The Dangerous Silence of Decent Religious Zionists

We were nice, not influential or dangerous. Then a new generation arose and moved into the realm of wildness

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A mass protest by religious Israelis against evacuating nine homes in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, in February 2017.
A mass protest against the evacuation in February of nine homes in the settlement of Ofra.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Columnist Yossi Klein is quite right. Israel faces no real external existential threat, most of the experts agree. There is an internal existential threat, which has arisen to destroy us, so say they say. And because Klein wrote about the religious Zionist movement as constituting such a threat, all that remains to do is to clarify what this religious Zionism is, and what the dangers are within it.

Religious Zionism is not a single movement. Once it may have been possible to define it in a rather monolithic manner: a knitted kippah, Torah with derekh eretz (moral behavior), Torah and work, teachers and kibbutzniks, modesty and simplicity. This perception was a mild contemporary mix – not incisive and not completely true – of new Jewish interpretation and practical Zionist fulfillment. The study hall of the movement’s founders strove to combine national redemption with a religious and clearly anti-messianic way of life.

This is the way we were before 1967: not arrogant “landlords,” second fiddles in the Zionist orchestra. More action and less thought, working to save the national enterprise, building “our own” institutions, preserving our religious interests, and that was it. We were nice, sectarian, not influential and not at all dangerous.

Then a new generation arose, kicked away the temperate comfort of the founding leadership and moved into the realm of wildness. Rabbis Kook – the father, son and holy spirits – Levinger, Porat and the rest of their colleagues, pulled everything to the extremes: redemption, land, messianism and zealotry. And when everything is pulled to one side, the middle is eliminated and nuances are born.

As a result, there is no single definition today that describes all the religious Zionists who describe themselves as religious Zionists. There are oxymorons like Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked; nonreligious religious Zionists; and closed-off ultra-Orthodox figures like Rabbi Zvi Tau and the “party-line” yeshivas.

Bar-Ilan University has some wonderful people who, on the campus, have a “house of prayer” for believers of other religions, and then there are the strict zealots who object to any secular learning within their religious studies. There are religious Zionist gays, as well as homophobes like Rabbi Yigal Levinstein. The righteous like the Tag Meir organization, and firebrands like the perpetrators of “price tag” reprisal acts. Some devotedly sing from the heart: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and others enter the wedding canopy brandishing guns and crying out the words of Samson with great intent: “O Lord God! Please remember me, and give me strength just this once, O God, to take revenge of the Philistines, if only for one of my two eyes.”

There are proud, Torah-believing leftists, and racist nationalists with the same biblical origins. There are egalitarian minyans, and those who do their praying with men and women separated by enormous partitions. Some pray with pride about “the beginning of our redemption”; others, alas, recite only the “partial Hallel” prayer on Independence Day. There is exciting and challenging feminism, and depressing chauvinism too. There are annoying, sick moralists, and also liberal devotees of love and freedom. Peace-loving people and land thieves.

Almost every one of these voices has a movement, group, community, minyan, institute or study circle, and 13,000 people are members of the Facebook group “I’m a religious feminist woman, and I also have a sense of humor.”

The religious Zionism of today is the microcosm of Israel’s identity crisis and split personality (after deducting the Mizrahim and Arabs). So it is interesting and fascinating to listen to what is happening in the internal discussions of this unique group. Anyone who listens will also hear horrible and terrible voices coming out. Talk of Jewish blood that is preferable to non-Jewish blood, about Arabs as “a people similar to a donkey” and “modeled after beasts.”

The visions of building the Third Temple became practical plans for temple activists. What seemed to many to be a terrible price to pay – Armageddon, a global religious war – was in their eyes a proper reward. And they and their ideas already have active representation in the government coalition and cabinet. Blowing up the mosques is not a foreign idea to them. “Arabs only understand force” is the accepted practice on their hilltops, for the arsonists-of-families among them, the burners of mosques and the uprooters of olive trees. Many of them, unfortunately, were educated by one of these streams of religious Zionism.

A nucleus with destructive potential exists there. This is a large and burgeoning problem, growths spreading in the furrow, who see in their parents’ generation (the first generation of settlers) what those parents saw in their own parents. They are pushing the envelope of identity outside the law, beyond legitimacy and the authority of the state. They act openly and in secret to carry out their Jewish apocalypse.

The problem is not the law enforcement authorities that turn a blind eye to their “folksiness,” nor the collapse of the parental and rabbinical authority that cannot control them – partly because it they are its inspiration. The main problem is the masses of decent people, present and former members of religious Zionism, who know better and yet remain apathetic.

The burden of proof and the outcry must first of all come from all those who fenced themselves off into a closed community; those who sanctify the separate educational stream, the homogenous communities for “those who think like us” and the sectarian army units. It is all happening in their circles, and we are barred entry. Those among them who ignore this, who are silent and afraid, hope everything will pass on its own; they enable creation of this mixture of dangers, and they are the ones chiefly responsible for it.

Yossi Klein spoke of the dangers of the violent anarchists and of the passive environment around them that ignores them. And he is not entirely wrong.