Opinion

The Paradox of Religious Zionism

Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Rabbi Rafi Peretz at the Education Ministry, July 11, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

The family of religious Zionism is flourishing in terms of its quantity, quality and contribution to the nation and the state. Its members’ activities are prominent in the fields of defense, settlement, academia, education (see this week’s Education Ministry publications about the achievements of religious high schools) and volunteering. However, when it comes to ideology, and politics in particular, it is in crisis. The horizons of the parties that presume to represent this varied public are gradually shrinking, and thinkers and ideologues, as well as broad-minded activists, are avoiding involvement in them.

On the other hand, rabbis who don’t know how to contain this rich ideological and human variety are the leading spokesmen – in limited and often infuriating language – on behalf of this entire community. Although the education minister withdrew his statements about conversion therapy for LGBTs, and his party, Habayit Hayehudi, included a woman on its slate, that didn’t help. The prevailing sentiment in the rabbinic Hardali (ultra-Orthodox nationalist) world differs in essence from that of the autonomous religious community, the community of the majority.

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Until the Six-Day War religious Zionism established itself in its religious niche. The transformation began with the appearance of the Gush Emunim settlement movement in the mid-1970s. The momentum of settlement and the process of assuming responsibility on matters of defense and policy, too, brought on a dramatic change in the nature of this community. From a defensive, reclusive group it turned into a blossoming tree, whose branches have become intertwined with the overall Jewish-Israeli landscape.

The electoral result: In 1977 the National Religious Party received 12 seats; in 2009, folded into Habayit Hayehudi, only three. And this at a time when the national religious population almost doubled itself. And now, unbelievably, Habayit Hayehudi and its partners are stagnating around the threshold percentage for entering the Knesset.

The chief ideological cause that united and strengthened most of the branches of this family actually belongs to the political realm. The glue that unites the liberal religious majority groups and the Hardali minority is the battle for the Land of Israel. To succeed in this battle the majority wing, even if it had to grit its teeth, made peace with the suffocating walls of Haredization (increasingly stringent Orthodoxy).

Now, when the rabbis of the Union of Right-Wing Parties are changing the order of priorities and bringing halakhic prohibitions (based on religious law) to the top of the agenda, the majority wing is reaching the limits of its ability to be inclusive. The majority wing is disgusted by the battle against “perverts,” opposes the rabbinic prohibition against the enlistment of religious girls in the army and is infuriated by halakhic rulings forbidding women to participate in politics and public life.

The rabbis are preaching, as always, for unity. But in fact they are focusing on divisive areas, especially those that affect the lifestyle of the individual. Were they to concentrate on the platform that united this community for years – promoting the settlements or fighting to impose Israeli law on Area C – Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked would not have been forced to leave Habayit Hayehudi, and the results of the recent election would have been entirely different.

Have they learned, or will they learn, a lesson? Although Rabbi Rafi Peretz took back his statement about “conversion therapy,” the others, especially the halakhic authorities among them, did not. Fact: A new Hardali party has just been established: Noam. The initiator, Rabbi Zvi Tau, is the father of the Hardali school of thought.

Tau no longer relies on his student Peretz and other rabbis “who have become weak” and are showing signs of hesitation in their attitude towards the uncompromising battle he is waging, along with Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, against “sexual perverts” and “breaching the barriers of modesty.”

We don’t know how the negotiations for a joint slate consisting of the splinters of the right-wing parties will end. If there is a basis – other than the desire for political-personal survival – that could eventually bring Bennett and Peretz together, it can be found in the one and only realm that really does connect them: the future of the Land of Israel. In the religious realm, especially when it comes to personal and gender issues, the abyss only seems to be growing, and is therefore unbridgeable.