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Israel's Progress: From a Melting Pot to a Mosaic

December 11, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Fred Lazin
Sixty years ago, under the leadership of Zionist visionary and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel was going to be "the great Jewish melting pot," said scholar Fred Lazin. Today, however, the country is more of a mosaic, as differing ethnic groups fight to make their respective voices heard in the general cacophony that is the Jewish state.

This was the topic Lazin covered in a recent lecture at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, titled "Israel's Changing Collective Identity." The Boston-born Lazin is a professor of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and is currently a Schusterman Visiting Scholar at the Center for Israel Studies at New York University.

Lazin said that the original conception of Israel was similar to that of America: It would be a place where Jews would come from all over and blend together to create something new. Ben-Gurion wanted to create a new kind of Jew as well; he wanted Israelis to be fighters, with no trace of galut, or exile, clinging to them, explained Lazin.

These were to be the core elements of Ben-Gurion's cultural revolution: to assimilate immigrants into the newly born Jewish state and make them conform to his idea of what the nation should be. That meant changing people's names (for example, from Nuri to Natan, for Israelis from Arab countries), speaking Hebrew rather than Yiddish, and, overall, forgoing a former cultural identity in favor of a new one.

"The implication is 'Leave all that baggage behind, we're going to do something else with you,' " said Lazin.

Modern-day Israel, however, is vastly different and, to understand it, said Lazin, you must look to the years 1967 and 1973, and the two wars fought during those years, which were "watershed" events for the nation's collective identity.

Identities Galore

After the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel, for the first time, found itself to be the major military power in the region.

Yet, said Lazin, the country "almost went under" as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and a major consequence was that the country's ruling elite -- including such political luminaries such as Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir -- were disgraced and dethroned, because their initial inactivity in the face of war almost led to the destruction of the country.

With the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, Israel began to form yet another identity for itself, transforming into a multicultural, ethnocentric Jewish state. Begin allowed Israel to begin flexing its political muscle a bit, said Lazin; among other things, he opened up Israeli society to Arabs (and Jews from Arab lands) in ways it had never seen before.

The speaker also argued that the high number of former Soviet Jews in Israel today (one out of every six people) is one major component of the country's current mosaic.

The influx of Russians into Israel has made the country "a little more cosmopolitan"; but, as might be expected from their most formative experiences in the former USSR, much of the Russian population is almost totally secular, which, along with other ethnicities playing a role in the country, has affected certain Jewish aspects of the Jewish state, stated Lazin.

"You go to Israel today, and, on a Saturday, everything is open," said Lazin, offering the example of TevTom, an Israeli grocery store, which also sells pork, for example, and other nonkosher goods.

Be it ultra-Orthodox, Arab-Israelis, Russian immigrants or other ethnicities, Lazin did say that the common bond among these groups in Israel today is that they're all jockeying to have their voices heard -- a necessary component in a parliamentary system that requires coalition governments in order to rule the country.

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