Once I entered the international section of Toronto’s Pearson Airport and walked over to the gate leaving for Tel Aviv, I was given a taste of Israel. There were Orthodox and haredi (strictly observant and socially conservative) jewish families talking and entertaining their children, while a group of young teenagers, who were conservatively dressed and presumably going on birthright, expressed their excitement to be visiting Eretz-Israel. The “Declaration of the Establishment of the State” (1948) formally outlines that the land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people because it is where “their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” Although the document was signed nearly sixty-six years ago, the statement still holds incredible significance, especially for these young Jews who will arrive in the country on the eve of its independence.

Despite the importance of this event for Jewish-Israeli identity, the history of the state, and my analysis of Israel’s religious diversity, I could not help but observe my immediate environment. I watched as visibly religious men walked the halls of the airport carrying their hat boxes toward their wives, who were dressed in long skirts and covered their hair with a wig or a scarf, as their tzitzit dangled a few inches below their suit jackets. Some men were traveling alone. They segregated themselves and sat together, quietly conversing or using the pay phones until we boarded the plane. Once the flight was in service, it became clear that Judaism was “the norm.” Kosher meals and wine were provided, flight attendants spoke Hebrew, and women who were sitting next to observant men were asked to trade seats in order to maintain purity and avoid contact. During the flight, these men also left their seats several times to pray and study the Torah. As a scholar of religion, these observations raise a number of questions: What form of Judaism is being observed? What are the ethnic and cultural differences at hand? What is considered “normative”? Is there a dominant interpretation of Judaism in Israel? If so, who made this decision and how influential is it? More importantly, how do religious, cultural, and political differences among Jews in Israel shape or deconstruct a clear definition of “Jewishness”?

As I tour the country and its various religious and archeological sites, I will attempt to answer these questions in light of the course theme: religion and public life in Israel. It is important to note that the realities I have encountered so far (and the readings that supplement this experience) inevitably complicate my discussion and any preconceptions I may have had about the representation and co-existence of religion and secular politics in the state of Israel. At this point, the extent of my immersion in and observation of religious Jewish culture and tradition is primarily based on visible indications of one’s identity, the most obvious being certain forms of dress. For the observer, clothing is an important signifier because it serves as a reminder of the mitzvot, or one’s religious obligations. How clothing and other visible markers distinguishes members of different Orthodox communities and their ethno-cultural backgrounds is not always apparent to the outsider. This is further complicated by the fact that clothing is not the sole means of identifying one’s “Jewishness.” It is therefore important to specify that what I have observed in these early stages of my travels is only a partial representation of Orthodox and haredi Judaism as one would experience it in Jerusalem, where the population of visibly religious and observant Jews is highly concentrated in and around the Old City walls. Therefore, many of the norms with regard to dress, for example, are much more conservative than somewhere like Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, other forms of “Jewishness” are also present in this city, but in seemingly more subtle ways. I found that walking the streets of Jerusalem on Independence Day proved to be an ideal circumstance under which to observe these differences.

To discuss this more thoroughly, how is “Jewishness” and “Israeliness” defined?

Eliezer Schweid argues that neither term can be perceived as the “central factor identifying one national society or people.” The reality is that there are many identities in Israel that overlap and intersect, while others remain completely disconnected. In other words, there are a multiplicity of communities, ethnic groups, and movements that each individual may identify with in part, but an all-encompassing or overarching nationalism and religiosity that unites all people is near impossible. Therefore, “Israeliness” can be understood as an identification that is connected to “civil, political, linguistic, and territorial belonging” on multiple levels. This may also include a certain sense of “Jewishness” in the “religious, traditional, and national sense.” Despite the effort to unify all citizens under a “modern Israeli statehood,” Schweid argues that Israeli culture is ultimately fragmented. This fragmentation can be attributed to the establishment of the state itself, which was a “melting pot” that facilitated the integration of various social, cultural, and ethnic identities that now constitute the Jewish state, as a result of mass immigration. In the mix of these new cultural influences, it was inevitable that some aspects of pre-state culture were altogether rejected and lost, while others were kept and adopted by the new groups settling in Israel. The tension of this adjustment period, particularly between religious and secular zionists, is still active today, sixty-six years after Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the state. According to Schweid, this tension has also contributed to the weakening of jewish unity in Israel, which makes perfect sense because the array of “zionisms” highlights the epitome of fragmentations among Israelis.

