Opinion

Religious Zionism Is the Strongest, Most Deluded Elite in Israel

The movement used to balance its backing of the settlement enterprise with socioeconomic concerns, but those days have long gone.

The gypsy community in Jerusalem's Old City is perhaps the poorest in Israel.
Eyal Toueg

In December, the government announced its decision “to cut ministries’ basic budgets by 1.25 percent,” citing, among other things, “building alternative housing for the residents of [the illegal outpost of] Amona and [the settlement of] Ofra.” Here in just two sentences we have 30 years of Israeli political history. How is it possible that the religious Zionist elite, which has not participated in a single socioeconomic battle in Israel over the past decade but is willing to “give its life” for every illegal outpost (in the words of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett), accepts with equanimity the cuts to everyone’s education, health and welfare services for the sake of some 40 families, who will reap huge benefits?

The answer is that, unlike the days when the religious Zionist leadership tried to combine concern for the settlements with socially oriented rhetoric, in recent years it has shrugged that off completely and become the standard-bearer for neoliberalism in Israel.

When Latet – the Israel Humanitarian Aid Organization – published its annual report last month into poverty in Israel, prominent religious-Zionist Rabbi Chaim Navon responded: “There are very few poor people in Israel. Of course, if you define poverty in an innovative or wise-guy fashion, then there are lots, as many as you want. Someone who gives up something for financial reasons is not necessarily poor. The fact that there are other people who are richer does not make someone poor.”

In response to another poverty report last month, by the National Insurance Institute, which found that two out of every five children in Israel are poor, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) said: “I have five children and I don’t think two of them are poor.” And in her article in the policy periodical Hashiloach, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (also Habayit Hayehudi) became the first libertarian politician in Israel when she suggested basing the economy on the “ability of familial, social and economic communities to manage their lives on their own.”

However, one of the sector’s leading experts, Prof. Robert (Israel) Aumann of the Hebrew University, explained in an interview that “capitalism is based on selfishness. Whoever wants to try to shape a system that isn’t based on that, please do so. But the problem is that people are selfish; they strive to benefit themselves.”

In April 2008, a conference at the University of Haifa discussed the government’s responsibility toward the residents of Sderot and the Gaza border communities, who were fearful of the threat of Qassam rockets from Gaza. “Did the residents of Sderot, like the residents of Safed during the [Second] Lebanon War, really do everything possible for themselves rather than relying too much on the government?” asked panelist Israel Harel, one of the leaders of religious Zionism (and a Haaretz op-ed writer). “During the days of the intifada, we suffered from serious terror in Ofra. I don’t recall that we came to the government with demands like the residents of Sderot today,” he added.

These statements reflect a perception that is gaining ground among the religious Zionist elite in Israel. The power of this approach lies in its moral justification for being the most privileged group in Israel. This elite comes from the wealthiest communities; its education system receives the largest public funding, while it excludes members of weaker communities from its institutions; and its leadership ignores the struggle for socioeconomic justice that has been changing the face of the country since the protests of 2011.

Buildings being constructed in the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, December 28, 2016.
Baz Ratner/Reuters

How does this group manage to bridge the dissonance between the situation and its perception of itself as a serving elite? By adopting the notion that it was not the welfare state constructed in the occupied territories that gave it its strength, but rather strong and proactive communities that took care of themselves.

By their logic, other groups – such as contract workers, for example – fail to look after themselves, so they are low in the Israeli hierarchy system. Blaming the weak for their situation is, therefore, the way the religious Zionist elite justifies its decision to channel most of its spiritual, monetary and political resources into developing the settlement enterprise, when the very society it praises for its unity becomes poorer and more polarized by the day.

Since the March 2015 election, the public discourse in Israel has been about identity politics and the sins of our left-wing forefathers in Mapai. But this discussion, which transfers the struggle from society and the economy to the field of culture, completely ignores the existence of an elite that has a huge impact on the state: religious Zionism. This elite doesn’t consist of people of culture who are trying to change the debate; instead, it consists of rabbis, the heads of mechinot (pre-army study institutions) and politicians who are engaged in consolidating their power.

In light of this, the fight against the ghost of Mapai – after 30 or so years of right-wing rule – looks like a battle taking place inside Plato’s cave. A determined religious Zionist elite exists outside of this cave, which has become the standard-bearer not only of the settlement project but also of the neoliberal belief that every community has to take care of itself – and the only community the government has to nurture is theirs. According to this worldview, poverty and social gaps are a fitting punishment for anyone unable to take care of himself, whereas a cut in the education, welfare and health budgets in order to make more money available for the outposts is not a source of shame but rather pride.

The writer is the executive director of the Social Economic Academy.