Israelis and Jews: The Continuity of an Identity.
by Simon N. Herman.
Random House. 331 pp. $8.95.
Israeli sociology and social psychology have constantly sought to emphasize the universal rather than the particular. This inclination has prevailed even when the subject under investigation is an institution found only in Israeli society. Thus, for example, research on the kibbutz has focused on what that institution can teach us about problems which all societies face: the dilemmas of child-rearing, the traumas of adolescence, and the role conflicts of women. The Israeli researcher generally treats as incidental the fact that kibbutzniks are Jews who live in a Jewish society.
The reason for this stress on the universal is not hard to locate. Israeli sociologists and social psychologists have prized their membership in the international community of scholars, and they have regarded that membership as contingent upon avoiding research which might stamp them as parochial. Their reference group, to use the terminology of the trade, has been international rather than national. As a consequence, Israel’s social scientists have frequently neglected problems of essential importance to the society of which they are a part.
There are exceptions to the general rule. The most notable is Simon Herman, a social psychologist who holds an appointment in the Hebrew University’s Department of Psychology as well as in its Institute of Contemporary Jewry. In contrast to his colleagues, Herman has continually occupied himself with issues that are specific to Israel. As a long-time disciple of the late Kurt Lewin, he has taken as his starting point Lewin’s general analytical framework as well as the specific orientation to Jewish identity which Lewin came to develop during the latter half of his career.
Israelis and Jews adds to the reputation which Herman established for himself by earlier published works on Israeli responses to the Eichmann trial, and on attitude changes among American-Jewish students who spent a year in Israel. Israelis and Jews is in fact the logical culmination of Herman’s long-term concern with a crucial problem which is special to Israeli society—the problem of Jewishness. Israelis and Jews, however, is more than a tentative first step in this underresearched field; it constitutes a definitive study of the problem, and one hopes that it will also signal a new direction for Israeli social science as a whole.
The core of Israelis and Jews is an attitude survey administered in 1964-5 to 3,679 junior-year students enrolled in 117 Israeli high schools. As large as the sample was it was not entirely representative, since high-school attendance has been far from universal in Israel. Thus, the sample overrepresented youth of Ashkenazic, as opposed to Oriental, origin; it was biased in the direction of the middle and upper classes; and it neglected extremist sectors of the population—it did not, for example, include students enrolled in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot. Nevertheless, Herman’s coverage was comprehensive enough to provide a clear understanding of the Jewish identity problem of young Israelis. The value of his findings is further enhanced by sub-studies which he initiated in connection with his main investigation: these included a survey of parents as well as depth-interviews with a small group of the original youth-sample.
The major impression one takes away from Herman’s meticulous and frequently original probing of the identity problem is that despite the book’s subtitle (“The Continuity of an Identity”), a serious problem of discontinuity between Israeli and Jewish identity exists among a significant minority of his youthful subjects. Furthermore, the clear implication of Herman’s findings is that this minority is likely to grow larger in numbers and influence.
Almost every page of Israelis and Jews offers evidence of a rejection of Jewishness. In response to the question, “Does the fact that you are Jewish play an important part in your life?” some 25 per cent responded that it is of little importance and 7 per cent said that it plays no part in their life. In response to the question, “If you were to be born again would you wish to be born a Jew?” some 28 per cent responded that they were indifferent and 2 per cent said they would prefer not to be born Jewish. When presented with the possibility of living as a Jew outside of Israel (“If you were to live abroad would you wish to be born a Jew?”) only 54 per cent responded positively, 25 per cent said they were indifferent, and 21 per cent stated that they would prefer not to be born Jewish. On the other hand, in response to the question, “If you were to be born again would you wish to be born an Israeli?” some 81 per cent answered in the affirmative, 17 per cent said it made no difference, and 2 per cent responded in the negative. Thus there was considerably greater preference shown for an “Israeli” over a “Jewish” identity, and the attractiveness of being Jewish was even further reduced if it entailed living in the Diaspora.
The parents interviewed in the subsidiary study, who as a rule were more deeply rooted in a Jewish past, proved to be free of many of the conflicts of their children. Thus only 8 per cent of the parents (in contrast to 25 per cent of the youth) felt that Jewishness was of little importance in their life, and only 1 per cent of the parents (in contrast to 7 per cent of the children) felt that being Jewish played no part at all in their life. And whereas only 23 per cent of the high-school students felt that Jewishness played an important part in their life, some 62 per cent of their parents stated that it did.
