The Challenges of Success

Secular Zionism since 1948

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The divide over the future of these territories became the major cleavage within Israeli society. National religious strains of political Zionism gained momentum within Israel. Official Israeli policy after 1977 viewed the large-scale settlement of the territories as a security and policy imperative.

Labor continued to govern the country for a decade after the 1967 war, with a new generation of Israeli-born leaders like Moshe Dayan, Yigal Alon, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres posing themselves as Ben-Gurion's heirs. Their dreams of continued Labor hegemony were shattered with the surprise Arab attacks on Yom Kippur 1973. Although Israel won that war and retained its 1967 territorial gains, the Labor government was increasingly viewed as complacent, arrogant, out of touch with the public, and in some cases, corrupt. In 1977, the face of political secular Zionism was radically transformed with the ascendancy to power of Begin's Likud block, an alliance of the formerly minority right-wing and centrist parties.

Secular Cultural Zionism

Secular Zionism's cultural variant also ran into problems after 1948. The close link between religion and nationality in Jewish identity made it difficult to excise religious motifs, symbols, and values from the new collective identity of what aspired to be a Jewish state. 

In one telling case, Zionist leaders debated the inclusion of religious language in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. In the end, they compromised by including the words "Rock of Israel," intended as a reference to the role of God in restoring Jewish sovereignty. This debate is indicative of the difficulty of creating a completely secular culture in Israel. 

Dramatic demographic shifts in the population of the new state made this even more difficult. The bulk of Israel's pre-statehood Jewish population had come from Europe, meaning they had lived for more than 150 years in secular Western nation-states. However, masses of Middle Eastern immigrants flocked to Israel's shores in the first two decades after independence, bringing with them a traditional Jewish worldview that instinctively linked the return to Israel with a revival of Jewish tradition. 

These recently arrived immigrants often felt disenfranchised from shaping the civic culture of the new state. But their children, who came of age in the 1970s, set in motion a political, social, and cultural revolution that reemphasized traditional Jewish imagery and values at the expense of secular Zionists' dreams of a new secular Hebrew culture divorced from religion. This in no small part contributed to the political revolution of 1977. While cultural creativity in the Hebrew language continues to thrive in Israel, it increasingly integrates religious and traditional imagery.

A Historic Compromise

The complex and volatile political reality of the new state also posed profound difficulties for secular Zionist culture. Upon the inception of statehood, the Labor party and the Orthodox National Religious Party reached a historic compromise, which established that in certain matters Israel would adhere to religious jurisdiction and authority. The status quo this created fell short of establishing Israel as a religious state, while granting religious authorities a great deal of political power in certain areas including marriage and conversion. 

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Ilan Wagner

Ilan Wagner directs Makom in North America, the Jewish Agency's effort to enhance Israel identity in local communities. He was previously the Director of Student Activities for the Department of Education of the Jewish Agency.