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Religious Zionism Revisits the State of Israel

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Springtime for Moshe Feiglin?

Shmuel Sandler (see below) discusses the impact of disengagement on religious Zionism, starting from a somewhat distorted view of the history of religious Zionism. It is true, as the article states, that

"Religious Zionists, however, have been a permanent fixture in the Zionist movement since its inception in the second half of the nineteenth century. The NRP was a member of almost every one of the ruling coalitions in the Jewish Yishuv before 1948 and in Israeli governments thereafter."


Likewise it is true, that the religious Zionist movement was pragmatic, The sleight of hand that is done here is that the religious Zionists who participated in Israeli government in the early days were political moderates, and the backbone of the religious movement was the religious-labor Zionist movement. Religious Zionism was transformed into something quite different after 1967 by the rise of the Greater Israel movement and Gush Emunim. According to Sandler, and others, religious Zionists, frustrated by the looming end of the Greater Israel movement, will now bid to take over the leadership of the state. Sandler is not alone in stating that this would happen, since the program to take over Israel was  announced and discussed publicly by extremist leaders like Moshe Feiglin , who claim to speak for religious Zionism. Indeed, Feiglin seems to think he has the exclusive rights on Zionism as a whole. 
At the time (August of 2005) Feiglin said:

"Yair Stern wrote a line: 'Either die or conquer the mountain.' Either they are going to destroy us - and it will not stop at the Green Line - or we must take the reigns and be the ones giving the orders to the generals. We are never going to shoot soldiers from rooftops and we are not going to kidnap the daughter of Aharon Barak - that is not what we are about."

"Yair" - Avraham Stern - was the founder of the LEHI terrorist (or, as they would be styled today, "resistance" or "freedom fighters")   group. They were not moderates, whatever we might think of their philosophy, and neither is Feiglin.
In that interview, Feiglin declared:

"In two months there are going to be primaries in the Likud. G-d gives us exactly the time and circumstances needed.These are the same people that voted against the Disengagement plan despite the fact that polls showed they would vote for it. In the two weeks before the Likud referendum, the residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza left their homes and visited the simple Likudniks, the nationalists. And when the faithful and the national people came together there was natural chemistry.

"It is going to be much harder to convince these people to vote for Feiglin instead of Netanyahu than it was to convince them that the Disengagement was wrong, but I believe it is possible. I am not certain we will win right now, but we can. It is possible. If we create a real Jewish and faithful alternative for leadership in Israel - it will send a shock through Israeli society. It will wipe the smile of the faces of the self-haters who think they have buried us in the sand of Gush Katif. They will pale at the sight of us rising like a phoenix from the sand of Gush Katif to the leadership of the State of Israel."

Feiglin spoke too soon. Ariel Sharon beat out the opposition that had wanted to move up the primary vote. However Feiglin and his kind are just biding their time. The decision has only been postponed.
If the history of religious Zionism had been what Sandler portrays it to be, that might be a viable goal. However, since 1967, the NRP and the religious Zionist movement has largely invested in one aspect of Israel - the settlement industry. If that industry is terminated, they will lose both their economic base and their political base. Their economic base was created by the availability of inexpensive, government subsidized land and housing in Gaza and the West Bank, which attracted hundreds of thousands of Israelis and new immigrants. Their political base was strengthened by alliance with the Likud, which had the political clout to implement the ambitions of the Greater Israel movement. All that is gone now. On the other hand, a million immigrants from the Soviet Union, most of them a-religious and opposed to religious coercion, militate against the plan to enforce "religious values" and religious law in Israel.
That is not to say that there is no chance of the religious right taking over the Israeli state. However, the people who want to do the taking over are not the moderate and pragmatic religious Zionists of the past, but rather the Feiglin brothers and their followers, the Rabbis who conducted Pula di Nura ("pulse of light" - Jewish voodoo) ceremonies to kill PM Ariel Sharon by magic, and Hebron settlers who go about beating up Arabs and resisting the IDF. Sandler writes:

At the same time, traditional wisdom suggests that adoption of the political option would entail pragmatism and more centrist positions. By definition, the norms of the international system are contrary to those associated with “religious fundamentalism

Traditional wisdom is traditionally wrong. The whole point of the new direction would be to form an irredentist movement of extremists, because the new movement was inspired by frustration over disengagement. Remember what Feiglin said:

They will pale at the sight of us rising like a phoenix from the sand of Gush Katif to the leadership of the State of Israel

Those who talk of the phoenix rising and invoke the name of Yair Stern are not likely to pursue a course of moderation.
 Moderate religious Zionists need not apply, since they lost nothing in the disengagement, which had no effect whatever on the status of religion and religious values in Israel. Moreover, moderate groups do not seek explicitly to "take over" society and impose their views on it. Gush Emunim stood the NRP and religious Zionism on their heads. From being a movement of innovation and religious modernization, religious Zionism as preached by the NRP was transmuted into a regressive and messianic movement. An Israel dominated by these people would be a Zionist vision out of hell -- Zionism stood on its head, and transmuted from a constructive and progressive movement of national rebirth into a reactionary atavism.
Ami Isseroff
You can Comment in our Forum Discussion of Religious Zionism

