civic society beset with a dysfunctional political system. Its beauty and strength are seen best up close and not from 30,000 feet up. A narcissistic press and an increasingly embittered set of left-leaning cultural elites have not prevented regular people from trying to find some common ground with those of different backgrounds and different convictions.

For starters, as in the United States, intermarriage here is rampant. We Jews seem to be inexorably drawn to the “Other.” However, here that “Other” is still a Jew, just one from a very different ethnic or religious background, or even socio-economic standing. Few people even notice it any more when Sephardim and Ashkenazim marry. Yemenites have long been mainstreamed, the Russians increasingly so, and it will not be too long before we start to see significant numbers of Ethiopians marrying everyone else. As to the religious part of the melding, I am reminded of the old Israeli aphorism that “the shul we never go into has to be completely frum.”

The intense dislike of the Chief Rabbinate and the political aspects of religion make for a skepticism toward any denomination that appears to be staking out its own ideological agenda. In that regard, Sephardim, who have a history of accommodating a bigger tent, tend to be more successful in finding middle grounds and ways to include the nondogmatic seekers.

 I would share Ms. Wisse’s optimism for the future here based on the quiet recognition that while organized, politicized Judaism might be the problem, Jewishness is the inescapable solution. We are likely to see Jewish practice take on its own uniquely Israeli sensibility, a very exciting prospect as we see the continued grass-roots development of a distinctive Israeli Jewish culture.

Douglas Altabef
Rosh Pina, Israel

Ruth R. Wisse writes:

I’m grateful to Douglas Altabef for his supportive and encouraging letter. But though he and I strongly appreciate the unifying potential of Jewishness in Israel’s civic society, nothing supersedes a resilient political system. Politics has traditionally been the weak point in an otherwise robust Jewish way of life. Now that Jews have recovered their homeland, their efforts (in America as well as in Israel) ought to ensure greater maturity and deeper wisdom in political affairs. The Jewishness that encourages familial solidarity, cooperation, and mutual regard must leave room for the political strains of democratic society that nonetheless yield to the exigencies of common threats to Jews.

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