[by Phyllis Shaikun]
Israel’s cultural identity has changed drastically over the years since its founding, and Dr. Fred Lazin, the Lynn and Lloyd Hurst Family Professor of Local Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva, Israel and Natan Visiting Professor in the Center for Israel
Studies at the Depart-ment of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, was in town to discuss the topic at the University of Louisville on Wednesday, April 13. The program was hosted by the Jewish Community of Louisville’s Jewish Community Relations Council and co-sponsored by the university’s Departments of Urban and Public Affairs and Political Science.
“What does it mean to be an Israeli?” Lazin asked rhetorically. There are, he points out, more than a few answers. His are drawn from qualitative, sociological data that trace the changes that have transformed the country’s people from a Sabra culture that began in 1948 to the Americanization of Israel today that includes access to the global village of McDonald’s, Toy R Us and MTV. It was an interesting ride and made for a thoughtful presentation.
In 1948, Israel had an Arab population of between 15 and 18 percent (roughly the same as today). The country quickly became a melting pot where those coming in were expected to conform to the norms set down by Prime Minister/Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion and the Mapai (precursors to the Labor) Party. Ben-Gurion did not care for either the shtetl or the German-Jewish cultures and had his own ideas about how immigrants should fit in. He believed the society should be a secular one free of religious or ethical constraints.
Ben-Gurion approved of studying the Bible for its accounts of Jewish heroism with strong self-defense and egalitarianism and frowned upon study of the Talmud (which contained laws and traditions) that he considered a product of the Diaspora. He also considered the land sacred and respected the kibbutz movement (Religious Zionists created their own observant egalitarian kibbutzim). The Charedim (ultra-Orthodox and generally anti-Zionist) also lived in pre-state Israel and maintained their own schools and neighborhoods, which stood apart somewhat from Israeli society as they do today. Meanwhile, the Israeli Arabs demanded autonomy over their own schools, and that situation remains true today.
In 1977, Likud Party head Menachem Begin’s election as Israel’s sixth prime minister ended the 30-year-dominance of the Labor Party (and its Ashkenazic dominance of society) and ushered in a new Israeli identity that embraced multiculturalism and cultural diversity. This phenomenon was manifest in music as well, and instituted the Mediterranean beat that is Arab-Jewish music.
Israeli Arabs are full citizens of the State of Israel, including members of the Bedouin, Druze and Palestinian communities, adding much to a multicultural society. In recent years, Ethiopian immigration has also changed the landscape. In the late 1980s, there was pressure to bring the 8-10,000 Ethiopians (mostly secular Jews) to Israel and 90,000 more have immigrated since that time. They have adopted the Hebrew language and Israeli culture and are nationalists – having excelled in military service. They receive an education in the army and a number of young Ethiopians have won scholarships for further study.
Communication has improved throughout the country with the move from one major broadcasting station to hundreds of channels available now with limitless choices including MTV and even Al Jazeera.
All things considered, David Ben-Gurion’s attempt to mold a diverse Israeli population into the homogeneous and modern secular Israel we see today probably succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations – his included, Lazin concluded.