The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military
by Baruch Kimmerling
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 268 pp. $45.
Reviewed by Meyrav Wurmser
Middle East Quarterly
What has become of Israeli identity since the establishment of the state of Israel, Kimmerling asks. He replies that the hegemony of the secular Zionist identity was broken following the 1967 war; since then, Israeli culture and identity divide into seven subcultures (secular Ashkenazi upper-middle class, national religious, traditionalist "Orientals," Orthodox religious, Arabs, Russian immigrants, and Ethiopians).
Kimmerling argues that this fracturing resulted from several factors. Following the Israeli occupation in 1967 of the West Bank and Gaza, the return to the biblical heartland prompted a group of what the author calls "modern fundamentalists" to challenge the secularism and paternalism of the state. This group presented its own Zionist-religious symbolism; the old ethos of the kibbutz, for example, was replaced with the image of an orthodox community of settlers and fighters. Other groups (the "Orientals") soon followed their lead in challenging the state's cultural hegemony. Today, new immigrant groups (Russians, Ethiopians) are little influenced by the Israeli melting pot. They change and shape the cultural face of Israel instead of being changed by it.
The author worries that this fracturing is leading the country to the brink of a culture war between secular and religious. Even the glue that holds Israel's identity together—a loose definition of "Jewishness" and a strong sense of nationalism—may not prevent the society from bursting apart.
Kimmerling offers an informative, interesting interpretation, but his work is laced with hostility to the settler movement and religious elements in general. And while he views these changes as a threat, might one not understand them as the result of a process of maturation? The decline of the state hegemony followed the completion of state building. Once the state had more defensible borders after 1967, what need was there for a state-imposed identity? Israeli society has moved toward a more normal patriotism, defined less by adherence to collective identity and more by a willingness to bear arms in defense of hearth and home. The emergence of Israeli subcultures follows the normal course of modern, democratic, multicultural immigrant societies.
Related Topics: Israel & Zionism, Jews and Judaism | Meyrav Wurmser | Winter 2004 MEQ
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