Israeli Jewish identity or rather identities have been shaped in the context of the Jewish-Palestinian colonial conflict. The success of the colonial Zionist project required that the Jewish community in pre¬1948 Palestine (Yishuv) be constituted as a highly mobilized community, committed to a common purpose - the fulfillment of Zionism. The most cherished expression of this commitment, Chalutziyut (pioneering), was conceptualized as a composite of two distinct qualities, corresponding to the two bases of legitimation invoked by the Zionist settlers. These were, first, Jewish historical rights in Palestine and, secondly, the redemptive activities of the "pioneers": physical labor, agricultural settlement and military defense. The pioneers saw what they called "self-realization" of these concepts as their personal obligation.
Chalutziyut was considered the ultimate form of contribution to the Zionist effort, and its practitioners were considered w.orthy of the highest social recognition. This laid the basis for distinguishing between Jews and Palestinians as protagonists or opponents of Zionism. It also differentiated between the various groupings within the Jewish community itself, according to their presumed contributions to the implementation of Zionism. As a result, the rights, duties, privileges and obligations associated with the notion of citizenship have not been accorded equally to all Israeli citizens. Rather, they have been distributed differentially between the different social sectors, resulting in a highly fragmented and hierarchical structure of citizenship and identity.
In recent years, the "normative" or hegemonic form of Israeli-Jewish identity based on these Zionist-oriented notions and associated most clearly with the veteran Ashkenazi elite has faced a challenge by some of the sectors created by this uneven citizenship structure. A structure including Mizrahim Oews from Eastern countries), Orthodox religious Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union - indeed the descendents of the very "pioneers" themselves. These challenges have weakened the traditional elite and increasingly hampered its efforts to pursue coherent policies in any policy area, particularly in the sphere of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Since, as I argue, it is the traditional elite that is most interested in pursuing peace with the Palestinians, for economic as well as political and cultural reasons, its diminished political standing has contributed to the temporary derailment of the peace process.

The "Pioneering" Identity of the Ashkenazi Elite

The notion of "pioneering" stemmed from the experience of the Ashkenazi (East European) Jewish immigrant workers of the second aliyah (immigration). This wave of immigration occurred in 1904-1914. The plantation colonists of the first aliyah (1882-1903) had found a large and relatively cheap indigenous Arab labor force in Palestine. Palestinian Arab workers possessed some land, housing, and social services within their traditional economy, and sought only seasonal work and supplementary income in the Jewish settlements. When the immigrant workers of the second aliyah arrived, and sought to replace the Palestinian workers, they demanded year-round jobs, which were their only source of income and better wages, because they were used to a higher standard of living. Most of these immigrant workers, though inexperienced in agriculturallabor, were not sufficiently acquiescent in the eyes of their employers. As a result, the Jewish planters preferred to continue to employ Palestinian-Arab workers, rather than their own Jewish brethren.
Having tried, and failed, to adjust to the wage levels of Arab workers, in 1905 these Ashkenazi workers adopted a new strategy, the "conquest of labor." They claimed that "a necessary condition for the realization of Zionism is the conquest of all occupations" in Palestine by Jews. This new strategy enjoyed only modest success, however, and was soon replaced by a new one - "pioneering" collective agricultural settlement on national Jewish land reserved exclusively for Jewish settlement and Jewish cultivation.
This form of settlement led, eventually, to the development of a new economic sector, employing only Jews and under the control of the Labor Zionist movement, operating through the formidable Histadrut Jewish workers movement (Shafir 1989; Shafir and Peled 2002). This economic sector, with Labor Zionism's most famous social innovation, the kibbutz, at its center, gradually developed into an economic empire encompassing, in its peak days, vast economic concerns alongside its trade union activities. This encompassed agricultural, manufacturing, construction, marketing, transportation and financial activities, many cooperative ventures, and a whole network of social service organizations, including a national health service. This conglomerate had operated under the aegis of the Histadrut, and as long as Labor was in power (1933-1977), it enjoyed the support first of Zionist institutions and then of the state as well. At the same time, this economic infrastructure played a crucial role in maintaining the political and cultural hegemony of the Labor Zionist movement, thus ensuring the privileged position of a large segment of Ashkenazi Jews.

