By Büşra Nur Özgüler
Success of the Israeli society in itself cannot be underestimated despite Israel’s violation of international law and the certain democratic deficits in the country. Based on the observations gathered over a two-month stay in Israel, I would suggest that the reasons behind this success might be summarized under three main headings: loyalty to religion and traditions, keeping memories alive through rhetoric and symbols, and sedulity to achieve any objective.
The unifying power of religion and traditions
In Israel, and in Judaism in general, one of the most valuable activities is gathering together. In Jerusalem especially, Israeli society practices this activity every week from Friday evening to Saturday evening (Shabbat) by visiting the Western Wall (Kotel) and then by having a Shabbat dinner together with the entire family and sometimes with guests. At these dinners, usually consisting of six different courses, participants collectively readdress and reaffirm their religious and traditional values by singing and reading verses from the religious books of the Jewish faith. In addition to ruminating on spirituality in this respite from the ruction of everyday life, these gatherings provide an opportunity for traditions to be transmitted to the younger generations while also strengthening the links between family members.
Aside from the religious rituals, Jewish communities, which have emigrated from many different parts of the world, have still managed to hold on to their traditions, including their unique styles of dress. For instance, even today, Jews who came to Israel from the Former Soviet Union can be seen donning furry hats (shtreimels), which are also a type of religious symbol. This example serves to illustrate how religion and traditions are deeply intertwined in Israeli society.
When pondering the importance of tradition for Israeli society, the words of a tour guide in the Old City of Jerusalem should also be heeded: “Tradition is much more important than history or facts in our society.” For this reason, they have even evaded changing the name of the “King David Castle”, which was actually constructed by King Herod, not by King David; in reality, it was actually named by Crusaders who fortuitously misinterpreted the Bible. Even though it is known as a fact that this was not King David’s castle, it has not been renamed out of respect for tradition.
Even these few examples help to demonstrate how religious rituals and traditions have come to pervade the mainstream view point of Israeli society. Although there are certain discussions on the existence of conflicts between religious and secular Jews, or between traditional and modern Israelis, the gap between these groups is not very wide. Moreover, if we consider the increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Heradim) active in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), whose numbers expanded from the 200s to the 4,500s within a period of seven years, it could even be claimed that the gap between religious and secular Jews has actually been narrowing rather than widening at all.
Jewish rhetoric and memory
One of the most ubiquitous discourses in Israeli society revolves around the “Temple Mount” (Har haBayit), which Muslims call the “Noble Sanctuary” (Haram al-Sharif). Housing two of the most significant buildings of the Muslim religion, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, this area is the third holiest site of the Muslim faith. The site is also sacred for Jews seeing that the First and Second Temples were located here, and is therefore, referred to as the “Temple Mount” instead of the “Noble Sanctuary.” In this way, Jews intend to keep their memories alive by employing this rhetorical device.
Even though there is not a single tangible Jewish symbol on the site today, Jewish worshipers are still willing to pray there. Recent conflicts in Jerusalem have started with the reawakening of Jews’ demand to have full access to this site. There are eleven gates granting access to the site, ten of them for Muslims and one, the Mughrabi Gate, for Jews and tourists. In early October, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism proposed opening an additional entrance for Jews to the Temple Mount, through the Cotton Merchant’s Gate. This act has resulted in the eruption of violent clashes between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli security forces, ultimately bringing about the closure of the holy site altogether. Expecting an end to these kinds of conflicts in Jerusalem does not seem very realistic, especially when considering the Jewish rhetoric regarding certain historical sites that attempts to trump the sanctity Muslims may attribute to these sites.
Not only rhetoric, but also other powerful instruments play constructive roles in the Israeli society’s motivation to succeed. The Holocaust History Museum (Yad Vashem ) in Jerusalem can be regarded as the admonitory embodiment of what would happen if the Jewish people fail to attain success. Hosting inspirational stories, evocative exhibits and stunning design, the museum has the power not only to impress its visitors but also to create the Israeli nation’s point inception on which the society can build upon their achievements by embracing their history.
Another point that deserves mention is, despite the importance of collective understandings of society, the Israelis prioritize individuals as they believe that individual is the true building block of society. Such is a crystal clear reality within Israeli society, as indicated by this quotation from the Holocaust History Museum:
“Do not rush to fight and die… We need to save lives. It is more important to save Jews than to kill Germans.” –Tuvia Bielski
This understanding of the importance granted to the life of each and every Jew is one of the main components of the Israeli mindset, the individual occupies the center. Reflections of this approach can be seen in various cases. To illustrate with an example, in 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 and held for five years.
Resolve for success
Far removed from the stereotypical interpretations of the Jewish people, it should be accepted that sedulity is a part of Israel’s societal fabric. Thanks to their determination to achieve success, Israeli/Jewish people can be characterized as hard-working, well-read and innovative. From the kibbutzim, communal rural communities, to modern cities like Tel Aviv, the Israeli people continually make the effort to develop their livelihoods, their environment and their future. To this end, they start to work very early in the morning, and then they allocate time for social activities and their families, which, as mentioned above, is also a crucial aspect of the society’s functioning. Such an intensive and efficient way of using time becomes possible thanks to the fact that everything is organized in a systematic fashion.
However, “systematic” should not be confused with “disciplined”. Far from the pejorative connotation of “disciplined”, Israeli society strives to be critical and creative, as mentioned by Mooly Eden:
“Israelis don’t have a very disciplined culture. From the age of zero, we are educated to challenge the obvious, ask questions, debate everything, innovate.”
In addition to their endeavor to accomplish that which is needed collectively, Israelis are also eager to improve themselves personally. Therefore, they tend to be extremely well-read; bookstores, educational book shops or book cafes can be found in almost every neighborhood. As a result of these public and personal endeavors, the Jewish people often follow through on that which they initially set out to do.
Consequently, with its relatively small population of 8 million and its young state history spanning only 66 years, Israeli society is able to manage its institutions from the family to the state. According to my observations, this real success may be attributed to Israeli society’s loyalty to certain values: dedication to religious and traditional rituals, preservation of memories through rhetoric and symbols, and its tenacity in achieving its objective. In the end, it seems that success has become inevitable for the Israeli society.