The Jewish Experience

Israeli Culture Wars and the Shifting Paradigm of Jewish Morality

Yossi Shain

The "Israeli culture war is having a direct and significant impact on the Diaspora and changing the definition of Jewish morality," writes Shain.

July 20, 2023

Georgetown and Tel Aviv University Emeritus Professor Yossi Shain is providing a recurring dispatch from Israel, commenting on current events.

Shain has been named a special adviser to President Liebowitz, helping to establish collaborations with Israeli universities and institutions. This initiative envisions conferences, academic meetings, lectures, residencies, and other academic collaborations during Brandeis’ 75th anniversary.

Brandeis thanks Professor Shain for sharing his personal views with readers. Any opinions are strictly Professor Shain’s and are neither reflective of nor constrained by Brandeis University, its faculty, staff, or administration.

By Yossi Shain

There continue to be twists and turns on a daily basis within the ongoing crisis in Israel, and the chaos reverberates throughout the Jewish Diaspora. At the time of writing (July 11), hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters staged a 'day of disruption' against the controversial judicial overhaul in their country, and on the same day, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times reported that the White House is reassessing its relations with Israel.

As I’ve reported in previous dispatches, the state of Israel is experiencing perhaps the deepest rupture it has ever known. The rupture begins in politics between the more conservative Likud coalition — which includes extreme religious nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews — and the opposition comprised of Jewish parties representing the more secularist segment, mostly on the center-left. Friends of Israel abroad are agonizing, and the worldwide Jewish community is feeling the pain as the bickering intensifies. Many in Israel are speaking in terms of a pending civil war.

I’d like to take some time in this post to discuss the current Israeli political and culture wars through the prism of "Jewish morality."

One of the most pressing issues in the life of the Jewish people — both inside the state of Israel and in the Diaspora — is how to reconcile between morality and reality. From the day Israel was born in 1948, the question of who gets to define the Jewish mission and Jewish ethics has become a major bone of contention between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Many have asked whether the universal morality cultivated in the Diaspora by Jews who lacked political power of a sovereign state can be reconciled with the Zionist morality of realpolitik.

In modern times non-Orthodox Jews usually adopted an idealist universalist approach as their moral compass as citizens of liberal societies. This position served (above all in the United States) as the ideological engine of their integration. Jews and Judaism in the United States became Americanized, and U.S. non-Orthodox Jews who sought to remain ethnically unique — qua Jews — had to work hard to ensure that their duality (of particularism and universalism) would not bring charges of dual loyalty.

Since Israel's national morality is built on realpolitik and is quite different from the Jewish liberalism that informs the powerless Diaspora, many Diaspora organizations have always made great efforts to paint Israeli-American relations as a natural alliance of values and interests.

The State of Israel created a new condition for Diaspora Jewry, which enabled Diaspora Jews to be Jewish without fearing assimilation. Jewish nationalism and Jewish statehood have also enabled them to retain their uniqueness as Jews in other nations, such as the United States, in the face of assimilation.

But over time, Israeli liberal Zionism has found itself under assault by the growing hostility of extreme religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox forces. This hostility, sometimes financed by Conservative Jews in the U.S., considers the universal values of liberal Diaspora Jews to be hostile to Judaism and especially its nationalist creed.

Now, as secular Israelis fight the growing religious component of their culture, seeing it as a threat to Israel’s democratic character, liberal Diaspora Jews are finding new allies. It is in this manner that the Israeli culture war is having a direct and significant impact on the Diaspora and changing the definition of Jewish morality.

In the last few months, American liberal diaspora leaders have not been focusing their attention on Palestinians and their rights, a main issue for them in the last four decades. Amidst the growing internal division, Diaspora leaders have instead found in the struggle for democracy inside Israel a way to change their agenda and fight with Israelis against extreme religious Zionists.

When Jewish extremists recently responded to a growing wave of Palestinian terrorism and took the law into their own hands, burning Palestinian villages and property with the support of government ministers, liberals in Israel and the Diaspora were shaken to their core. While many Israelis, among them all the heads of the security organs of the state, condemned this Jewish terrorism, others, like Minister Orit Strook of the extreme religious Zionist camp, viciously attacked the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet as nationally disloyal. These attacks have encouraged new alliances between liberal Jews in the U.S. and liberal Zionists in Israel.

In short, in Israel today and across the Jewish Diaspora, divisions are taking new shape because of the internal Israeli strife on democracy. This issue extends not only to Israel's political and social order but also to Israel's external wars, including relations with the Palestinians. This debate isn’t only limited to the current conversations over the judicial system, but it directly impacts the ability of the Israelis to remain unified in the struggle against terrorism and to keep their moral compass well-defined.