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  • Introduction:Israel and Jewish Studies
  • Gregory Mahler (bio)

Gregory Mahler

The readers of Shofar are interested in Jewish Studies, and this issue of Shofar certainly delivers that, but it does so in a manner unusual for these pages: all of the articles in this issue focus on dimensions of Jewish Studies in Israel. The six articles included in this issue touch upon some controversial and complex issues in current Israeli society that are directly related to concepts of Jewish Studies. The authors included here all presented papers at the annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies in June of 2011, and have modified and expanded their presentations for inclusion here.

Israel is a Jewish State. We know this. We also know that one of the most common misperceptions of Israel held by students new to the subject of Israel Studies is the assumption that as "Israel is a Jewish state," therefore all Israelis must be Jewish, and all Israelis must share ideas about what it means to be Jewish. Not only are all Israelis not Jewish, but also all Jewish Israelis are not alike. The combination of these two phenomena makes for the possibility of a number of dimensions of conflict.

The visibility of "Israeli Arabs"—that is, non-Jewish Israelis—has traditionally been low in Israel, but this has changed over time. Today, almost one Israeli citizen (not including occupants of the West Bank or Gaza) in five is Muslim, and more than 24 percent of the population, according to 2009 census data, is non-Jewish. Of the 1.5 million individuals classified as belonging to a religious group other than Jewish, roughly 10 percent are Christians, 81 percent are Muslims, and 8 percent are Druze. There are very small communities of Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Protestant, and Maronite followers as well.

But Israel is a state that clearly has a Jewish majority.1 This was one of the central tenets of political Zionism from the time of the rise of Zionism in 1896 through Israel's independence in 1948: a Jewish majority in a Jewish state. This does not mean that Israel's Jewish majority is homogeneous, though, either in its physical or geographic heritage, or in its philosophy or ways that it interprets Judaism. As Raphael Cohen-Almagor notes in his contribution here, [End Page 1]

Israel is an immigrant country. After the Holocaust, many Jews and non-Jews alike realized the need to establish a state for the Jewish people. Jews from all corners of the world arrived in Israel and established their homes. The bringing together of people from different cultures, traditions, ideologies, and worldviews is bound to create tensions, and Israel is saturated with schisms, the major ones being between religious and secular Jews; between immigrants and Sabras (people who were born in Israel); and between Ashkenazim (generally speaking, people who came from Europe and America) and Sepharadim (generally speaking, people who arrived from Asia and Africa).

In this issue of Shofar we present six essays that touch upon the challenges and consequences resulting from having some of the schisms to which Cohen-Almagor refers. We start with an essay by Alexander Kaye, "Democratic Themes in Religious Zionism," that discusses the relationship between traditional religious Zionist principles and the challenges of developing a modern secular state. That general theme is continued and expanded in "Integration of Religion in Democratizing Societies: Lessons from the Israeli Experience," in which Aviad Rubin discusses how the interaction of religious principles and democratic practice in Israel might have some lessons and application for contemporary Islamic states that have recently survived the Arab Spring.

Following Rubin's essay are four contributions that focus on the ways that Judaism in Israel faces more specific challenges. Miri Talmon discusses cultural and media issues involved in questions of Jewish identity on Israeli television, and how Orthodox communities are being shown on Israeli television today in a new way. Following this, Miriam Feldheim presents a fascinating study of women's rights as applied to the bus segregation conflict in contemporary Israel, showing how the demands of Orthodox Jews for gender-segregated public buses conflict with the demands of secular women for equal...


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