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Directed by God

Directed by God
Jewishness in Contemporary Israeli Film and Television

The first study of its kind, Directed by God analyzes several representations of Jewish religiosity in Israeli film and television that challenge secular Zionism in contemporary Israeli society.

September 2016
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200 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 15 b&w photos |

As part of its effort to forge a new secular Jewish nation, the nascent Israeli state tried to limit Jewish religiosity. However, with the steady growth of the ultraorthodox community and the expansion of the settler community, Israeli society is becoming increasingly religious. Although the arrival of religious discourse in Israeli politics has long been noticed, its cultural development has rarely been addressed. Directed by God explores how the country’s popular media, principally film and television, reflect this transformation. In doing so, it examines the changing nature of Zionism and the place of Judaism within it.

Once the purview of secular culture, Israel’s media initially promoted alternatives to traditional religious expression; however, using films such as Kadosh, Waltz with Bashir, and Eyes Wide Open, Yaron Peleg shows how Israel’s contemporary film and television programs have been shaped by new religious trends and how secular Israeli culture has processed and reflected on its religious heritage. He investigates how shifting cinematic visions of Jewish masculinity and gender track transformations in the nation’s religious discourse. Moving beyond the secular/religious divide, Directed by God explores changing film and television representations of different Jewish religious groups, assessing what these representations may mean for the future of Israeli society.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • A Note on Transliteration
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Jewish and Human: Images of Orthodox Jews
  • Chapter 2. Jewish and Israeli: Images of Mizrahi Jews
  • Chapter 3. Jewish and Fanatic: Images of Religious Zionists
  • Chapter 4. Jewish and Popular: Images of Religion on TV
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Filmography
  • Index

Yaron PelegCambridge, EnglandPeleg is the Kennedy-Leigh Lecturer in modern Hebrew studies at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches modern Hebrew literature and Israeli culture. He is the author of Israeli Culture between the Two Intifadas: A Brief Romance and coeditor of Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion.



This book makes a claim and a suggestion. The claim is that a century after its establishment as a secular, Jewish national entity, the State of Israel at the dawn of Zionism’s second century is becoming increasingly more religious in many important ways. The suggestion this book makes is that one of the most vivid testimonies of this ironic metamorphosis can be found in the history of the country’s visual media—Israeli films and television programs.

Zionism And Jewish Religion

In 1958 David Ben-Gurion famously asked the Jewish sages of his day to help him define “who is a Jew,” as he put it. Israel’s first prime minister must have known that his quest was impractical, but he still engaged in an exercise that characterized the state’s foundational era when such grand questions loomed large and urgent. He was also motivated by specific political reasons. The replies he received were not political, however. They were varied and fascinating, and expressed a wide range of perceptions about the nature of a category that will likely remain elusive forever. None of them solved Ben-Gurion’s immediate problem, and he eventually sidetracked it by seeking a practical political solution, as was his wont.

One of the most interesting aspects of this episode was the fact that it even arose, although this was probably inevitable in a country that was founded in the name of an ancient religion but wished at the same time to be modern and secular. Ben-Gurion’s inquiry articulated that paradox in a rare moment of clarity, and the kind of political solution he eventually devised to avoid its explosive nature has come to characterize Israeli politics ever since. It was perhaps possible to be more decisive during the heady days of state building, when the secular spirit that animated Jewish nationalism reigned almost supremely. But this was not the way the state’s founders chose to negotiate its religious character, preferring instead to build consensus by leaving the matter unresolved.

Wrapped into this episode and the way it unfolded was the question, somewhat old even then, about the nature of a Jewish existence severed from religion. Suggestions for such an existence had abounded since the nineteenth century. Jewish nationalism was only one of several ideas that were cultivated at the time to solve the so-called Jewish problem, and one of the least practical ones, as well as one of the least likely to materialize. The more sensible ideas tried to leverage post-biblical Jewish history and not work against it, like Zionism did. While Zionism tried to reverse history by reestablishing a Jewish polity, other Jewish thinkers tried to modernize some of the rich spiritual and intellectual legacies of Judaism and fit them to the secular age. Instead of uprooting and moving millions of people to a faraway and half-imagined land, these intellectuals suggested something that sounded far more practical—using Judaism as philosophy, not as religion; using the power of its ideas rather than its praxis.

The ideas of Asher Ginsberg, better known as Ahad Haʾam, about Judaism as a culture or civilization made much more sense given the history and conditions of Jews at the time. Choosing cultural politics rather than state politics, Ginsberg advocated the creation of a spiritual culture that would be informed by Jewish wisdom and heritage but not governed by it. Skeptical of Zionism as an all-encompassing national and territorial solution, Ginsberg did think that a small Jewish community in the land of Israel could potentially inspire and maintain the kind of Jewish spiritual revival he believed in. A Jewish entity of this kind would not uphold Jewish law but rather renew it in the spirit of modernism and become a model and example for Jews elsewhere.

A Jewish secularism based on an acknowledgment of the depth and breadth of Jewish spiritual and intellectual traditions was also something the poet Haim Nahman Bialik strongly believed in. For much of his later life Bialik worked toward that goal, first by what he called kinus, that is, collating, editing, and reinterpreting important works of Jewish genius and reintroducing them to contemporary, secular Jewish readers. Although he realized that much of this literature would have little practical use for modern readers, he did not think that the new national community in Eretz Yisrael could be Jewish in any meaningful sense without knowledge of what he termed The Bookcase—in other words, a historical Jewish canon. Bialik also believed that the Jewish holiday calendar, especially the Sabbath, was equally important in shaping the new national community in the spirit—not practice—of Judaism, and he laid great emphasis on upholding these traditions as a way to shape such a spiritual-Zionist community. Both these efforts had limited influence on the development of Hebrew nationalism in Bialik’s lifetime and beyond, although, as we shall see, they eventually resurfaced and have gained new traction in the last few decades.

