By Dalia Liran-Alper, Ph.D.
Introduction - Culture and Israeli Culture
From an anthropological perspective, the term “culture” encompasses the way social life as a whole is conducted – the tradition and typical customs, the character of the arts, the structure of social, familial, sexual, and economic relations, and so forth. Culture includes a value system and mediates between society and the reality in which it functions. Society and culture researchers emphasize that a shared cultural foundation based on cultural assets, traditions, values, and symbols is a prerequisite for a society’s existence. However, a shared foundation does not necessarily create a coherent and homogeneous cultural system, for in every society there are groups with their own unique cultural system that they seek to preserve and foster (Shavit et. al, 2000).
Israeli culture has been evolving and growing for the past one hundred and twenty years. What is this culture? Is it even possible to speak of one culture? Does the culture that has been evolving in this small Middle Eastern country still belong to Jewish heritage? In response to orthodox rabbis who regard the new Israeli culture as inconsequential and vacuous, as “The Empty Wagon,” a compilation of articles published following a scientific conference on one hundred and twenty years of Israeli culture that was held under the aegis of the Hebrew University was entitled “The Full Wagon.” In this compilation a variety of culture and society researchers present Israeli society as a rich, living, and vibrant historical entity that reflects multiple contrasts, and a wealth of influences, that has experienced struggles, grown in the encounters between immigrants groups, and was shaped between ideology and spontaneity. Israeli literature, poetry, theatre, film, dance, Hebrew songs, and architecture, all illuminate the complexity and vitality of Israeli culture (see Bartal, 2002), either as a value system or a diverse variety of forms of expression.
Origins of Israeli Culture
Israeli culture is the accepted term for the culture and art created in Israel from the late nineteenth century onward, and especially after the establishment of the State of Israel. Four foundations stood at the basis of the cultural reality that developed in Israel from the mid-nineteenth century: (1) pre-modern Jewish culture and Jewish heritage, which is represented by Yiddish and Ladino; (2) imperial culture, which the Jews adopted in the Modern Era, and which was imported mainly from Czarist Russia (and later from Poland and Germany); (3) local Middle Eastern culture; and (4) the new Hebrew culture, whose bearers were members of the Palmach (Bartal, 2002).
Zionism, the “Sabra” Myth, and the Hebrew Language
Bartal (2002) contends that Zionism was a chapter of ethnic nationalism and a demand for the reshaping of national Jewish culture. It grew from awareness of the problems that emerged in the wake of the disintegration of the multinational empires in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. The Zionists strived to eliminate the cultural archetypes the immigrants brought with them, and sought to reshape the traditional heritage in a national-secular style and adapt it to a new national discourse. Thus the revival of the Hebrew language should also be viewed as the cultural language of the nation-state and as an expression of the new identity taking shape. He adds and emphasizes that modern Jewish nationality in its Zionist form not only continued the cultural unification trends of the new nation-state, but also the trends of the modern centrist state with its unilingual and unicultural ideology that opposed the earlier multiculturalism. The pre-modern Jewish cultures, which had been diluted with influences from their host countries, came to Israel with the waves of immigrants. Here they encountered the demanding force of a national ideology that sought to unite politics and culture. The painful encounter between heritage and the national vision created tensions, imposed changes, and engendered counteractions. Various cultural traditions claimed a place for themselves in Israeli society, and became part of the Israeli mosaic, either by merging into the dominant streams, or by externalized isolation (ibid.).
An Immigrant Society
As the product of an immigrant society, Israeli culture combines within it a rich and diverse variety of influences and cultural endeavor drawn from the countries and cultures from which the immigrants came. During the first years of settlement in pre-state Israel, the culture in the yishuv was mainly influenced by the milieu of the small Jewish town, the shtetl, from which most of the Jewish immigrants came, and by French and German cultures, which were encouraged due to the donations of Jewish benefactors such as Baron de Rothschild. In the 1930s and 40s, Russian culture had a dominant influence, which was manifested in poetry, music, and theatre. Theatre was also influenced by Yiddish culture and to a certain degree, especially the light entertainment stage, by vaudeville from the West and the innovative kabarett theatre that developed in Berlin. In the 1950s, French influence on Israeli cultural life was evident and, from the 1960s onward, western-American influence has increasingly grown in every sphere of culture and the arts.