October 6, 2005
Religious Zionism Revisits the State of Israel

Shmuel Sandler

Executive Summary: The Religious Zionist community in Israel has been significantly affected by Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. This essay surveys the character and ideology of the Religious Zionist camp in Israel, and discusses various reactions within the community to what many Religious Zionists view as a "betrayal" by the State of Israel. Three alternative political approaches and their implications are reviewed: secularization, fundamentalism and an alternative political approach calling for the establishment of a new ruling Israeli elite.    

While on the surface, the unilateral disengagement from Gaza could be considered a success, from a domestic perspective it will undoubtedly have long-term social and political repercussions. One such outcome is unrest in the ruling Likud Party and in the Israeli political system at large. Another sector of Israeli society very clearly affected is Religious Zionism.
Without entering into a debate about whether the disengagement from Gaza was strategically sound, Sharon's major accomplishment was the avoidance of the fearsome prospect of a violent struggle between Israeli armed forces and settlers in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank (known by its historical name, Samaria). The main force in the struggle against withdrawal was the Religious Zionist camp. Gloomy predictions that the clashes between troops and settlers would result in bloodshed did not materialize. Yet, despite its responsible behavior during the withdrawal, Religious Zionism finds itself in a very gruelling situation and is consequently facing one of the most critical junctures in its history.

Which people comprise this sector and why are they worthy of study? What is the nature of the crisis that they are undergoing? What plausible alternatives does the Religious Zionist camp possess in order to emerge from its crisis and which is it likely to choose?

Who are Religious Zionists?

The national religious camp seems marginal in Israeli politics. In the last elections, the National Religious Party (NRP), the political arm of Religious Zionism, drew less than five percent of the electorate, winning only six seats in the Knesset. In addition, a large portion of National Union voters, who received seven Knesset seats, also came from that camp. Hence the total electoral power of the Religious Zionist camp adds up to approximately ten MPs (around eight percent of the vote), only.

Religious Zionists, however, have been a permanent fixture in the Zionist movement since its inception in the second half of the nineteenth century. The NRP was a member of almost every one of the ruling coalitions in the Jewish Yishuv before 1948 and in Israeli governments thereafter. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Religious Zionism’s role in Israeli politics changed. Contact with the biblical areas of the Land of Israel conquered during that war led Religious Zionists to exchange their passive role in Israeli foreign policy for an active one. With time, Religious Zionism became the spearhead of the settlement movement that gained momentum, especially following the victory of the nationalist Likud Party in the 1977 elections.  In effect, Religious Zionism became the major faction in the settlements, especially those located in isolated areas and closest to Palestinian population centers and villages.
Highly motivated and idealistic, many members of Religious Zionism’s younger generation entered military academies and now comprise a majority in the IDF’s junior officer corps.  They took over the role that had been traditionally assumed by what Amos Elon termed “the Israeli Gentry” – the Kibbutz movement. To the opponents of Religious Zionism, this role seemed to constitute a threat; to its sympathisers, a positive move that rescued Israeli society from hedonism. In both views, Religious Zionism represented a socio-political force that could not be ignored. In addition, today, most immigrants to Israel from Western countries are Modern Orthodox, the Western equivalent of Religious Zionist.

These trends place Religious Zionism in the forefront of classic Zionism’s three major enterprises: settlement of the Land of Israel, security and immigration. They also explain how the relative social and ideological weight of Religious Zionism in Israeli society greatly exceeds its proportional weight in both demographic and political terms.

The Land of Israel Versus the State of Israel  

Despite the attempt to paint the Religious Zionist camp as a messianic movement, in reality Religious Zionism has always included a pragmatic component. Pragmatic religious Zionists tend to be more inclined to accept modernity (secular studies, the changing status of women, etc.) and to see the establishment of Israel first of all as a means of securing Jewish survival. However, the messianic stream saw the State through the prism of Redemption and interpreted the results of the Six Day War in a religious fundamentalist manner. At least at its spiritual leadership levels, the messianic stream has become dominant in advancing and leading the settlement effort and the education system.

However, the failure of its efforts to stop the unilateral withdrawal has presented Religious Zionist rabbinical leadership in particular with a dilemma it has rarely faced in the past. While for the pragmatic stream, the supremacy of the State of Israel has never been questioned, for the messianic stream within Religious Zionism, a crisis is inevitable.
On an ideological level, Religious Zionist theology includes two major components: the sanctity of the Land of Israel coupled with the sanctity of the State of Israel. According to the teachings of the most influential Religious Zionist theologian, the late Rabbi A.Y. Kook (1865-1935), the restoration of the State of Israel was to be an integral part of the Messianic era, as was the resettlement of the Land of Israel. Unlike most ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Kook articulated a theology that sanctified cooperation of religious Jews with secular ones because of their participation in the process of rebuilding the Holy Land. The State of Israel and its institutions, regardless of who was in power, were thus considered holy.

