Not Just Settlers: The Identity Crisis Threatening Israel's Religious Zionists

The movement has a large number of identities that could not have previously existed within Orthodoxy’s boundaries

Members of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, in Latrun, Israel, 2013.
Tomer Appelbaum

For 50 years, the Israeli public has identified religious Zionists as settlers in the West Bank. The justified reason for this is that they themselves identify as such. Many of them are indeed settlers or support settlement in the territories. The political and spiritual elite of this group, whose men wear crocheted – as opposed to cloth – skullcaps, has put settlement at the top of its agenda since the Six-Day War in 1967. From that time, the Gush Emunim movement has infected generations of religious youths with revolutionary fervor, which can be fulfilled here and now in the hills of the West Bank.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and especially the national wound that opened after the Six-Day War, led to identifying the wearers of crocheted kippot as agents of the Greater Land of Israel – a controversial concept in Israeli society. In recent years, some people view them through the ethnic divide, where they are perceived as the privileged Ashkenazi or European representatives of “the first Israel,” or through the struggle for the Israeli public sphere, where they are perceived as the perpetrators of religious coercion.

The conflicts between the “tribes” in Israel and between the Israelis and the Palestinians are important and real, and religious Zionists do have a role in them. However, it is not possible to understand them through these lenses. It’s an obsolete point of view blind to a tremendous drama that is going on among the religious Zionists – and the fissures within the group. This fragmentation, for the most part, is not political but rather religious and cultural.

A large number of ideological, ethical and rabbinical-legal debates are splitting the camp, and these have to do with civic rather than political life. Before our very eyes, a number of different perceptions of religious conservatism are arising – all of them committed to Torah and the commandments, but each in its own way. These perceptions are being shaped by the religious Zionists’ alignment with the right wing – that is, in the context of the existence of a conservative-rightist consensus regarding the Palestinians, the settlements, the judicial system and the economy.

It’s impossible to understand Israeli society without the religious component and certainly it is not possible to understand religious Zionist society without it. However, even serious authors and journalists who stand guard over Israeli society tend to miss seeing the Jewish experience that is central to every religious Zionist person, and underestimate or reduce it to a story about power. Identity, faith, rabbinical law, Yiddishkeit, the attitude toward the outside world and its values – all the components that define the relationships within the religious camp and between it and the modern world – are entirely absent from the discourse about religious Zionist society.

More than extremism or moderation, the main force that is affecting religious Zionism is privatization. Privatization becomes a revolution when along with talk and ideas, it is also manifested in the practical world of worshipping God: in prayers, in the way people marry or consume kosher food, in the way women submerge themselves in ritual baths after their menstrual periods are over so they can renew intimate relations with their husbands, and in other matters of rabbinical law.

Concepts like competition, individual initiative, freedom of choice and self-definition and even equality are now bursting into the religious world. In a privatized world, every religious group defines the boundaries of religious law for itself, and these are diverse and changing. Under the self-definition of “religious” and “Orthodox,” there are now more varied behaviors and identities than ever before.

In recent years, with the ripening of a new generation of religious Jewish feminism, the development of the internet and the appearance of Facebook, and with the weakening of the rabbis’ authority, religious discussions are progressing from theory to practice before our eyes. They are quickly being translated into the establishment of new educational institutions and synagogues as well as into the appearance of religious phenomena that most probably could not have existed within the boundaries of Orthodoxy in the past. A new Orthodoxy has arisen, and it is increasingly in conflict with the old kind over a wealth of issues.

Gay pride parade in Jerusalem, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

A high risk of collision

When one talks about religious Zionists these days, there has to be a follow-up question: What kind of religious Zionists? To which rabbis do they listen, if at all? Do they uphold equality in general, and between the sexes in particular, and if so, within what limits? Are they in favor of women as spiritual leaders and leaders of prayer in synagogues, or women in military uniform? Will they accept declared lesbians and gay men into their communities as equal members? What is their attitude toward the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, or Jews who are not observant? To ultra-Orthodox Jews? And what about people from other religions, or Reform and Conservative Jews? How do they dress and appear in public and how would they define themselves relative to the growing menu of intra-Orthodox definitions? And finally, with which political party or religious politicians do they identify, if at all? Questions of identity, ideology and rabbinical law are splitting the religious Zionists lengthwise and breadthwise.

One of the major innovations is the fact that the religious status quo in terms of observing rabbinical law is being changed by people from within – from among the observant. We are seeing a change in approach to the absolute taboo on homosexuality; the prohibition on going to the Temple Mount because of its holiness; the prohibition against women serving in the army, which has been presented as a matter of rabbinical law, or against women fulfilling roles in the study hall or in the synagogue.

Oftentimes the leaders of change are not individuals who have agreed to this in a formal or traditional way – that is, they are not rabbis. Sometimes they are ordinary laymen and women familiar with the sacred texts and rabbinical law. The rabbi is no longer the sole bearer of the treasure house of Torah knowledge; in the framework of religious privatization, “Torah capital” is now to be found in abundance thanks to generations of graduates of upper yeshivas and midrashot, or seminaries, for women – and of course with a free and open approach to rabbinical literature on the internet. Now, even people who are not officially ordained as rabbis are insisting upon interpreting rabbinical law for themselves or to acting according to their conscience.