A. D. Gordon’s so-called religion of labor was another powerful modern idea that combined old Jewish traditions, especially Hasidism and Kabbalah, with contemporary philosophical ideas that were inspired by thinkers like Leo Tolstoy and Friedrich Nietzsche. Gordon himself practiced what he preached, immigrating to Palestine in 1904 to work as a simple farmhand. He regarded labor as personally and communally redemptive rather than nationally instrumental. Gordon was more concerned with individual than with political praxis. He hoped that behavioral change would inspire an internal spiritual transformation: working the land would literally and figuratively ground Jews and make them into a new and more holistic community. Hasidism and Kabbalah provided Gordon with a traditional Jewish context for his modern, romantic idea of individual agency, the idea that one person can make a difference and act on the universe. Although the traditions and practices of Kabbalah and Hasidism approach the matter very differently, they both emphasize individual initiative and a personal search for truth, Hasidism through devotion and Kabbalah through mysticism. During the formation of the early Yishuv in Palestine, Gordon’s ideas resonated deeply with young Zionist pioneers, whose kibbutz invention had several quasi-religious aspects.

In many respects, then, Ben-Gurion’s question tried to summarize almost a century of such quandaries, which the establishment of a Jewish state was supposed to settle once and for all. It was not surprising that an answer could not be found. Realizing the weightiness of this question even as they knew the magnitude of their own revolution, early Zionist leaders preferred to leave it open to be shaped and molded by the forces of history. This book looks at these forces of history, at the changing nature of Zionism, by observing the ways Judaism and Jewishness are reflected in Israeli films and television programs, which provide an authentic vehicle for the reflection of cultural trends, as I explain below.

The book examines the paradox of Zionism as a national movement that is both Jewish and secular, and looks at the development and changes in this precarious admixture since the middle of the twentieth century. The following chapters examine the challenges to the secular nature of Zionism by looking at the way Israeli films and television programs have reflected or projected different kinds of Judaisms or expressions of Jewish religiosity since the establishment of Israel in 1948 as part of the state’s national culture. These projections can be divided into three different strands of expressions of Jewish religiosity that have developed in Israel since the mid-1900s: Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and national. Ashkenazi religiosity refers to the evolution of the image of Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews in Israeli popular culture and the migration of this strand from the margins to the center. Mizrahi religiosity refers to the development of what is called masortiyut, or traditionalism, a less strict form of Jewishness practiced by many Mizrahim in Israel, which was one of the earliest forms of Jewish religiosity that was legitimized and tolerated by secular Israeli culture. National Judaism refers to the rise of political Judaism, usually identified today with the settler community, primarily in the West Bank. These three strands or iterations of Jewish religiosity as part of contemporary Israeli culture challenge the secularity of Jewish nationalism as conceived by early Zionist thinkers, developed in Yishuv culture, and sanctioned by the early state in its cultivation and promotion of statism, or mamlachtiyut.

Current Scholarship

Despite the paradoxical nature of Zionism as a secular Jewish national movement, or perhaps because of it, religiosity has always been at the forefront of Israeli public life in various ways. For the first half of the country’s history, attempts to keep religiosity out of public life were remarkable, as the nascent Israeli state tried to suppress Jewish religiosity as part of its efforts to forge a new national, secular Jewish society. For the second part of its sixty-odd years, the potent return of religiosity is noteworthy, as the rise of Likud to power in 1977 and the end of Labor’s twenty-nine-year-old statist hegemony ushered in a new era of greater official tolerance toward Jewish religious values and growing attempts to promote them publicly. Two decades later, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we are experiencing an unprecedented surge in the political and cultural expressions of Jewish religiosity in Israeli public life. Throughout this time, the divide between the secular and the religious in Israel has been one of the central fault lines defining Israeli culture.

It is not surprising, then, that academic studies devoted to these various aspects are plentiful—too numerous to discuss in detail here. Nonetheless, it is worth noting a few representative studies in each of the four following categories: the separation between state and Jewish law, Kulturkampf as a political issue, and the settlers, as well as Mizrahi religiosity. Studies that provide a historical assessment of these phenomena over time are not so common; I will turn to them at the end of the following literary survey.

State And Jewish Law

The tension between medina (state) and halakha (Jewish law) can be found in studies that examine the place of religion within civil society in Israel and consider this issue from a politico-philosophical perspective. While there were many thinkers who pondered this issue in depth, beginning with the spiritual founder of religious Zionism, Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the most well known and influential contributor to this inquiry in Israeli culture at large was probably Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an accomplished scientist and public intellectual. Earlier in his life, through his involvement in politics, Leibowitz worked toward a synthesis between the Israeli state as a secular political entity and halakha, which he perceived as the essence of Judaism. But eventually, especially after the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, Leibowitz abandoned these efforts and became progressively more convinced that a secular Jewish state was an oxymoron. In his 1975 book Judaism, the Jewish People and the State of Israel (Yahadut, am yehudi umedinat Yisraʾel), Leibowitz explains that a Jewish state that ignores the moral dictates of the Jewish religion cannot be considered Jewish in any meaningful way. In other words, Leibowitz believed that for a state to be regarded as Jewish, it must practice and preach halakha, a reality he himself thought nigh impossible.

At the same time, Leibowitz did not write much on the subject after his 1975 book, instead confining his critique to frequent appearances in public and in the media. He became one of the harshest and most prophetic critics of the problematic nature of investing a state, which is an essentially secular entity, with holiness, or sanctity. Leibowitz considered it nothing less than sacrilege (םשה לוליח). He compared it to Sabbateanism, the much-maligned seventeenth-century heretical Jewish messianic movement led by Shabtai Zvi, and warned of similar tendencies in religious Zionism, especially after 1967. On other occasions, he pointed to similarities between German National Socialists and the national religious in Israel, whose relationship to religion was similar in his mind to the Nazis’ relationship to socialism.