This dogma allowed religious Jews to participate in the Zionist enterprise and also motivated many to enter the Israeli army. It was this thinking that distinguished Religious Zionism from the Ultra Orthodox (haredi) camp in Israel.

But today, in light of the uprooting of Jews by the State, Religious Zionist belief in the sanctity of the State of Israel has been dented. To the settlers and many of their sympathisers among the Religious Zionist camp it is not the idea of the Land of Israel that has proven to be delusive, but rather the State, the agency responsible for implementing withdrawal, that has failed. Hence, some now say, the participation of Religious Zionism in this enterprise may have been erroneous. Moreover, in retrospect, some would argue that the Ultra Orthodox theology that rejects the holiness of the State of Israel was right.

Many among the Religious Zionists feel that, considering their sector’s disproportionate participation in Israel’s security effort, the way they were treated in Gush Katif signals lack of appreciation. Such feelings are conducive to a sense of deprivation and alienation from the State. Indeed, the discourse heard from that camp is, “Are we only good for cannon fodder?” Or, “When Sharon needed us for his settlement drive we were kosher. Now that he has changed his views, he is throwing us to the wolves.”

Whither Religious Zionism?  

Two extreme alternatives could result from the current crisis. The first would be the abandonment of religion, an acceleration of the steady trend towards secularization that already exists among Modern Orthodox youth. Since the prophecy of leading Religious Zionist rabbis (that the Sharon plan would not be implemented) has proven to be false, this may lead not only to a questioning of the rabbinic leadership and its preaching, but also to a crisis of faith in God among Religious Zionist adherents.

Another possibility is change in the opposite direction, namely towards Ultra Orthodoxy. Again, this trend has existed for many years and is often termed “Hitchardelut”. This stands for an acronym in Hebrew implying a combination of ultra-Orthodoxy and nationalism. In light of the betrayal by the State, the national component may be dropped and the Ultra Orthodox way of life and value system may be adopted.

Despite the existence of both trends, a third option is already evident in Religious Zionist discourse and internal debates. I here term it the political path. This option is based on both the importance of the State in Religious Zionist ideology and on the feelings of deprivation mentioned above.

The logic is simple. Some Religious Zionists would say: “The lesson we learn from the current ordeal is secular Israel cannot be trusted to lead the Jewish state. That is something we have to do ourselves. The betrayal by Ariel Sharon, the closest ally of the settlement movement, teaches us to trust only leaders who belong to the “Emuni” camp.” (In Hebrew, the word “Emuni” connotes both loyalty and belief.)

Like the options of defection and fundamentalism, the political approach is not new. Voices arguing for this direction have been heard primarily on the extreme margins of the Religious Zionist camp. The notion of promoting the “right (Emuni) leadership” reflects such voices. But this way of thinking is now moving from the periphery to the center of Religious Zionism.

Is Promoting the Emuni Leadership a Viable Option?

Despite the global phenomenon of secularization, God has made a comeback in the post-modern era. One can thus assume that the renewed potency of religion will not by-pass Religious Zionism, and that secularization will not gain momentum beyond its current level. At the same time, the sanctity of the State is too central in Religious Zionist theology to be abandoned by the Religious Zionist rabbis. Proof of this is the fact that most of them warned their disciples not to use force against Israeli soldiers.

Moreover, the importance of the State cannot be forsaken for practical reasons, for Religious Zionism can hardly exist outside of the State of Israel. While both other sectors, secular Jews and Ultra Orthodox Jews, could ultimately live without Israel being a Jewish state, Religious Zionism could not fulfill its double definition of being both modern and religious without the Jewish “public square” of Israel. Hence Religious Zionism has the highest stake in the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.

Further Implications of Attempts to Establish a New Emuni Ruling Elite

First, in contrast to hopes on the left of the political spectrum, some sectors of which dubbed the settlers “masters of the land,” the third option would imply a greater involvement in Israeli politics on the part of Religious Zionists, rather than a decline. Greater participation in Israeli power centers would require broader religious representation in the media, the national security bureaucracy, the High Court, the academia, the economy, as well as the creative arts.

At the same time, traditional wisdom suggests that adoption of the political option would entail pragmatism and more centrist positions. By definition, the norms of the international system are contrary to those associated with “religious fundamentalism”.  

Finally, modification of Religious Zionism’s political direction could also lead to a redirection of its energies internally, in ways that could have wide implications for Israeli society at large. Paradoxically, the Israeli left may miss the days when its opponents on the right were principally occupied with settling hills in the territories.

* Shmuel Sandler is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, head of the Sara and Simha Lainer Chair in Democracy and Civility, and a Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

You can Comment in our Forum Discussion of Religious Zionism


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