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Jews and Jewish Israelis – Is there a difference?

While this month’s topic appears somewhat inconsequential and irrelevant, it does feature fairly often as a talking point, especially at the Shabbat tables of South African olim in Israel.  Therefore I decided to do a little amateur investigation and publish the inconclusive findings of my attempted sociological study.

The topic can also be rather challenging, and can open itself up to more questions than answers.  In essence I wanted to know if there were – are – similarities and/or differences between Jews in the diaspora and Israeli Jews.  In hindsight this would have lent itself to a very academic study, comparing them according to religious beliefs, language, educational qualifications, political leanings, lifestyles, even morals and values, but I opted instead for a generalized assessment touching briefly on only a few aspects.  I was also interested in what kind of relationship, if in fact there was one, existed among all these diverse, dissimilar Jews.  What a complex people we are!

In the most basic terms a Jew, according to Judaism, is one whose mother is Jewish, or who has converted to orthodox Judaism by rabbinical decree.

An Israeli, on the other hand, is a citizen of the State of Israel and therefore lays claim to that nationality. Being Israeli, of course, does not mean one is automatically Jewish, but here I am looking only at Jewish Israelis.

So it’s birth/lineage – call it what you will – vs nationality  A simplistic comparison.

But it also covers the differences in backgrounds, priorities and identities.

Israeli Jews or Jewish Israelis (not necessarily interchangeable labels) fit mostly into three rather large sprawling categories:  (1) legal Israeli citizens of the Jewish faith or ethnicity, having been born and are living in the State of Israel;  (2) those who are the descendants of Israeli-Jewish emigrants, possibly not living in Israel any longer but in other communities, not necessarily or even specifically Jewish ones, around the world  (3) Jews who made aliyah to the State of Israel and were raised at some stage in their lives in the Israeli culture.

The most common threads that bind them together are language – they can all speak Hebrew, even those who have left Israel (but remember that most of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens also speak Hebrew); and the fact that many of them practise, or at least are familiar with, elements of the Jewish religion.  From a sociological aspect, therefore, I define them all as Jews of Israel .

So that vague conclusion left me wondering whether I was on the right (or any) track, and if there was any reason to carry on with my “research”.  But then I came across an interesting if slightly contradictory article entitled “Israeli-Jews” vs. “Jewish-Israelis” and the Ritual Connection to Diaspora Jewry by Ezra Kopelowitz and Lior Rosenberg.  It covers quite a bit of Israel’s history, politics and sociology; but I focused on the opening paragraph as a way of deciding where next to go.:

“How do Israeli Jews understand and build the connection between themselves and Jews who live elsewhere? We distinguish between two types of Jews who live in Israel: the “Jewish-Israeli” and the “Israeli-Jew.” Each profile represents a very different understanding of what it means to live as a Jew in Israel, with distinct consequences for the question of the relationship of Jews who live in Israel to Jews who live elsewhere. “Jewish-Israelis” view the “Jewish” component of their identity as autonomous from the fact that they live in Israel, in that they are able to imagine themselves as living as Jews outside of Israel. In comparison, “Israeli-Jews” do not distinguish between the Jewish and Israeli components of their identities. They view the fact that they are Jewish as one and the same as living in Israel. The Israeli-Jew is proud to be a Jew, but cannot conceive of living as a Jew outside of the Land of Israel.”

The article defines “Jewish-Israelis” as self-identifying “traditionalist” and “religious” Jews, and “Israeli-Jews” as “secular.” Thus I decided to go further and examine the issue of the relationship of Jews born and living in Israel to Jews who have moved abroad and to Jews who made aliyah, followed by my (and the article’s) attempts to clarify or at least to try and explain, the differences between secular, traditional and religious Jews in Israel.


There are numerous diverse reasons for secular diaspora Jews to make aliyah, including the strong urge to live their Zionism; ties to family who live there; spiritual connection to the land; giving their children a Jewish upbringing; freedom from anti-semitism; and a need to live ‘among their own’: the reason could be any one of these or all of the above, and often when they move to Israel they view the Israeli culture as quite foreign, quite strange, even quite bizarre.  On their arrival in the Promised Land, the realities of actually being there – the strange language, the new foods, the different lifestyle, the unfamiliar culture – will galvanize them into establishing communities that, initially at least, tend to be closed and unwelcoming to ‘intruders’. So as much as they can within an unfamiliar environment, they will retain the familiarity of “home” while adapting to and adopting only what suits them best in the new situation.  Rather than call themselves ‘Israeli’, they would prefer to describe themselves as ‘olim.’

For these secular diaspora Jews, therefore, part of their efforts to become “Israeli”  depend very much on their support systems.  Integration into Israeli society is not always successful, as the differences are obvious, neither side is very willing to compromise, and staying within familiar home-based communities doesn’t really give them much opportunity to become “Israeli”.  .

Secular Israeli-Jews, those of whom Kopelowitz and Rosenberg say “are proud to be Jews, but cannot conceive of living as Jews outside of the Land of Israel”,  the article continues, are more likely to use the fact of their being Israeli citizens as proof enough of their being Jewish, thus eschewing much religious ritual because they do not feel the need to prove their Jewishness beyond living in Israel.  For them, observance of the religion and its precepts is peripheral to their ‘living’ the Jewish life, ‘being’ Jewish and having confidence at all times in their Jewish identity.  According to Kopelowitz and Rosenberg, however, were they to move out of Israel, “the public dimension of their Jewish identity would disappear, leaving them no positive Jewish content in their private lives.”  I don’t know that I agree with this statement, however, as many very successful Israeli communities around the world do tend to gravitate towards the local Jewish communities; and while their religious observance may be diluted, their interaction with diaspora Jews certainly consolidates their Jewishness, even if it differs from that of the diaspora Jews with whom they connect.

And just as new or settled olim are aware of how they and their lives differ from those of native-born Israelis, so too do the latter view these olim, whether secular or religious, as atypical and unusual, coming from unfamiliar backgrounds and with their own unfamiliar cultural practices and pursuits.

Religious diaspora Jews who belong to traditional orthodox Zionistic communities say Kopelowitz and Rosenberg, have strong spiritual links to Israel – generally the land rather than the state.  Their passion for Israel is translated into a feeling of ‘ownership’ and ‘possession’ of the country to the extent that their political affiliations are indistinguishable from those of Israel’s political parties.  Yet in the main they are often not comfortable with the culture and personalities of the Israeli people, at times  dismissing as insignificant the relationship of secular sabras to the land of Israel, in comparison with their own.  .

Jewish-Israelis are described by the authors as “traditionalist” and “religious”.  Again, being Jewish is the defining aspect of their identity; and even if they live outside of Israel, they will always be Jewish.  Within Israel, they find sanctity and comfort in being able to practise their religion freely; and they will welcome diaspora Jews into their communities as long as the latter adhere to all their rules and pronouncements.  Some of them deny the existence of the State of Israel, paying homage instead to the Land of Israel; and when diaspora Jews are invited in, it is incumbent on the new members to follow the same precepts. The authors suggest that it may therefore be easier for diaspora Jews to become religious Jewish-Israelis, as the guidelines and the regimen to be followed are scrupulously structured and systematic.

All the above emanates from both an academic article and my amateur comments , open of course to criticism and questioning; but the topic is absorbing and well worth a more in-depth study by someone schooled in the field.  Any offers, anyone?

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