This is a significant change because Orthodox Judaism – since it inception and at its base – has aimed at serving as a wall against changes from the outside, against secularization and external movements. This change is undoubtedly influenced by what is happening in the outside world, but its agents are not secular or Reform Jews but rather Orthodox Jews committed to the Torah and observing the commandments. They see themselves subordinate to rabbinical rulings and the traditions of the Sages. This is a tremendous and revolutionary change. There are two divergent substreams of this movement, which give different answers to questions of identity. These are two kinds of conservatism – and both rely on arguments from rabbinical law to establish themselves.

This is the privatization generation for religious Zionism – chafing, variegating, splitting, conservative, open, sectional and non-sectional. It isn’t dividing into two main groups but rather into many camps: “light,” post-Orthodox, autonomous observant, Torah religious and Zionist ultra-Orthodox, state-oriented and non-state-oriented, traditional-religious, those unwilling to put themselves in any camp, liberals who are observant of every jot and tittle of all the strictures and liberals who are less so. And there are also just plain religious Zionists, without any subtitles. It’s difficult and in fact not really necessary to catalogue and frame it all. A person might identify with rival groups on different issues, sometimes sequentially and sometimes simultaneously.

Religious woman in an IDF uniform.
David Bachar

Despite all the variety, two main types of religious Jews are on a collision course over a major clash: One group devotes its life to the Torah, and even when its members are engaged in everyday matters, they reserve separated spaces for themselves with people who are just like them; the other aspires to narrow the gender and sectoral gaps and the discrepancies between different parts of their religious souls and modern Israeliness.

This is a high-risk clash between two kinds of conservatism. The liberals, in search of sincerity, are trying to reconcile religious conservatism with the changing world. Their aspiration will be sooner or later be blocked by the wall of rabbinical law, with an absolute imperative that is always doomed to disappoint some of their expectations. This is the Torah, and what it says, goes. Across from them are the conservatives who find it hard to justify the existing order in various areas without lying to themselves and their children. When women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities are part of society, when human concepts and religious language are also being altered, who can deny the need to rethink the discriminatory attitude of rabbinical law toward these groups and others? This is the reality, and now it is changing drastically.

There are some who will say that the modern religious concept that it is possible to be both this and that, in the two worlds, is disintegrating. Maybe the current ferment will push each of the camps to become more extreme in its own way. However, until this becomes clear, both the Orthodox sides at the opposite poles – the conservatives at the one and the liberals at the other – will continue to form an identity and live in accordance with it. These changes started in the period following Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005: Everything is turbulent, new ideas are being examined and in the course of it, so is the leadership. All the questions are being reopened.

A movement in motion

These processes are influencing the bigger Israeli picture, while being influenced by it. A large part of the religious Israeli Jewish population is now emerging from its sectionalism and trying to join up with other parts of Jewish society in the country. Its aspirations derive from self-assurance and also from their outlook: Many religious Zionists of both sexes see their religiosity as part of the flow of life, in a way that concords with Western values of choice, equality and self-definition. This is a Judaism that prefers not to force anything on anyone, recognizes a variety of opinion and is not threatened by the outside world. Around them, too, everything is fluid. Many Israelis who were born into non-religious families or became non-religious are changing their attitude toward tradition, reconciling with it. The religious Zionist option, which in the past was marginal and sometimes threatened, is also undergoing a process of normalization and is moving toward the center.

So much is happening now on the blurring seam between religious and non-religious Jewish Israelis. Some of it is natural and spontaneous, like encounters in the army or in the neighborhood, and some of it is organized: planned joint communities for religious and secular Jews, pre-military preparatory programs and schools, learning events and festivals, all under a “shared” heading. And a political option has also arisen, competing with the old sectional one.

Orthodox women praying in Jerusalem, 2014.
Michal Fattal

All this is honing the positions in the opposite camp, a traditional Torah one that is more closed, where the prevailing voices are calling for a clarification of ideas. At the culmination of this process, they will be able to express uncompromising religious opinions, accept the authority of the rabbis and join hands with other observant Jews, even with the ultra-Orthodox; at the end of this clarification, perhaps there will be increasing separation from other religious Zionists.

Religious Zionism is no longer a young movement, but it is still in motion. From within, new sub-movements are now branching out, and so are new kinds of religiosity. What will happen to them in the generation to come? In what sense will the devout Torah learners continue to be modern? Will the liberals see themselves as necessarily Orthodox, or does their religiosity presage a new kind of traditional or Conservative Judaism? What will the religious and political story be for the middle group of crocheted kippa wearers? Many intriguing questions remain open, and as always among Jews, the answers depend mainly on what the coming generation actually does.

Yair Ettinger is a commentator on matters of religion and state on public broadcaster Kan’s Channel 11. His book “Unraveled: The Disputes that are Splitting Religious Zionism” (in Hebrew) was just published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir.