Why does Israeli Judaism not resemble our Judaism, ask American or European Jews? Why are Israelis so different in their politics, in their culture? Well, replies the noted journalist and author Matti Friedman in an interview with the Times of Israel, it’s because Israelis live in the Middle East, and “without understanding the Middle Easternness of this country, you can’t get anywhere.”
[Israel is] much more a Middle Eastern place than the one in the stories. It was designed as a refuge for the Jews from Europe but it came too late for that. It became a refuge for Jews from the Middle East. It’s part of the continuum of the Jewish presence inside the Muslim world, in different circumstances.
This country does not rest on socialism and secularism [the values of the early Zionist pioneers]. It rests on a bedrock of Jewish identity that has a lot to do with people who came here from Baghdad, Aleppo, and Casablanca, and who understand things that are deeply important about being Jewish in the Middle East and the Arab world. That wisdom was disdained in the first few decades of modern Israel, but is coming increasingly to the fore now.
the Jews of European origin are becoming more Mizraḥi here — in their behavior, their attitude to religion. Your Israeli kids are more Middle Eastern than you if you are a Western immigrant.
And what does this revised self-conception mean for Israel’s place in the region? “To throw out one far-fetched idea,” Friedman says, “I’d love it if we, if Israel, became part of the Arab League, for instance.”
If we keep thinking of ourselves as Europeans, dumped here, we’ll continue to be the outsider. But the continuum of Jewish life in the Middle East offers us the way to see ourselves as, and to be, part of the region.