A less harsh critic, although one who identified with Leibowitz’s views in many ways, was the prominent scholar and modern Jewish thinker Avi Ravitzky. Unlike Leibowitz, Ravitzky attempted to reconcile Jewish religiosity with Jewish nationalism. He published several studies that examined these issues. In his 1993 book Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, Ravitzky looked at the various ways in which ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups accommodated the creation of a sovereign Jewish state, while still waiting for the messiah to arrive. But his more germane publications for this discussion were published under the aegis of the Israel Institute for Democracy, an organization established in 1991 to provide in-depth analyses by various experts aimed at strengthening democratic principles. In addition to several edited essay collections, Ravitzky composed for the institute three main studies on questions of halakha umedina—Jewish law and the state: the 2000 Religious and Secular Jews in Israel: A Kulturkampf ?, the 1998 Religion and State in Jewish Thought, and the 2004 Is a Halakhic State Possible? Unlike Leibowitz, Ravitzky is no Jeremiah. He has generally refrained from admonishments, leaving the tension between state and Jewish law to the interplay between men and history. Although his scholarly examinations of the issue provide a learned Jewish context for this paradox, he is alive to the possibility of a compromise that might be struck at some point in the future between the demands of Jewish law and the demands of Jewish nationalism.


The tensions between the secular and the religious in Israel are often referred to as Kulturkampf after its original use in late nineteenth-century Prussian politics and Bismarck’s attempts at separating state and church. Plenty of studies have been devoted to describing the contours and various manifestations of this culture war in Israeli public life, from the Sabbath wars in early Tel Aviv in the 1920s to its radicalization after the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union. Almost every social history of Israel written since 1948 includes this aspect as part of its discussion of life in Israel. Two works form symbolic bookends to this discussion. First, Maoz Azaryahu’s study Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City describes the early civic battles over the Jewish nature of the first Hebrew city. Conflicts over the public expression of traditional Jewish values, like keeping the Sabbath or serving kosher food, raged in the city from its very first days. These conflicts are still going on today, as evidenced by their latest iteration, sparked after the High Court issued new directives in 2014 curbing commercial activity in the city on the Sabbath.

The other book is a study by Guy Ben-Porat, Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel, which looks at the growing divide between the secular and the religious in Israel in the 2000s. Ben-Porat notes the growing lack of communication between these two extremes. If, as Azaryahu tells us, the beginning of the Yishuv saw serious attempts to reach some modus vivendi by bridging the gap between more traditionally minded Jews and those who wished to lead secular lives, at the dawn of Zionism’s second century the two sides do not seem able to or interested in communication or compromise. As the state becomes ever more beholden to the radical Jewish factions that run it politically, the private lives of secular individuals become progressively more disconnected from that official culture as well as what it represents, says Ben-Porat.


The settlers have steadily received attention since their rise into political prominence in the 1980s, following their settlement of the territories captured in the 1967 war. One of the first major works that focused attention on them as a national phenomenon was not an academic work, but rather a more reflective study—Amos Oz’s 1982 collection of essays, In the Land of Israel. Oz writes about a variety of issues, bending his ear, as it were, to the people’s murmurings so as to gauge the zeitgeist. These essays are valuable because they provide one of the first indirect exposures to their political agenda, delivered in their own words, since they were recorded by an attuned and keen observer who was also a revered author. As such, the essays were quite prophetic, even if the radical messages they contained were dismissed at the time as the mad ravings of a quirky minority.

In the years since then, numerous studies have been devoted to the settlers. Most of them focus on the political aspects of the movement and the dangers it poses. Few studies, however, have attempted to go beyond some of the obvious political consequences of the settlers’ ascendancy to examine the threat of their religious agenda to Israeli civic society. Among such studies, two are worth mentioning. The first is Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s monumental and groundbreaking 2007 study Lords of the Lands, which was the first attempt to evaluate the settlement project in an encompassing and synoptic manner and to offer an assessment of the fundamental ways in which it has changed Zionism. Expansive and bold, Lords of the Land presents a full picture of the extraordinary success of the settlement project—a resounding political triumph that has expanded to other parts of Israeli society and has already bent it in various ways to its messianic agenda.

The second study is Gideon Aran’s 2013 Kookism, on the ideological origins of Gush Emunim, the Block of the Faithful. The book is based on Aran’s doctoral thesis, written in the early 1980s, and it is precisely the lag of three decades from the time of its composition to its publication that lends it power. Aran spent about two years between 1975 and 1978 with the founding group of West Bank settlers, and his firsthand account of their fledgling project makes us privy to the hesitant beginnings of what would later become a phenomenal success. In the words of the divinity scholar Tomer Persiko, “The book describes a picture which has since vanished and conveys an early innocence marred by the painful knowledge of what came later on.” At the same time, he continues, “Rarely do we get the chance to witness the formative stages of a religious movement, especially a movement of such import.”19 Thus, the thirty-year gap between the initial research and its publication allows us to see the momentous change that the settlers wrought on Zionist ideology. If the Zionists labored to bring Jews back into history and turn them into active agents, authors of their own fate, the settlers seem bent on returning to the imperatives of divine history set in the Hebrew Bible. Reality to them is nothing but the revealed wishes of God. All one has to do is look hard in order to understand it.

Mizrahi Religiosity

Although attention to the religious affiliation of Mizrahim in Israel increased after the Likud’s rise to power in 1977, it was primarily the ascendancy of the Sephardi-Orthodox political party, sHas, in the 1980s that brought it into greater focus. The party’s very raison d’être was to leverage the electoral power of Mizrahi voters and use it to help advance them materially, socially, and politically—benefits the Likud did not appear to deliver. Whether sHas ultimately benefited Mizrahim or not remains debatable.22 What cannot be disputed is the fact that it reformulated Mizrahi religiosity and developed it in new directions. One of the most comprehensive recent studies of these changes is Nissim Leon’s Soft Orthodoxy (Harediyut raka), in which he looks at the changing patterns of Mizrahi religiosity in the last few decades.23 Unlike many who have focused on sHas, Leon is not concerned primarily with the politics of this extraordinarily successful movement.24 As a social anthropologist, he examines the metamorphosis of Mizrahi religious practices in Israel in general, of which sHas is only one component.

Leon’s 2010 study is the culmination of several years of research into various aspects of this issue. The most valuable contribution of his study lies in its attempt to account for the general shift in Mizrahi religiosity and the unique way it has incorporated and interpreted Ashkenazi orthodoxy. Pushed by the socialist secularism of Israeli statism, Mizrahim were also pulled by Ashkenazi orthodoxy, writes Leon. While they resented the first, the second lured them with an Israeli religiosity that would replace their own form of traditionalism, which had been devastated by immigration. But if Ashkenazi orthodoxy tends to be insular, it became much less so for those Mizrahim who adopted and adapted it (hence the book’s title, Soft Orthodoxy). The important aspect of Leon’s analysis for this book is the seductive effect of soft Mizrahi orthodoxy. Unlike their exclusive Ashkenazi colleagues, Orthodox Mizrahim easily mingle in existing communities and consequently tend to have a greater impact on the secular society in which they are embedded.

But while such focused examinations are plentiful, studies that try to consider the religious metamorphosis of Israeli society over a longer period of time are fewer in number. Observations of these small and disparate changes to the so-called status quo, which in Israel refers to the relations between the secular and the religious, take place mostly in the media— newspapers and, increasingly, the Internet. Yet, because of the short and scattered nature of media items, as well as their inherently brief lifespan, such observations leave only faint trails that are not easily picked up again. Even now, with the advent of the Internet, which has in fact lengthened the shelf life of online newspaper articles, such news items tend to be evanescent, lost in an ever-growing ocean of data. One of the aims of this study is to connect the dots between such observations and provide a more permanent map, as it were, a map that shows the cumulative effect of these temporal notices in a more permanent way.

Even a casual reader of the Israeli press cannot help but notice the number of articles that appear regularly and with increasing frequency concerning the heightened level of religious aspects or sensibilities in Israeli public life: articles about the growing presence of religious soldiers and officers in the iDf (Israel Defense Forces); political articles concerning nationalist-religious legislation in the Knesset, various government policies concerning religious education programs in state schools, segregated urban developments of Orthodox towns; articles about lifestyle choices such as the segregation of the sexes in public places or public transportation; articles about growing religious intolerance toward non-Jewish minorities and even nonobservant Jews; articles concerning more general issues such as the cultivation of Jewish ethics and the development of secular seminaries that reinterpret Jewish rabbinical traditions; and statistical reports on the numbers of Israelis who believe in God and demographic changes in the ratio of religious to secular populations.

Rather than surveying Israeli daily press items concerning these issues, this book looks at visual fiction—Israeli films and television programs—as a medium that is inspired indirectly by such trends and incorporates them more holistically.

Why Films And Television?

Literary critics often examine belles lettres as documents that contain various historical, social, or cultural facts about their societies, and use fiction as a cultural anthropological record. Though fictional, books can nevertheless capture historical moments and reveal a complex set of aspects about the societies that write and read them. The makeup and nature of political or cultural hegemony; relationships between people, classes, or minorities; economic patterns; and even dress, architecture, and etiquette are all embedded in fiction in one way or another. In addition to content, literary style can provide another historical record. Drama, novels, and short stories can be of cultural anthropological value, pointing to economic and social developments and the changes in cultural consumption they entail. In my last book, for instance, I examined the short story as an expression of a fragmented and impatient age in Israel in the 1990s.27 In this book I propose to apply a similar principle to the study of feature films and television drama series. In other words, I wish to look at films and TV programs as if they were fictional texts, without neglecting, of course, their visual aspects as well.

As John Weakland writes, “Feature films are cultural products by definition.”28 But, he asks, what might their contribution to cultural anthropology be? Unlike documentary films, feature films—and this applies to television drama as well—are records of culture. While documentary films try to record concrete realities, feature films create fictional realities. The anthropologically minded film critic does not, therefore, examine the projected reality as an objective one, but as an image of a made-up reality that nevertheless reflects elements from the real world that are likely to both influence and explain human behavior. Consequently, film images need to be studied with filmmakers, audiences, and other aspects in mind.

We regularly evaluate films according to various criteria. We look at films from social or moral perspectives, we consider them in relation to reality, and we pay attention to their aesthetics, among many other considerations. Our anthropological interest in films as cultural products should be guided by what Weakland calls our specific viewing angle and an awareness of the selective process.29 Very often, that viewing angle means the various ways films’ content relates to real life, a consideration that raises several questions about the relations of films to their cultural sources, about the cultural function and influence of films, and about the way films shed light on more general patterns.