Mizrahim between Quality and Quantity

The dominant status of Ashkenazim in Israeli society is usually explained by their having been the earlier Jewish settlers in the country. Massive immigration of Mizrahi (Eastern Jews from the Middle Eastern and North African countries) took place only after 1948, so the argument goes. By then the old-timer Ashkenazim, especially those organized in the Histadrut, had already laid the foundations for a new society, in which they occupied the commanding heights.
In actual fact, however, throughout the period of the Yishuv the number of Jewish immigrants from the Moslem East arriving in Palestine had been proportionate to their share of the world Jewish population at the time¬approximately ten percent. Yemenite Jewish immigrants, for example, arrived in Palestine simultaneously with the founding fathers of both the first and second aliyot. Like their Ashkenazi counterparts, the Yemenites of the second aliyah expected to replace Palestinian workers in the Jewish¬owned plantation colonies (Moshavot), but failed in this attempted "conquest of labor." However, while the "pioneering" Ashkenazi workers went on to make history by establishing cooperative settlements, the Yemenites were relegated to the sidelines of both Jewish-Israeli society and the Zionist historical narrative.
The different historical trajectories of the two communities reflected the superior organizational ability of the Ashkenazi workers, which placed them in a better position to procure resources from the World Zionist Organization. The Ashkenazim, however, legitimated their demands by drawing a distinction between themselves as "idealistic" and the Yemenites as "natural" workers. "Idealistic workers" were those who had forfeited the comforts of European urban life and the opportunity of immigrating to America, and chose of their own free will to become agricultural workers in Palestine. "Natural workers," on the other hand, were not as the term implies, necessarily experienced agricultural workers and most Yemenites were not. The term referred, rather, to people capable of performing hard work for very little compensation. "Idealistic workers" were the stuff pioneers were made of, blazing the trail and setting moral standards for the community. "Natural workers," on the other hand, were to be foot soldiers in the Zionist campaign, adding quantity to the pioneers' qualitative efforts.
This distinction between quality and quantity was meant to bridge the gap between the pioneers' claim to be a dedicated, exclusive vanguard, deserving of special privileges, and the need to draw the Jewish masses to Palestine. This proved to be of crucial importance in the 1950s and 60s, when the pioneers, now occupying all dominant positions in the society, had to deal with a massive influx of Mizrahi immigrants. Thus, as Jews immigrating under the Law of Return, Mizrahi immigrants were granted all civil and political rights. At the same time, however, they were socially marginalized, sent to settle in border areas and in towns emptied of their Palestinian inhabitants in 1948, to beef up the lower ranks of the military, and to provide unskilled labor for the country's agricultural and industrialization drive.
The resultant "ethnic gap" between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in educational attainment, occupational status, income distribution and political power has persisted, and in some respects has even widened. Mizrahim, by and large, are concentrated today in the working and lower middle classes, while Ashkenazim largely comprise the upper and upper middle classes of Israeli society.
For decades, Mizrahim had not been able to find an effective political voice in which to express their grievances and to challenge the dominant Zionist identity that had relegated them to the margins of Jewish Israeli society. Repeated efforts to form Mizrahi political parties or social movements had failed, and most Mizrahim had been voting for Labor, on whom they were dependent, and then, since the mid -1970s, for Likud. Only in 1984, with the appearance of Shas, a Mizrahi religiously Orthodox social movement and political party, has a distinct Mizrahi notion of Jewish Israeli identity appeared on the scene and has become the major challenge to the dominant, Ashkenazi identity.
Shas's electoral power has risen from 63,600 votes and four Knesset seats in 1984 to 480,000 votes and seventeen Knesset seats in 1999 (to Likud's nineteen seats and Labor's twenty-four). The party utilizes this political power in order to promote a new version of Zionism and a new conception of Israeli Jewish identity. While Shas clearly appeals to a particular social sector, lower class Mizrahim, the identity it seeks to promote is not a Mizrahi identity but rather Jewish identity. Its key argument is that the modern and "pioneering" aspects of the dominant identity, which had been used to marginalize the Mizrahim, should be replaced by Orthodox religious Jewish identity, which would accord all Jews (and only Jews) the same rights and standing in society. By stressing Jewish, as opposed to Mizrahi identity as its political formula, Shas has wisely avoided the charge of separatism that had been leveled against all previous attempts to organize the Mizrahim politically. Its call for "Returning the Crown [of JudaismJ to its Ancient Glory" has resonated well among lower-class Mizrahim precisely because they do not consider it a separatist slogan, and because of the privileged status Orthodox Jewish religion already enjoyed in Israeli public life (Peled 1998; Peled 2001).

The Privileged Orthodox Jews

Israel's constitutional definition as a Jewish state precluded the possibility of adopting one of the key identifying features of the modern state: the separation of state and religion. Instead, Jewish religion, or more accurately Orthodox Jewish religion, is guaranteed an official role in the country's public life. This manifests itself primarily in four important areas: (1) the almost exclusive jurisdiction granted Orthodox religious courts over matters of family law; (2) legal sanctioning of the observance of the Sabbath and of Jewish holidays in the public sphere; (3) state support of religious educational institutions that are largely autonomous of the general educational system; and (4) various privileges granted Orthodox individuals, most importantly exemption from military service granted Orthodox women and Orthodox Yeshiva (religious seminary) students. Non-orthodox pluralistic religious streams have received no official recognition.
Students of Zionist and Israeli politics have been puzzled, over the years, by the accommodating (even subservient) attitude displayed by the Zionist movement and by the Israeli state towards Orthodox Jews, many of them non- and even anti-Zionist. Zionism, after all, has always proclaimed itself a secular national movement in the tradition of the Enlightenment. It intended, in the famous words of Herzl, the founder of political Zionism in 1897, to keep the rabbis in their synagogues and the soldiers in their barracks. Furthermore, Orthodox Jews have constituted a relatively small minority in the Yishuv and in Israel (currently they comprise about 25 percent of the Jewish population), and their political influence has been vastly disproportionate to their electoral strength.
The usual explanation for the privileges enjoyed by Orthodox Jews has been that Israel's system of proportional representation has enabled Orthodox political parties to hold the balance needed for forming coalition governments. As "one issue" movements, so the argument goes, these political parties can be satisfied with budgetary allocations and with concessions in matters relating to the role of religion in the public sphere. Thus, gaining their parliamentary support does not require (or, at least, did not require in the past) of the major political parties to pay any price in more important policy areas: social, economic, military and foreign policy.
While this explanation may be able to account for tactical decisions made by the major parties at particular historical moments, it cannot account for the depth and breadth of the role Orthodox J udaism has been able to play in Israeli public life. The real explanation for that is more profound, and has to do with the nature of Zionism as a national movement. Of all the political movements spawned by the crisis of Eastern European Jewry in the second half of the 19th century, Zionism alone claimed to speak on behalf of a world-wide Jewish nation. The only cultural attribute holding this Jewish nation together, however, was the common religion to which the vast majority of Jews still held. Claiming to speak in the name of world Jewry, both internally and externally, Zionism needed at least the tacit approval of those universally recognized as the Jewish spokesmen: Orthodox rabbis.
Zionism was not unique among national movements in its efforts to coopt the bearers and symbols of tradition. All national movements have had to rely on "primordial" cultural elements in order to mobilize their target populations for essentially modernizing aims. For Zionism, however, the need to rely on such factors for legitimation and mobilization was particularly acute, as there was no modern culture common to all Jews. This reality dictated, firstly, the choice of the movement's target territory - Palestine (in dispute until Herzl's death in 1904), and then the use of a whole array of religious Jewish symbols and other cultural constructs. Traditional Jewish themes abound in Israeli lore, from the dubbing of immigration to Palestine aliyah (ascent or pilgrimage), through the choice of the Star of David and the seven-branch candelabrum (Menorah) as the official emblems of the state, to the celebration of Jewish religious holidays as national holidays.
What accounts for the forthcoming attitude displayed by the state and by non-observant Israeli Jews towards Jewish religion, then, is primarily the need for religious affirmation of their collective, ethno-national identity. Because their identity symbolizes Jewish unity and the continuity of Jewish history, Orthodox Jews have provided the Zionist project with the ideological resources it required for legitimating its claim to act on behalf of a world-wide Jewish nation that possesses an historically substantiated right to the Land of Israel.

Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union

The privileged status of Jews and of Orthodox Judaism in Israel makes the question "Who is a Jew?" an important political issue. In 1970, the official definition of "Jew" for the purpose of the Law of Return was made identical with the Orthodox definition - anyone born of a Jewish mother who has not converted to another religion, as well as converts to Judaism. This restricted definition came into conflict, however, with the demographic aim of Zionism, to produce, maintain and enhance the Jewish majority in Israel. As a result, the Law of Return was amended, so that one Jewish grandparent became sufficient to entitle a person and her/his spouse and minor children to the privileges provided by the law. Thus, it is estimated that up to 20 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and fully 60 percent by the mid-1990s, have not been Jews by the Orthodox definition. (The Jewishness of Ethiopian immigrants is also questioned by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, but in their case the questions do not refer to individuals but rather to the community as a whole.) Since marriage, divorce, and burial are all under the exclusive jurisdiction of religious authorities, these non-Jews or doubtful Jews run into problems when they come to need these services, unless they undergo an orthodox conversion to Judaism. One paradoxical result of the amended Law of Return, then, is the development of a new non-Jewish, non-Palestinian Israeli ethnic identity. This ethnic identity is further augmented by the influx of lab or migrants from foreign countries of labor migrants into Israel that began with the first Intifada (1987-1993) and was greatly accelerated after the Oslo accords.
In spite of the high rate of non-Jews among them (about 25 percent), the million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived during the 1990s consider Jewishness to be a major component of their identity. But they see their Jewishness primarily as a national rather than a religious identity. Thus, most of them are opposed to religious legislation and favor the institution of civil marriage and divorce. At the same time, they strongly support nationalist positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of their experience in the Soviet Union, most of these immigrants hold liberal economic views, but they still feel that the state has not done enough in order to facilitate their own absorption in Israel.
Most distinctively, immigrants from the former Soviet Union have a sense of cultural superiority in relation to the rest of Israeli society. They have established a whole network of institutions, a vibrant press, high¬quality schools, a theater, innumerable bookstores, libraries and other facilities in order to preserve their Russian cultural heritage. On the margins of this cultural activity, the demand to include Russian as a third official language in Israel, in addition to Hebrew and Arabic, is already being heard.
Unlike the Mizrahim, Soviet immigrants were able to quickly organize one political party, and then a second one, within a very few years of their arrival. These two parties, expressing the particular repertoire of political views held by the immigrants, and helping in their efforts at cultural preservation, received over 50 percent of Soviet immigrant vote in the general elections of 1999, and currently have ten seats in the Knesset.

