In Israel, Religious Zionism Is the Problem

Religious Zionism provided Israel with a mythical exit from its dead-end street. But it is just an illusion from which we must wake up, and quickly.

Marc Israel Sellem

It’s tempting to read Israel’s present as a farce, that is, as a repetition of history lacking its tragic dimension. Such a reading eliminates the tension inherent in taking part in a tragedy together with the responsibility it confers. For example, the thought that there really isn’t a giant chasm between the left and the right, or that Israel’s new government will continue the policies of the one that came before — in fact, of all Israeli governments, with changes in style only.

Another attempt to deny the tragic dimension is expressed as a hope that what appears to be bad will, in a dramatic reversal, turn out to be good. Just like Menachem Begin and Egypt, it will be the opponents of peace, Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, who will achieve it. Ayelet Shaked will be a boon to the judicial system and culture will flourish under Miri Regev.

Some people imagine seeing a half-full glass of the new government advancing social welfare issues, laying their hopes in Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Social Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz, Pensioner Affairs Minister and Deputy Minister for the Advancement of Young People, Students and Women Gila Gamliel, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Moshe Gafni as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, and the ministers from Shas. Then there’s the radical reading of the situation: The new government combines Netanyahu’s hatred of the elites and of academia with the hatred of the groups that have been excluded from their ranks. They are now making common cause to bring down the old (Ashkenazi, Mapai-Labor) power structure.

But underneath these readings is a different one, a reading that is not farce but rather an original historical tragedy: In full view of the amazed Israelis, religious Zionism is completing its takeover of the state. After 47 years of patiently and diligently spinning its web (settlements in Judea and Samaria, Rabbi Moshe Levinger in Hebron, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the “price tag” actions and more), it now casts it over its prey.

Many Israelis fell willingly into the net of religious Zionism. Its terminology now dominates popular political discourse. Young people “from good families,” such as Bennett, Shaked, Ronen Shoval and Yinon Magal of Habayit Hayehudi fell to its charms. Even Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Ofer Shelah — the “salt of the earth” — could not resist. They forged a blood brothers pact and wasted on it their entire political capital, the 19 Knesset seats they won in the 2013 election. For Israel’s lost young people, shell shocked and guilt-ridden, religious Zionism provided a consoling narrative – a narrative that would ground their disintegrated identity and give meaning to the difficult contradictions of life in Israel.

Religious Zionism provided the sole rational narrative today. Only it can place the difficulties of the present in a context of significance, along a time line that minimizes the troubles of the present, putting them into perspective — on the continuum of thousands of years of Jewish history. Only it can eliminate moral anxiety: After all, a nation cannot be an occupying power in its own land.

Religious Zionism provided Israel with a mythical exit from its dead-end street. But it is just an illusion from which we must wake up, and quickly. Religious Zionism cannot solve Israel’s problems because it itself is the problem. Israel is in an identity crisis for one reason: its insistence on continuing to rule over millions of Palestinians.

There is no contradiction in Zionism, nor is there between democracy and Judaism. There is no moral problem with the Law of Return. The Nakba is not the reason Israel is stuck, nor the right of return for Palestinian refugees, nor the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The problem is not 1948, but rather 1967. Deflecting the discussion to 1948 is an attempt to avoid the issue, a manipulation ad absurdum: After all, if the problem is 1948, how can it be resolved? By dismantling the state and scattering the Jews throughout the world? Israelis must remember who they are, bear 1948 proudly and repair, once and for all, the injustice that 1967 spawned.