My aim in this book is to consider the visual works I selected for study along these guidelines, with two special emphases. The first emphasis is on Jewish masculinity. The second emphasis is on questions of morality. The study of gender, and especially Jewish masculinity, has been one of the most fruitful categories of inquiry into the origin and development of Zionism. Based on various studies about New Hebraism such as Daniel Boyarin’s studies on modern Jewish masculinity, for example, this book looks at the legacy of this cultural innovation after Israel’s independence and the expressions it received in the culture, particularly with respect to religious imagery. The study is based on the premise that the New Jew or New Hebrew in Zionism, epitomized by the image of the pioneer, was developed primarily against images of so-called diasporic Judaism, epitomized by the bearded and frocked Jewish men of the Eastern European shtetl. The study therefore assumes that the continued references to that negative source of influence after Zionism’s triumph yield valuable historical insights. Put differently, the book proposes to examine what happened to Zionism’s negation of exile—the animosity it felt toward the Eastern European traditional Jewish society that gave birth to it—when the alternative it set up against it, the State of Israel, succeeded so well and went from strength to strength.30 The films and TV series examined in the following chapters ponder this question and look at some of the ways secular Israeli culture has processed and reflected on its religious heritage, a dialectics that is visibly negotiated through masculine categories and imagery.

I also wish to determine the moral stance of films and television programs toward the Jewish religion and Jewish religious practices in Israel in the on-screen private and public lives of characters. I want to examine the selected works in this book from a historical perspective and understand what has changed in the way Israeli society views religion and religious practices over the years, determine how these changes came about, and identify the values assigned to these changes. As is well known and widely accepted, “In projecting structured images of human behavior, social interaction and the nature of the world, fictional films in contemporary society are analogues in nature and structural significance to the stories, myths, rituals and ceremonies in primitive societies.” By looking at the way Judaism and Jewishness are (and have been) created, dealt with, related to, and projected on screens in Israel for over half a century, I hope to show some of the changes these images underwent during that time and the meaning this might have for Israel and beyond.

Finally, I examine visual culture and not prose, as I have in the past, primarily because it has become a clearer and more focused gauge of Israeli national culture. Since the early 1990s, modern Hebrew literature has been losing the cultural centrality it had enjoyed since the nineteenth century, first in Eastern Europe and later in Israel. Modern Hebrew literature birthed and nurtured modern Hebrew culture and was the origin for much of what later became Israeli culture, which it influenced and sustained throughout the twentieth century. But as the hold of Zionist ideology waned toward the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s; as Israel opened to outside influences; as it became more capitalistic and developed other media, especially television, the culture changed apace. Since the early 1990s Israelis have not raised their eyes in admiration toward a select few writers and poets, those who until that time had been understood as seers.

What literary critic Gershon Shaked called the Zionist meta-narrative has by and large ceased to inform the works of Israeli writers since the 1990s—certainly not to the extent it did before.34 That is, the light that automatically went on in readers’ minds when they opened a modern Hebrew work, the light that prompted them to think of its symbolic significance in the context of Jewish or Zionist history, as author Amalia Kahana-Carmon once wrote, was disconnected.35 This stands to reason, of course, as the country had matured by that time and was less anxious about melting the pot, as it were, and creating a homogenous, native Israeli culture out of the multitudes of its various immigrants. It was probably also less able to do so in a postmodern age, which later came to be known as a post-Zionist age as well.36 The country also grew in size, making space for more writers, who in turn catered to various and growing communities with diverse interests. Israeli literature might have boomed, as Alan Mintz noted, but it was no longer as consensual or as interested in some of the grand national questions of yore.

The cultural space that was left behind by the diminution of the written word was taken up by the ascendancy of the visual image, which has moved toward center stage and attracted more public and critical attention since the 1990s.38 This was not unique to Israel, of course, but a global phenomenon. It does not mean that Israelis stopped reading books, either. It only means that since the last decade of the twentieth century they began to regroup—to the extent that they regrouped at all—increasingly more around a visual rather than a textual campfire.

Yet another reason for the increased communal relevance of films in Israel relates to the special structure or nature of Israeli film production. Since the Israeli film market is relatively small and few films are viable commercially, most of them are supported by public money that is doled out based on assessed merit. A script’s worth is determined by elected arts councils, which often consider the greater communal value or national interest of scripts that are submitted for their evaluation. This is both reasonable and unsurprising. But it also makes films prime candidates for the kind of examination this book offers: most of the funded films in Israel engage with the grand national issues that books used to engage with.

If this is true for films, it is even more so for TV programs, which not only are communal artistic projects but also necessitate a greater consensus during the production process. In Israel, television programs, unlike films, are also beholden to commercial concerns, as in other capitalist markets. The ability of TV programs to innovate, then, and take artistic risks, is limited in comparison to Israeli films. Because of these constraints, though, television programs can be considered a more genuine reflection of cultural trends. By a peculiar coincidence, and somewhat contrary to these arguments, Israeli TV programs with considerable religious content are both innovative and popular. Their introduction of new themes and their visual representation of hitherto unrepresented religious communities have so far met with interest and enthusiasm by a majority of viewers. This is yet another manifestation of the phenomenon this book examines.

I should perhaps also note why this book does not consider religious imagery in other national cinemas and why it does not probe the remarkable ability of the cinematic medium to capture and comment on religious or spiritual experience in general. The cinema of Iran, for instance, to name one of the most interesting and developed cinemas in the Middle East, has dealt with the increasing religiosity of Iranian culture after the 1979 Islamic revolution with astuteness and sophistication. Iranian cinema, not unlike cinema in Israel, tried to incorporate religion as well as criticize and resist it, as Nacim Pak-Shiraz has shown us.40 Similarly, films like Avishai Sivan’s 2010 The Wonderer (Hamshotet) use the cinematic medium as a vehicle or platform for expressing spirituality in ways that are not available to other art forms, as Dan Chyutin notes.41 Such considerations would have undoubtedly enriched this study. But they would also be taking away from the purpose of this book, which is to examine a specific issue—religious representation—in a specific visual corpus—Israeli film and television— over a specific period of time—1960s to 2010s—in order to gauge the changes in it as a reflection of similar changes in Israeli culture itself.

The comparative aspect of this study is, therefore, folded into its very premise. That premise posits that Zionism began as a national Jewish ideology that was fundamentally anticlerical.42 Over time and because of various factors—some of them political, like the continued emergency situation in Israel and the political radicalization that accompanied it, others demographic, like the growth of the religious sector in Israel—religious elements penetrated public life in Israel more and more. By adopting a historical perspective that follows gradual changes in the frequency and kind of visual religious imagery over time, this study aims to show the extent to which Israeli culture has changed in this regard.

Historical Overview

Indeed, the overall pattern that emerges from the films examined in this study is that Jewish Israeli society has been undergoing a slow but increasingly discernible “religification” in the last few decades—so much so, in fact, that the Hebrew Language Academy has coined a neologism to describe it: התדה. The most obvious reason for this shift has been the identity crisis Zionism has been experiencing since 1967, which has been most eloquently articulated by the new historians and by some of the postZionist thinkers who followed them.

Much has been written about the so-called new historians. Their importance for our discussion is the very fact that from the 1980s onward they reexamined much of the received Zionist historiography and changed hitherto common perceptions of it. What historians like Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Tom Segev, and Baruch Kimmerling did was to reassess Zionist historiography from a more dispassionate and critical perspective. Flapan’s 1987 The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities was a critical examination of the Arab-Israeli conflict that tried to differentiate between the inherent justice and value of Zionism and some of the problematic ways it was implemented.44 This was the ameliorative impetus behind all of the new historians’ writings. Such was Benny Morris’s well-known 1988 The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949;45 Tom Segev’s important histories about the birth of Israel, the legacy of the Holocaust in Israel, the British Mandate, and the 1967 war;46 and Baruch Kimmerling’s 1993 Palestinians: The Making of a People, as well as his 2001 The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military.

All of these new historians were blamed at various times for undermining Zionism.49 But their critiques were motivated, among other things, by a desire to change Israeli society for the better. They wrote in the name of the early modernist ethics of Zionism against Israel’s intoxication with power after 1967. As such, these historians represent an evolutionary stage in the development of Israeli historiography and in the country’s very consciousness—its psychological perception of itself, if one may define it so.

That is, the perceptive change, which the new historians noted and represented, lifted the tight ideological lid of Zionism and enabled a freer expression of differing ideologies that have long been pent up. One of the most powerful of these ideological forces was the inherently religious element of Zionism, whose presence in the country’s life since the 1980s has increased with the growth of its two biggest religious communities, the ultra-Orthodox and the national religious, or settler, communities. Moreover, these demographic changes have obvious political corollaries that play into well-established traditions set long before religious voters became a political force.

A much newer change—one not surprising given these demographics—was the increasing visibility of religious expressions in the last two decades of the twentieth century in popular music, film, and television. These mediums, which in the past were the purview of secular Zionist culture and were fervently developed to establish and promote it as an alternative to Jewish traditional-religious expressions, seem increasingly more attentive to the role of Judaism in Israeli society today.

Given the secular nature of Zionist ideology and its strong religious antipathy, it is not surprising that in the first decades of the state Israeli popular culture made very little mention of religion or religiosity in its various entertainment mediums. The terms “popular culture” and “entertainment” should perhaps be qualified when we talk about the early decades of the state. Israeli culture, just like the state itself, was a new invention that developed over time based on various guiding principles, most importantly an elite that steered the process. Despite this Soviet-sounding description, this was probably a necessary stage without which the state would never have come into existence.52 As the country grew and developed, both the heavy hand as well as the artifice that went along with it subsided, and what we call today the politics of representation has been diffused in ways that resemble similar patterns in other countries, primarily in the West. But this was a slow and often turbulent process, and it needs to be taken into account when we speak about “popular culture” and “entertainment” as part of it.

Consequently, the two key factors that controlled the representation of religiosity in the country’s popular culture in the beginning were both the antireligious sentiment that animated Zionism and the controlled manufacture of Israeli culture at large. The upshot of both was that almost none of the relatively few films that were made in Israel in the first decades after statehood even dealt with the subject.53 But, to the extent that they did, representation in those films can be divided into two kinds. The first and more obvious of the two is the patronizing and dismissive portrayal of religious Judaism—usually the ultra-Orthodox community—as a bizarre sect, a comical and pathetic historical relic whose dismal present state justifies its relegation to the dustbin of history and the ascendancy of a different kind of Jewishness: national Jewishness. The second and less obvious reference to religiosity included the ritual practices of Sephardi, or Mizrahi, Jews, those who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries in the first decades of statehood. Many of the films that depicted those practices belonged to the Bourekas film genre, ethnic comedies that were very popular during the 1970s and 1980s and that exhibit Mizrahi Jews in their “traditional Jewish habitat,” as it were. Boosting Mizrahim as bone fide Jews to an Ashkenazi culture that thought of them as Arabs, many Bourekas films spend considerable screen time showing these so-called Arabs as legitimate Jews who know their prayer book, attend synagogue, and (especially) observe the Sabbath.

Both representations can be labeled “anthropological,” although both had very different rationales. The initial portrayal of the Orthodox community was mainly as a curiosity, an odd relic of a bygone world that deserved pity more than anything else. It was a vulgarization of Ashkenazi Jewish folklore that was milked for amusement at the expense of its subject. The presentation of the Sephardi, or Mizrahi, Jewish religiosity was much more sympathetic, although the dynamics in most of the Bourekas films clearly point to filmmakers’ expectations that the religious antics of the older generation portrayed in them will eventually die out and disappear.

Again, until the ascendancy of the settler community in the late 1980s, Mizrahi Jewishness was almost the only legitimate expression of religiosity in Israel’s body culture—a holistic religiosity that received a special label, “traditionalism,” that rendered it more palatable to the generally antireligious hegemonic culture.

Neither of these portrayals—the Orthodox and the Mizrahi—dealt with, examined, or used religion artistically in any deep and serious way. Such portrayals were simple records, albeit tendentious, of negligible social phenomena that they either rejected, in the first case, or reluctantly embraced, in the second. Curiously, the only serious engagement with religiosity in Israeli cinema prior to the 2000s involved Christian imagery. Films like Judd Neʾeman’s 1984 The Silver Platter (Magash hakesef ), Amos Gutman’s 1988 Himmo King of Jerusalem (Himmo melech yerushalayim) and his 1992 Amazing Grace (Chesed mufla), and perhaps most notably Assi Dayan’s 1993 film Life according to Ag fa (Hachayim al pi agfa) all play with Christian ideals of sacrifice and martyrdom.

The first film that can be said to engage much more seriously and earnestly with Judaism, certainly politically, is Joseph Cedar’s 2000 Time of Favor (Ha-hesder). That film marked the dawn of what can perhaps be called a religious age in Israeli visual culture and signaled a notable increase in the number of films dealing more seriously with the culture’s secular legacy. Both Time of Favor and Cedar’s subsequent film, Campfire (Medurat hashevet), from 2004, focus for the first time on Israel’s growing settler community. Cedar’s films focus on a large and influential Israeli religious community that was practically absent from cinema until then; but they also represent one of the first serious attempts to offer an artistic interpretation not just of religiosity but especially of its politicization, and a willingness to deal head-on with the religious threat to the country’s former way of life. A film such as Time of Favor not only acknowledges for the first time the existence of sizable religious communities in Israel but also alerts viewers to the fact they are no longer content with remaining marginal; they have clear and definite plans to inherit Zionism as we know it.

Not all of the post-2000 films that dealt with religion focused on politics. Other kinds of religious films, like the 2003 Ushpizin (dir. Gidi Dar), dealt more artistically with the intrinsic value of Judaism as a philosophy and a way of life. Ushpizin was a religious project in a way; its writer and main actor, Shuli Rand, is a baʾal tshuva, a secular man who found God and became ultra-Orthodox. Rand, who is a gifted, multifaceted artist, got permission from his rabbi to make the film as a way to reach out to secular Israelis, to show them the good face of religion and perhaps even return them to the faith.

Ushpizin can be said to belong to the politics of identity genre, which informed a number of Israeli films throughout the 1990s, primarily about Mizrahim, whereas films like the 2007 My Father My Lord (Chufshat kayitz; dir. David Volach) exhibit a genuine interest in the Orthodox community from the outside, as it were.57 Ushpizin had a real proselytizing agenda in that it sought to dispel persistent negative images of the ultra-Orthodox community. My Father My Lord, on the other hand, was neither a branding nor an image film, neither a political accusation nor an anthropological study. In fact, while the story derives its dramatic meaning from the religious environment it depicts, it transcends its ostensible particularity to become universal. Herein lies its innovation. The fact that the Orthodox community is used as a background to a universal story about family relations marked a significant difference in the place, role, and attitude of Israeli culture toward religious themes and its various religious communities. It is certainly a far cry from early parodies of Orthodox Judaism, like the 1976 Kuni Leml in Tel Aviv (dir. Joel Silberg), and it is a measure of the culture’s acceptance of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish way of life as part of what might be considered Israeli Jewish life in general.

This change is perhaps most obvious from some of the most recent portrayals of religiosity in Israeli visual culture in films like the 2012 God’s Neighbors (Haʾmashgichim; dir. Meny Yaesh) and Fill the Void (Lemaleh et hechalal; dir. Rama Burstein), from the same year. Both films received high critical acclaim and won various awards. Both also continue Israel’s impressive cinematic output of the first decade of the twenty-first century, with international hits such as Yossi and Jagger (dir. Eytan Fox, 2002), Walk on Water (Lalechet al hamayim; dir. Eytan Fox, 2004), Beaufort (dir. Joseph Cedar, 2007), and Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman, 2008). It should be noted that the more recent films, God’s Neighbors and Fill the Void, look at the intricacies of religious life in Israel as opposed to focusing on the army and the conflict with the Arab world, like the other international hits listed above.

Finally, reference should also be made to television programs, which are perhaps a better gauge of popular trends, especially television series that are more commercial in nature and are made more strictly for profit. Television series began being produced in earnest in Israel with the deregulation of the TV industry in the early 1990s.58 But it was not until the late 2000s that a major, and popular, series based on a religious theme was created. Although only one season was produced of the 2007 A Touch Away (Merhak negiʾa), it was a runaway hit that attracted a great number of fans and considerable Internet chatter. The show is still remembered as a groundbreaking program for the direct, genuine, and, significantly, sexy way it broached the relationship between a fiercely secular Russian immigrant and his young Orthodox neighbor.

The 2008 series Srugim (literally meaning “knitted,” referring to the knitted skullcaps worn by men in the national religious movement) is another recent television series with a significant religious component. Srugim takes place in an almost exclusively religious environment, into which secular people wander only rarely. This enormously successful series has had several successful seasons to date. The popularity of the show derives not only from its resemblance to the well-known and well-loved American television series Sex and the City (with sex being conspicuously absent yet very much present, of course), but also from its ability to present an anthropological view of “the religious” by focusing on their exotic dating rituals. In addition to the good drama that viewers were served every week, the show also acquainted viewers with an artistically underrepresented sector of the Israeli public. Surprisingly, although the national religious, as they are called in Israel, have been politically central since the 1980s, they have been seldom represented in films and TV. That they are increasingly being shown, as this study demonstrates, is a significant testimony to dramatic and ongoing changes in Israeli society.

At the same time, the religious transformation, even revolution, that Israeli television has been undergoing since the 2000s with respect to the representation of Jewish religious themes should also be carefully considered in light of the deliberate efforts of the Avi Chai Foundation to influence this discourse in Israel. The US-based foundation has been active since the 1990s in supporting various educational and cultural initiatives in Israel designed to bridge the gap between the secular and the religious, as the foundation puts it, and to introduce Jewish traditional themes into Israeli popular culture, primarily through the arts. Toward that end it has been generously financing adult educational initiatives, musical productions, and, since the 2000s, television programming.59 Such blatant and external interference in national culture merits serious consideration and needs to be acknowledged in discussing the “religification” phenomenon on television. What makes this even more interesting is the genuine popularity of the produced shows, which further complicates the picture and makes it even more difficult to evaluate.

Chapter 1, “Jewish and Human: Images of Orthodox Jews,” looks at the metamorphosis of the images of Jewish Ashkenazi religiosity as it was known in Eastern Europe and against which secular national Jewishness developed. The chapter looks at eight films that span half a century and follows the changes that images of Haredi Jewish men have undergone— from the ridiculous to the real and finally to the sympathetic. The chapter begins with the Kuni Leml trilogy (1966, dir. Israel Becker; 1976 and 1983, dir. Joel Silberg), about the adventures of a hapless and pathetic Orthodox groom. It continues with the 1972 stylized historical religious drama I Love You, Rosa (Ani ohev otach, Rosa; dir. Moshe Mizrahi); the 1990 The Appointed (Hameyuʾad; dir. Daniel Wachsmann), about religious mysticism; and the 1999 drama Kadosh (dir. Amos Gitai), about the plight of Haredi women under the yoke of a harsh religious patriarchy. The chapter ends with two films that bring images of Haredi men closer to modern audiences by presenting them as complex and loving humans: the 2003 romantic comedy Ushpizin (The guests; dir. Gidi Dar) and the 2009 gay Haredi drama Eyes Wide Open (Einayim petuchoth; dir. Haim Tabakman).

Chapter 2, “Jewish and Israeli: Images of Mizrahi Jews,” looks at the creation of a unique Israeli Judaism out of the various religious practices of Mizrahi Jews during the immigration waves of the 1950s and 1960s. The chapter examines the Israelification of “Arab” Jews by means of familiarizing audiences with their Jewish difference and by sanctioning these differences as one of the earliest forms of Jewish religiosity (masortiyut) accepted by the state, which shunned other forms of Jewish religiosity, primarily orthodoxy. The chapter also looks at the concurrent usurpation of Ashkenazi masculinity, symbolized by the image of the New Hebrew, by a Mizrahi masculinity unencumbered by religious anxiety. The chapter examines several films that chart the development of these images, from frivolous and exotic in various Bourekas films like the 1964 Sallah Shabati (dir. Ephraim Kishon) through identity politics films of the 1990s like the 1990 Shuroo (dir. Savi Gabizon), the 1993 Shʾchur (Black magic; dir. Shmuel Hasfari), the 1995 Lovesick on Nana Street (Chole ahava Beshikun gimel; dir. Savi Gabizon), and the shorter Shuli’s Guy (Habachur shel Shuli; dir. Doron Tsabari), from 1997, which begin to deal more complexly with Mizrahi imagery. The chapter continues with the 2008 Shiva (Seven days; dir. Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz). Finally, God’s Neighbors brings together religiosity and Mizrahi masculinity in more harmonious, if problematic, ways.

Chapter 3, “Jewish and Fanatic: Images of Religious Zionists,” investigates the infiltration of religion into Israeli politics by following the rise of the settler movement in two Joseph Cedar films: the 2000 Time of Favor and the 2004 Campfire. The chapter focuses on the settlers’ interpretation of the image of the New Hebrew and the infusion of this old Zionist symbol with religious elements that change but also preserve the impetus that gave rise to it in the first place, that is, the Zionists’ historical claim to the land of Israel. The chapter concludes with a brief mention of two additional films, Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort, whose characterization of Israeli men, especially soldiers, accentuates some of the changes in the representation of Israeli masculinity observed in Time of Favor and Campfire.

Chapter 4, “Jewish and Popular: Images of Religion on TV,” begins by looking at early television shows like A Touch Away and Srugim, which popularized Cedar’s more controversial images and made them into familiar and beloved household images. The chapter then examines the ubiquity of religious imagery in contemporary Israeli television and the various ways it is incorporated into programming today by analyzing three representative shows—Shtisel (2013), Urim Vetumim (2011), and Hasamba 3rd Generation (Hasamba dor shalosh, 2010–2013). Some of this imagery is engineered by external forces, such as the Avi Chai Foundation. Some of it is symbolic and pays homage to the religious as a way to acknowledge their increased participation and visibility in the culture. Yet other parts of this imagery are less consciously wrought, reflecting instead the natural growth of various religious communities in Israel and their increased acceptance by the culture.

The study concludes with an assessment of the erosion of the secular aspects of Zionism since its establishment as the latest, and perhaps not so unexpected, iteration of Jewish nationalism.


“This volume contributes greatly to various fields of scholarship—cinema studies, Israel studies and Israeli cinema, and religious studies—and could be extremely useful for teaching. It will also be very useful to the general public, increasingly attracted to the vitality, beauty, and rigorous standards of Israeli cinema.”
Marcella Simoni, Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, author of A Healthy Nation: Zionist Health Policies in British Palestine 1930–1939 and At the Margins of Conflict: Social Perspectives on Arabs and Jews in British Palestine 1922–1948


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