Intermarriage is the soft underbelly of Israeli Jewishness, just as it is of Jewishness in America, though in Israel the question is necessarily more of theoretical than of practical significance. Asked the question, “What is your opinion of a Jew in Israel who marries a non-Jew?” only 40 per cent of the students said that they were opposed, 21 per cent were opposed but understanding, and a full 37 per cent said that intermarriage was a private affair and should not be condemned. Some 2 per cent had a positive bias in favor of intermarriage. Furthermore, some 27 per cent said that they themselves would be prepared to intermarry and that they would do so without requiring that their partner convert to Judaism. And while 50 per cent were opposed to a Jew in Israel who converts to another religion, 32 per cent said that they could not bring themselves to oppose conversion—the individual in their view should be free to make the religious choice best suited to his needs and temperament.
As Herman sees it, the problem of Jewish identity is found in all class groups in Israel; the lower class displays as much discontinuity as the middle class. Nor is there a clear-cut variation in the amount of discontinuity found among those of different communal origins (Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim). Furthermore, discontinuity is not associated with generation, for it is found in first-generation as well as fifth-generation Israeli families.
The main strategic variable which determines the severity of the identity problem appears to be religion. Herman demonstrates that the identity problem is epidemic among lo-dati’im (non-religious) who comprise the largest group (42 per cent) in his sample; it is attenuated among m’sorati’im (traditionalists, or those who have a positive orientation to Jewish tradition combined with varying degrees of selectivity in regard to observance), who comprise 32 per cent of the sample. As for dati’im (religious), who comprise 25 per cent of the sample, they are rarely found to suffer from a discontinuity between their Israeli and their Jewish identity. As Herman puts it:
Significant differences consistently appear on Jewish-identity items between religious, traditionalist, and non-religious students. The Jewish identity of the religious student is much stronger than that of the traditionalist and non-religious student; the Jewish identity of the traditionalist is stronger than that of the non-religious student. On all questions relating to Jewishness, the Jewish people, or Jews abroad, the sequence is: I, religious; II, non-religious. Not only do the religious students feel more Jewish and value their Jewishness more under all circumstances, but they feel closer to, and have a greater sense of identification with, Jews everywhere.
Furthermore, were it not for the traditionalists and the religious, the degree of discontinuity among Israeli youth would be even more serious than it is. As Herman observes about the non-religious:
Only a bare majority of the non-religious would wish to be reborn Jews, and they are reduced to a minority when the question relates to the wish to be reborn Jews if they had to live abroad. Thus there are serious limits to the value these students attach to their being Jewish.
It is a tribute to Herman’s rigorous integrity as a scholar that he presents his data as unblinkingly as he does. As a deeply committed Zionist of long standing, Herman cannot be expected to be happy with the fact of discontinuity in the first place, or with the conclusion that discontinuity is lessened by religion in the second place. Classical Zionism posed for itself the task of solving at one and the same time the physical and the psychological problem of Jewish life in the Diaspora, and Herman clearly would like to believe that Zionist theory has culminated in Zionist reality. But he does not close his eyes to the fact that the establishment of the State of Israel, though solving many problems, also brought with it several unforeseen consequences, notable among them the split between Israeli and Jewish identity which he so relentlessly documents.
To be sure, Herman is reluctant to draw the conclusion that the sundering of identities which he has discovered may itself be seen as the logical result of the splitting off of ethnicity from religion which occurred with the rise of the Zionist movement. But as someone who has never been identified with the religious forces in Israeli society, he no doubt appreciates the irony of his final recommendations for action. For Herman now believes that an Israeli nationalism separated from religion constitutes a threat to the unity of the Jewish people. Therefore he looks to the religious forces in the Jewish community to restore the damage wrought by the non-religious with their overemphasis on national values. True, he is not very specific as to what is to be done—he speaks of the need to “open up paths to an intensified Jewishness” and “to develop diversified expressions of Jewish living.” But in any case he looks to the dati’im, the religious, to take the leadership, and seeks to assure his non-religious colleagues that they have nothing to fear from such leadership. For a secularist these are large concessions to make.
To the student of American-Jewish life Israelis and Jews not only represents a fascinating piece of research but also can provide a perverse kind of satisfaction. The crisis of Jewish identity, it seems, is not unique to the Diaspora, and Israel, notwithstanding its heroic achievements in every field, has by no means solved this persistent problem of the Jews. And there is some comfort, too, to be drawn from the knowledge that however strong is the potential for rift between these two great Jewries, Israel and the Diaspora continue to retain one great link: they have a Jewish-identity problem in common.