Israeli Culture and Art
Israeli culture is an effective tool for refuting the stereotypical perception of a “country under siege” and “bitachonism” [securityism], and giving expression to the complexity and diversity of life in Israel. The culture is multifaceted, open, and democratic, and the literature, dance, film, theatre, music, plastic arts, design, and cuisine reflect creativity, innovation, boldness, intensity, and Israeli audacity, chutzpah.
Poetry and Literature
The printed word and reading are central in the new Hebrew and Israeli culture. Social and technological changes pose challenges for readers, but recent studies indicate that beyond an aesthetic experience, readers in Israel claim that Hebrew literature helps them to define their national, Israeli, and Jewish identity (Adoni & Nossek, 2007). Many consider Hebrew poetry and literature to be one of the most commendable achievements of Israeli culture. Since the 1950s and 60s modern works have been presented in colloquial Hebrew, as opposed to earlier Hebrew poetry, such as that of Natan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky, Rachel Bluwstein, and Leah Goldberg, or the literary style of one of the greatest Hebrew writers, Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Notable among the modern “State Generation” poets are Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, and David Avidan, and among the authors are Moshe Shamir and Aharon Meged, who were followed by Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, David Grossman, and others.
Classical music, which is identified more than anything else with high culture, flourished in Israel for many years. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has performed all over Israel, and frequently beyond its borders as well, as has the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Broadcasting Authority Orchestra, and other musical ensembles. Many local authorities founded small orchestras (the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra), many of whose musicians come from the former Soviet Union. In recent years classical music is being threatened not only by its own irrelevance, but also due to the increasing prestige of ethnic music, and symphony orchestras have begun to employ marketing strategies (“Philharmonic in Jeans”) to attract audiences (Katz & Sella, 1999).
The first theatre in Israel was the Habima, which was founded in Russia in 1917, immigrated to Israel, and established theatre that was heavily influenced by Russian culture. The Habima National Theatre, the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, the Beit Lessin Theatre, the Gesher Theatre (which performs in Hebrew and Russian), the Haifa Municipal Theatre, and the Beersheba Municipal Theatre are considered the major theatres in Israel. Their repertoire includes a variety of classical and modern drama, as well as original Israeli drama.
Israel is considered a powerhouse of modern dance (despite meager public financial support), with dance companies such as the Batsheva Dance Company and the Bat-Dor Dance Company, that perform all over the world. In the sphere of classical ballet, the contribution of immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union is notable. A branch of dance unique to Israel is Israeli folk dancing, which is a leisure activity for many Israelis, but which can also be viewed as the genre connecting folk dance and artistic dance, e.g., the annual Karmiel Dance Festival which has been held since 1988 (and representative Israeli folk dance troupes that perform all over the world).
Israeli film developed slowly from the 1950s and 60s, and initially focused mainly on social issues, tales of heroism (He Walked Through the Fields), and immigration stories, the most notable of which was Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah Shabati, which was also an Oscar nominee. Stories about ethnic communities and immigration also featured in the popular genre of ethnic melodrama (e.g., Nurit). Since the 1970s and 80s, with the increasingly growing influence of Western culture, more Israeli films focused on interpersonal and romantic relationships, and youth films became increasingly popular (Eskimo Limon, Dizengoff 99). Cinematic endeavor in Israel has expanded considerably in recent decades, despite scant funding and meager public financial support (Katz et al., 2000). Growth is evident in two directions: on the one hand films continue to focus on the individual, usually an urban man, and his inner struggles and hardships (Wisdom of the Pretzel, The Bubble) and, on the other, films that focus on the individual but against a backdrop of current events and the unique social structure in Israel, which present a critical perspective and have gained great critical acclaim worldwide, e.g., Waltz With Bashir, The Band’s Visit, and Ajami.
