Prof. discusses the changing nature of Jewish identity today

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | September 26, 2019

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COURTESY OF JAKE LEFKOVITZ

Persico spoke on the crises in Jewish Israeli identities for the Jewish Studies Program.

Tomer Persico, a visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, gave a talk titled “Israel at 71: Trends and Fluctuations in Israeli Jewish Identity” for the Program in Jewish Studies on Friday. 

Persico argued that the diversity of ways in which Jewish Israel is claiming a Jewish identity is broader than ever before due to the recent destabilization of the dominant Jewish identity archetype.

“A fracture of the main type of Jewish identity — the Jewish, secular, socialist Hebrew identity — starting in the 70s has led the hegemonic overview to fracture and many new things to arise,” he said. “Specifically, what I call the privatization of tradition and the liberalization of the Jewish identity in Israel, and, on the other side, opposing but sometimes indeed complimentary, Jewish ethno-nationalism as a main Jewish identity.”

The question every person must confront at one point or another, Persico claimed, is: “What is my identity?” For Jews in Israel, he elaborated, that inevitably leads to the further question of “How am I Jewish?”

Three decades ago, Persico said, scholars described Jewish Israelis as possessing four different ways of describing their Jewishness, or, put otherwise, claiming a Jewish identity. There were secularists, traditionalists, religious Zionists and haredim.

Haredim, which translates roughly from Hebrew to “those who tremble before God,” are Orthodox Jews characterized by their prizing of traditional Jewish law and practice and disinterest in modern norms and values.

Since the 80s, Persico argued, this four-way division has splintered due to the twin pressures of the privatization of the political economy of Israel from its socialist roots and the popularization of ideologies of individual self-fulfillment.

“What now?” Persico said. “For most Jews, a new answer is needed to the question, ‘What makes me Jewish?’ And I propose that two such answers — two major such answers — appear. On the one hand, we have what we can call the Jewish renaissance.”

This Jewish renaissance is defined by what Persico claims is a new premise that he terms the privatization of tradition. 

Persico believes that some Israelis, particularly former secularists and traditionalists, have begun understanding Jewish tradition as something quite malleable.

Instead of the old paradigm, which demanded that engagement with Jewish tradition assume traditional forms, Israelis involved in this new paradigm participate in Jewish tradition on their own terms.

“This is one answer to the question, ‘How am I Jewish?’” Persico said. “I am a privatized, independent, autonomous Jew engaged with my tradition in many different ways.... I am the sole authority of this Judaism. I remake it in my image. And it works well for me. And that’s all that there is to it.”

As evidence of this, Persico pointed to studies showing that between five and 12 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as either Reform or Conservative, two major American denominations that historically did not have many adherents in Israel.

The other major new explanation for the remaking of Jewish identity, Persico said, is Jewish ethno-nationalism. He expressed his view that this answer is the simpler of the two.

Non-religious Jewish Israelis who subscribe to Jewish ethno-nationalism, he explained, often express their Jewish identity by trying to support and strengthen the state of Israel.

The result of this, according to Persico, can actually be a qualified form of liberalization of public policy preferences.

“A lot of the time, for people who are Jewish ethno-nationalists, if they think you are also one of the tribe — as a Jew, in general, and even more so as an ethno-nationalist Jew like them — they will let you do whatever you want in other aspects of your life,” he said. “You’re gay? Whatever. It doesn’t matter because you’re loyal to the tribe.”

The power of Jewish ethno-nationalism in Israel, Persico argued, is that it can displace other potential tentpoles of Jewish identity, such as adherence to traditional Jewish law. Jewish ethno-nationalism consequently can create larger social and political coalitions.

This is what has happened in the religious Zionist public, he said. He argued that the fact that Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman from Tel-Aviv, is one of the most prominent politicians affiliated with religious Zionists can only be explained by the commitment to ethno-nationalism overriding the commitment to religious principles.

Persico argued that this breaking away from traditional religious principles in the religious Zionist camp has left more room for the flowering of other kinds of personal and political expression.

Junior Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman said she found the connection Persico sketched between the advent of neoliberalism in Israel and the fracturing of Jewish Israeli identity very interesting. 

“I was also never really aware that Judaism had fractured to the point that there were all these different overlapping identities, like being ultra-Orthodox and gay or ultra-Orthodox and feminist,” Nicolucci-Altman said. “That really opened my eyes to the way that Judaism has evolved in Israel, in particular the ultra-Orthodox groups.”

With a dearth of talented leadership creating a favorable environment for the pressures towards greater individualism Persico sees operating upon the other Jewish Israeli communities, this increase in diversity of expression has been doubly true in the haredi community.

“The wider and wider margins of the ultra-Orthodox community can do different things, can create for themselves their own version of ultra-Orthodoxy. And thus we have ultra-Orthodox Israelization,” he said.

Persico claimed that the ultimate example of this trend is a recent magazine article in Mishpacha, a popular haredi weekly.

This article was a feature on the haredi volunteers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who help operate the Iron Dome air defense system that protects Israeli population centers from short-range rockets launched from abroad.

“So you’ve got everything here,” Persico explained. “You’ve got nationalism, the legitimization of the army, the legitimization of helping the army and internalized feminism.”

Senior Caroline West said that she enjoyed that the lecture had explored some topics that she often did not get to talk about or analyze in her classes, although she wished that certain ideas had been examined more closely. 

“I was also curious about what explains the erosion of belief or the erosion of faith,” West said. “I would’ve been interested to hear more about that. But overall, I thought it was brilliant.”

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