Schweid also argues that with each generation the separation between religion and state increases. This is a direct result of the fact that younger generations have a different relationship with traditional Judaism and religious legislation. This relationship gradually weakens, but is substituted with a secular and civil code of law, rather than strictly maintaining halakhah. Until I met Shai, our madrich (residence fellow) and Danny, our tour guide (an archeologist from Hebrew University), I would have argued that those who lean on the side of secular or political Judaism have a more subtle presence that is difficult to identify, insofar as their secular identity is not demarcated by specific clothing like we have seen in the haredi community. However, once you begin to speak with locals, it becomes clear that secular Jews are quite vocal about their position and they express it to outsiders through various means. Danny, for example, re-appropriated terms like “rabbi” to describe his mentors in the field of Biblical archeology—a career that has become his “religion,” both literally and figuratively.  In doing so, visitors like myself become aware of the fact that “Jewishness” in Israel has many faces. Katz, Levinsohn, and Levy’s article outlines these differences through a “religious identity scale,” which they developed as a result of an interview process held in 1999. The scale ranges eight different typologies, the most dominant being “non-religious, somewhat observant.” Although the purpose of the study was to better understand Jewish-Israeli identity at the individual and state level, regarding religious belief and traditional observance, a major source of tension that is identified between the two ends of the spectrum (i.e. the “ultra-religious/strictly observant” and the “somewhat observant secularists”) is how to manage the equally Jewish and secular aspects of the state so that all sides are happy. The data shows that there is no consensus among Israelis. This is largely due to the fact that the role of religious beliefs and traditional practices in defining contemporary “Jewishness” and “Israeliness” is different for each individual, especially in the context of a secular state.

According to Katz, Levinsohn, and Levy, Israelis do hold a strong sense of Jewish identification at both an individual and state level, but the conditions that form this identity are far from universal. Furthermore, this identification with Judaism is not necessarily a religious one, nor is religiosity strictly implied when Ben-Gurion declares the “establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, to be known as the state of Israel.”  Prior to this historic event, a “Status Quo” letter was written to Agudath Israel, the official political party that represents the haredi community, in an attempt to set a standard of religious observance that would be mandated by the state, but would avoiding erring on the side of theocracy. The primary issues that were to remain in line with Jewish religious belief and traditional practice included: keeping the sabbath as an official day of rest, ensuring that food standards, especially in government institutions, would keep kosher, that issues regarding personal status would remain under the mandate of Rabbinic courts, and that education, aside from state required courses, would be left in the hands of each institution. This letter became the basis of the 1948 agreement for a secular/religious balance in new State of Israel, however, as the Katz, Levinsohn, and Levy study shows, not all Israelis observe these practices to the same degree.

Although Zionism is the ideology that “shaped the official identity of the State of Israel” and became “the central symbol of Jewish unity,” its fundamental principles are still widely debated, thus maintaining a level of fragmentation among Israelis that Schweid highlights in his article. At the core of this debate is the movement’s initial rejection of the Jewish religion in favour of secular and political principles, particularly under the influence of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State (1896). According to Leora Batnitzky, this manifesto spoke to the masses. Herzl was therefore able to influence Jews in Europe to not only found a Jewish national movement that aimed to establish a Jewish homeland, but also to replace their religious identity with a political and national striving that was free from anti-semitism. Although the state of Israel did not come to fruition in Herzl’s lifetime, he is nonetheless acknowledged in the declaration of 1948 as the “spiritual father of the Jewish state.” The meaning behind such an epithet is much too complex to get into, but I do wish to conclude by turning to one final point of analysis.

Considering the ongoing tension between religious communities and secular zionists, particularly with regard to how they define the “Jewish” component of the state (as presented in the declaration), I cannot help but wonder how these dissonances may affect the celebration of Israel’s independence. Do all Israelis participate in the festivities? Is it a moment of pride and liberation that resonates with all Jews? If so, what is it that unites them? If not, how do these differences affect the official representation and influence of religion in the state, as opposed to secularism?

From my perspective, the nuances of these questions and their answers are important to uncover and, as previously mentioned, I will attempt to do so over a series of blogs and overlapping themes. At this point in my journey, however, it is better to hold off on this discussion and join the young Israeli 20-something’s who are dancing to Israeli pop music and drinking beer on a roof top next to the Old City walls. It is in this moment, as we wander the streets of Jerusalem wearing Israeli flags like capes, spraying white silly string and foam, and playfully hitting each other with blow up hammers that echo the legacy of Judah Maccabee, that I realize that “Israeliness” and “Jewishness” are things unto themselves and therefore much too complex to decipher on my first night in the country. Instead, I will celebrate Israeli independence with fireworks, the smell of beachside barbecues, and watching fighter jet acrobats—a truly unforgettable first impression.


Batnitzky, Leora. “The Rejection of the Jewish Religion and the Birth of Jewish Nationalism.” How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Katz, Elihu,  Hanna Levinsohn, and Shlomit Levy. “The Many Faces of Jewishness in Israel.” In Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, edited by Uzi Rebhun and Chaim I. Waxman, 265-284. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2004.

Schweid, E. “Jewishness and Israeliness.” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture 8 (2002): 84-93.

“Status Quo” letter to Agudath Israel: Basis of 1948 agreement for secular/religious balance in new State of Israel: http://hamodia.com/hamod-uploads/2013/12/D35.jpg

Haredim: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Jewish_World_Today/Denominations/Orthodox/haredim.shtml

The Declaration of Independence: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Dec_of_Indep.html