Israeli painters and sculptors present and sell their works all over the world. There are large art museums in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and small museums have been established in many towns and kibbutzim. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem houses the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as an extensive collection of Jewish ceremonial art and folk art. Safed, Jaffa, and Ein Hod are home to artists’ colonies. French influence was prominent in the sphere of painting and plastic arts in the 1950s and 60s, but later the influence of other creative European streams increased, and American influence in the sphere of design is particularly evident.
Press and Television
Israelis are avid newspaper readers. In the early years of the State, political party newspapers flourished, and subsequently declined in the wake of sociopolitical changes in the country. The big dailies nowadays are privately owned commercial newspapers. Many foreign-language newspapers have closed down as a result of dwindling waves of immigration to Israel (with the exception of newspapers in Russian). Many cities and towns publish local newspapers and culture magazines, and the publication of free daily newspapers has become increasingly widespread. In recent decades a lively and open public and political discourse is being conducted in the press on social issues and around the relevance of historical Israeli myths (Almog, 2004).
Analysis of the cultural endeavor, especially in theatre and film and, to a great extent in music and literary content as well, shows that from the 1980s onward most of the protagonists deal with personal and interpersonal problems. Subjects associated with Israel’s existential problems as a society feature in no more than 20% of works, a phenomenon indicating a tendency to focus on the personal-private world and shunt these issues to the periphery of society’s field of vision (Katz et al., 2000: 203). Social issues are generally presented through the individual citizen’s encounters with the social system, and “fears and anxieties” and “personal traumas” are frequently addressed. The content worlds of film and theatre have changed considerably since the 1960s, when problems associated with and referring to the Jewish-Arab conflict were more widespread, as were oppositional perspectives that were reflected in cultural texts, whether in theatre (Hanoch Levin) or film (Uri Zohar). In general, the picture of Israel’s cultural world reflects the ideological changes that have taken place in Israeli society. It has become a more individualistic consumer society, and there has been a decline in the collectivist orientation that typified the early years of the Zionist state. As in any consumer and capitalist society, some of the values of the working class have been adopted by and absorbed into the bourgeois culture and ideology in a process that Gramsci (1971) termed “cultural hegemony,” whereby the working-class culture loses its political identity and becomes an ostensibly organic part of the bourgeois culture, for example Mizrahi music which in the early twenty-first century enjoys pride of place at family celebrations in all the ethnic communities.
Central Characteristics of Israeli Culture in the Twenty-first Century
Israeli culture is a heterogeneous, dynamic, and vital entity that is not easy to define. It could be argued that Israeli culture is so rich and diverse due to the diversity of its population comprising immigrants from five continents and more than a hundred countries, and due to significant subcultures such as the Palestinian, Russian, and Jewish ultra-Orthodox cultures, each of which numbers about a million people who maintain independent communities, including their own newspapers and networks for the dissemination of culture products.
They go on to state that the culture policy should accord special weight to Hebrew culture in all its diversity and strata, for it is Hebrew culture that determines Israeli society’s overall cultural tone and its common cultural foundation (ibid: 9).
 Minister of Education Yigal Allon quoted national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik: Any nation seeking existence without shame and disgrace must create culture, not only to be used, but to create it with its own hands, with its own tools and materials, and with its own mark (quoted in Ronen, see Katz & Selah, 1999: 9).
 The Palmach (Hebrew acronym for Plugot Machatz, lit. “strike force”) was the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Yishuv during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine.
 The word sabra is derived from the Hebrew name for the prickly pear cactus, and is used to describe a native-born Israeli.
 The Jewish settlement in pre-state Israel.
 People who were born in Israel in or around 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel.
 It should be stated, however, that in the first decade of the twenty-first century Israeli film has reverted to engaging in political and social issues, as stated above.