The Challenge of Liberalization

Over the years, Israel's economic development, largely funded by external sources, has weakened both state and Histadrut control over the economy in favor of private business interests. This sectoral shift has manifested itself in policy changes that began as early as the late 1960s, allowing market forces to play a greater role in the economy and providing foreign goods and investments easier access to the Israeli market.
The liberal economic policy and other changes inaugurated in 1985 have enabled the Israeli economy to take advantage of the globalization processes started in the 1980s. Such economic changes have affected the personal fortunes of the younger members of the veteran Ashkenazi elite. If the second generation of leaders of the Labor Zionist movement (such as yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) made their careers in the various public bureaucracies or in the military, the third generation, those who came of age after 1967, were drawn to the private sector. These young members of the elite have been the principal champions of economic liberalization and of the integration of Israel's economy within the world market. They have also come to see the institutional edifice created by the Labor movement around the Histadrut as an obstacle to economic rationality and to their own economic wellbeing. Since they feel confident enough to compete in the open market, their concern is no longer to be protected within this market but rather to expand it as much as possible.
The liberal economic values of this emergent business community are naturally more consonant with a liberal worldview than with the collectivist pioneering identity forged by their grandparents. Moreover, the continuing conflict with the Palestinians has had a negative impact on Israel's ability to gain from the process of globalization. Israeli businesses faced many obstacles in trying to operate in the Third World, and Western businesses were reluctant to invest in Israel because of the Arab boycott and their fear of political instability. Thus, operating through organizations such as Peace Now, it was primarily the younger members of the Ashkenazi elite who provided the main opposition to Likud's efforts to legitimate the de¬facto annexation of the occupied territories and the 1982 adventure in Lebanon. They were also the group that was most supportive of the Oslo peace process.
Electorally, this economic elite has had a major base in the Labor party, whose economic policies had reflected the elite's interests, at least since 1985. But its views have been expressed even more clearly by two political parties standing at the two opposite flanks of Labor: the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) and Meretz. The DMC appeared on the scene on the eve of the 1977 general elections with a platform calling for increased efficiency and honesty in government and for relaxation of state control over the economy and other areas of public life, such as culture and mass communications. In the 1977 elections, this party drew 15 Knesset seats away from Labor, thus enabling Likud to take power. By 1981, the DMC had disintegrated and most of its voters either returned to Labor or joined the more liberal-dovish Meretz party.
Together with some neo-liberal groups within the Labor party, Meretz has become the main champion of privatization and economic liberalization, as well as of the peace process with the Palestinians. In the Histadrut general elections of May 1994, a peace and privatization block, headed by Ch aim Ramon of Labor and including Meretz and Shas, won nearly 50 percent of the vote. Thus the Histadrut was captured by those who were formerly its bitterest enemies, receiving the coup de grace with the nationalization of its health care system, a move that eliminated the dependence upon it of a broad sector of the population. Since the "pioneering" labor economic sector centered on the Histadrut had provided the material infrastructure for the old "pioneering" identity, that identity too has suffered a major loss of status.


The decline in the traditional identity of "pioneering" Labor Zionism has left the field open to a fierce conflict between two alternative conceptions of Israeli Jewish identity: a neo-Zionist religio-ethno-national identity advocated by the Orthodox-Mizrahi alliance exemplified by Shas and a post-Zionist liberal national identity promoted most clearly by Meretz. The great instability exhibited by Israel's political system over the last decade, as seen most dramatically and tragically in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, is an expression of this confrontation. The twists and turns in the peace process are other consequences, since each one of these identities has its own conception not only of Israeli society but also of Israel's place in the world and, most importantly, in the Middle East.
While the post-Zionist identity probably enjoys a slight majority in the Israeli population as a whole, the neo-Zionist one is clearly preferred by the majority of Israeli Jews. In order to prevail politically, therefore, the post-Zionist camp must be able to forge a genuine alliance with Israel's Palestinian citizens. Its failure to do that resulted in the killing of 13 Palestinian citizens by police in October 2000 and in massive abstention by Palestinians in the prime ministerial elections of February 2001, enabling Ariel Sharon to win in a "landslide." This failure does not augur well for the prospects of the post-Zionist identity or for the peace process.


Peled, Yoav. ed. 2001. Shas: The Challenge of Israeliness (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot.
_________, 1998. "Towards a Redefinition of Jewish Nationalism in Israel? The Enigma of Shas." Ethnic and Racial Studies 21:703-27.
Shafir, Gershon. 1989. Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Shafir, Gershon and Yoav Peled. 2002. Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship. Cambridge:Cambridge UP.