At a gathering of religious Zionist public figures two weeks ago, Deputy Knesset Speaker Betzalel Smotrich talked about his diplomatic plan, which he dubbed “The subjugation plan.” The purpose of the plan, he said, was “to erase all Palestinian national hope.”
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Under the plan, the Palestinians will be given three choices – to leave the country; to live in Israel with the status of “resident alien,” because, as Smotrich made sure to note, “according to Jewish law there must always be some inferiority,” or to resist, “and then the Israel Defense Forces will know what to do.” When the deputy Knesset speaker was asked if he intended to wipe out whole families, including women and children, Smotrich replied, “In war, as in war.”
Smotrich presented the Book of Joshua as the source for his remarks. According to the Midrash, Joshua sent the residents of the land of Canaan three letters in which he set out the three aforementioned conditions. Maimonides explains that if the non-Jews do not flee, they must have limitations imposed on them “so they should be despised and lowly, and not raise their heads in Israel.” If they resist, he says, “not a soul must be left among them” – in other words, kill them all.
How many of those who sat and listened to these horrible things – learned men and women, Torah scholars and community leaders – agreed with him? It’s impossible to know. There were protests raised during the question period, in which some of those in attendance expressed shock. But not everyone was shocked.
I thought back to the op-ed by Yossi Klein last month that raised such a storm. Does “religious Zionism” want to “seize control of the state and cleanse it of Arabs,” as he wrote? No, definitely not. Are there people in that community who indeed want to do this? Yes, absolutely. The question is how numerous they are, or, in other words, where to place Smotrich. Is he on the margins, part of an extremist, fundamentalist and zealous minority, who isn’t taken too seriously – or in the center, a future leader of a large public?
One of the characteristics of fundamentalist religiosity is the reduction of religious tradition into a rigid and simplistic framework of principles. It’s generally joined by a monolithic perception of history, as if all eras are identical and what was true 2,000 years ago is still valid today, and a strong desire to renew our days as of old, i.e., to bring the past into the present. All these together create a one-dimensional surrender to the authority of Scripture. This is generally done in a very unconventional manner, since fundamentalist obedience hews closely to the literal meaning of the text, while non-fundamental religiosity recognizes that religious truth is complex (“There are 70 faces to the Torah”), provides interpretations of Scripture, and integrates other considerations into its approach to faith.
Religious Zionism is not fundamentalist. Most of the community leads a traditional religious life of interpretation and flexibility. Most live in the center of the country, in Jerusalem and Petah Tikva, Kfar Sava and Ra’anana. We’re talking about a middle-class, solid, bourgeois, satisfied community. Judaism for them is a deep identity and a way of life, but they don’t dream at night about rebuilding the Temple and they are pleased to live in a democracy.
Hard for democracy to win out over nationalism
But Smotrich understood something when he spoke with this community’s representatives. Because he was speaking to a totally observant audience, he allowed himself to expose the religious-mythic underpinnings of his ideas. He hoped that speaking about Jewish law and the Book of Joshua would lead to an automatic identification with his remarks that would be reinforced by the dormant foundations of a deeply rooted tradition. He hoped that his religious language would make his ideas much harder to oppose. Unfortunately, that hope is not unfounded.
Democracy, like liberalism, is an ethos. Religious tradition, like nationalism, is the foundation of identity and narrative perception. In a contest between them, it’s very difficult for the former to triumph. If during the 20th century Western nationalism substantively included democracy and liberalism (and thus also moderated religion), in recent decades there’s been a gap emerging between them. As we can see from the refugee crisis in Europe and the Brexit vote, when the masses feel that liberalism is undermining the foundations of nationalism, the response is to boost nationalism at the expense of liberalism. Narrative and identity trump ethos.
Certain people in the religious-Zionist camp, Smotrich among them, turn to Jewish identity and use a mythic narrative to enlist support for anti-liberal ideas. In a situation in which liberalism is perceived as opposing identity, or in a situation in which there is no answer defending liberalism that’s based on identity, they will succeed in drawing many after them, first and foremost those who are deeply connected to tradition. Only a position that emerges from one’s identity toward liberalism, that reunites nationalism and liberalism (and even religion and democracy), can prevent many religious Zionists and others from being drawn to the insane ideas of Smotrich and his ilk.
The fact that Smotrich is a dangerous fundamentalist who seeks to give the Palestinians a choice between transfer, apartheid or genocide is horrifying. It’s hard to complain to the Palestinian Authority about their encouragement of terror when the deputy Knesset speaker of the State of Israel supports this type of “subjugation plan.” He should be removed from his post and thrown out of the Knesset.
But even if this were to happen, the important question is what kind of response we, the religious and secular Zionists, proffer to his ideas. Until there is such an answer, he will continue to move from the margins to the center.
Dr. Persico is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman institute and a lecturer in the Department of Comparative Religion at Tel Aviv University.