Analysis from Israel

An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

The QIZ, which the U.S. created 10 years ago in order to bolster Egyptian-Israeli peace by encouraging economic collaboration, allows Egypt to export textiles to America duty-free if Israel contributes a certain percentage of their value. But until now, Egypt has kept its cooperation with Israel as low-profile and limited as possible due to the sweeping consensus against normalization.

After all, this is a country where a leading author was expelled from the writers’ union and saw his books banned for the “crime” of traveling to Israel and writing about his experiences. It’s a country where translated Israeli books sparked such outrage that the culture minister had to defend himself from accusations of “normalization” by saying the translations were intended only to enable Egyptians to “know their enemy” and promising that the project would involve no contact with Israeli publishers, but only with the Israeli authors’ foreign publishers. It’s a country where every candidate in the 2012 presidential election vowed to either scrap or “renegotiate” the peace treaty with Israel. And none of this was long ago.

Yet now, suddenly, Egypt is running a joint booth with Israel at a trade fair and discussing ways to expand the QIZ.

In part, this may indicate that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is more serious about trying to improve his country’s battered economy than he’s often given credit for–to the point that he’s even willing to bolster cooperate with Israel to do so, despite the risk of antagonizing the anti-normalization trolls, who quite definitely still exist.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this happening without the growing recognition that Egypt and Israel face a common enemy: the Islamist terrorists in the Sinai and their Palestinian collaborators from Gaza. As a result, not only has security cooperation between the two defense establishments never been closer, but attitudes have also begun changing among ordinary Egyptians. During last summer’s war in Gaza, for instance, some Egyptian media commentators openly rooted for Israel to defeat Hamas (which an Egyptian court has since declared a terrorist organization).

Just how much Egypt’s enemy list has changed in recent years was somewhat ironically highlighted by a front-page article in the daily Al Ahram last week, after ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and the Obama administration refused to support Egypt’s retaliatory airstrikes. In the best tradition of Egyptian conspiracy theories, the article accused Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. of collaborating to sow “chaos and destruction” in Egypt. Notably absent from the list was the usual suspect–the one that used to routinely figure as the villain in every Egyptian conspiracy theory, like the 2010 classic that blamed the Mossad for shark attacks on Sinai beaches.

Having long since despaired of the dream that the cold peace with Egypt would someday thaw into normalization, most Israelis figured the new and improved security coordination was as good as it gets and expected nothing more. And yet, improbably, more seems to be happening. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything more “normalized” than a joint booth at a trade fair. And it offers hope that just maybe, something good can emerge from the current Mideast madness.

Originally published in Commentary on February 25, 2015

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Jewsraelis: A Review of ‘#IsraeliJudaism’ by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs

Through 2,000 years of exile, Judaism survived because rabbinic sages reshaped it into a portable religion rather than one anchored to a specific land. But what happens once a Jewish state is reestablished? Judaism is changing once again, Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs argue in #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution—only this time, from the bottom up.

The book, published in Hebrew in 2018 and English in 2019, is based on a survey of beliefs and practices among 3,005 Israeli Jews. The survey was commissioned by the Jewish People Policy Institute, where Rosner is a senior fellow; Fuchs was the project’s statistician. A book based on a survey could easily become an indigestible mass of statistics, but Rosner and Fuchs have produced a highly readable (and superbly translated) analysis of what this data actually tell us.

What they tell us, the authors say, is that a “new Judaism” is emerging in Israel—one that values Jewish tradition, though not strict adherence to halacha (Jewish law), and that views national identity as a crucial component of Judaism. For instance, 73 percent of Jewish Israelis say being Jewish includes observing Jewish festivals and customs. And 72 percent say being a good Jew includes raising one’s children to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, while 60 percent say it includes raising one’s children to live in Israel.

This fusion of religious and national identity characterizes 55 percent of Israeli Jews, whom Rosner and Fuchs infelicitously dub “Jewsraelis.” The rest divide roughly equally among people whose identity is primarily Jewish (17 percent), primarily Israeli (15 percent), and primarily universalist (13 percent).

Israeli Judaism necessarily differs from both the Diaspora and pre-state versions, since its national components, like army service, aren’t possible outside a Jewish state. Moreover, Judaism is present in Israel’s public square to a degree impossible elsewhere, from public-school classes on the Bible (since it’s part of Israel’s cultural heritage) to the country’s complete shutdown on Yom Kippur. Unsurprisingly, this produces fierce arguments over what Judaism’s public component should look like, including efforts to dictate it through legislative or executive action.

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