Larry Bush, the editor of the left-wing secularist magazine, Jewish Currents, has written a powerful cover story for the New Jersey Jewish Standard. (I happen to have written often for Jewish Currents and have also twice recently published in the Standard.)
I’ve long felt that a shortcoming of Zionism (at least among supporters in the Diaspora and especially in the US) is that it has failed to conclusively establish Jewish identity as something distinct from the Jewish religion. Bush writes of Jewish institutions that make this effort in the US but are regrettably on the wane. If the atheistic (even Buddhist-leaning) David Ben-Gurion had not decided to ally politically with the religious Zionist movement (the modern Orthodox elements who formed the then politically moderate National Religious Party) against those to his left (the Zionist Mapam and the non-Zionist Communists), he would not have given the Orthodox a monopoly over defining issues of marriage and religious status for Jewish Israelis, which Meretz and other progressives struggle against to this day. Israel, which operates naturally according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and expresses itself primarily in the Hebrew language, is the most natural soil in the world for the ongoing viability of secular Jewish identity.
Bush confirms the vitality of secular Jewish identity in Israel:
Secularism has a potent Zionist history as well, embodied by, among others, Hashomer Hatzair…. With 40 to 50 percent of Jews in Israel identifying as secular, however, Israeli secularists generally seem to feel little need to organize themselves in educational or activist groupings. … The Israeli education system provides Israeli secularists with the Jewish identity-building information that American secularists might seek in a shule, and the line between religious and secular Jewish practice in Israel can be fuzzy. According to a 2008 survey, for example, close to 40 percent of Israeli secular Jews keep kosher most or all of the time, and many if not most Israeli secularists “observe” the Sabbath with family get-togethers, as much of the public square shuts down.
Bush also notes the establishment of a “secular Yeshiva” in Tel Aviv in 2007. There is also a “Judaism as culture” movement (Meitar: the College of Judaism as Culture is headquartered in Jerusalem ) and a parallel trend for secular Israelis to study the original Jewish texts as an effort to reclaim our tradition without embracing the strictures of religion.
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