“I live here and you live in Re’ut only by virtue of the Divine Promise giving the Land exclusively to the People of Israel,” a settler from Mount Haresha (an outpost near Talmon in the northern West bank) summarized our conversation this week. This was a predictable argument in our discussion of the legitimacy of his outpost, and was raised for lack of choice, in the absence of any other convincing arguments. Legal and factual arguments are not the preferred modus operandi for the nationalist-messianic settlers, and his odds of convincing anyone were slim.
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This argument, currently voiced by many cabinet ministers and Knesset members, expresses the ability of religion to provide believers with axiomatic answers in every sphere of life. It serves the apostles of messianic nationalism, among whose numbers are members of Habayit Hayehudi, but also many in the Likud party who are trying to take possession of secular Zionism and its achievements, while rewriting these in the light of their own values. In their view, the divine promise to inherit the land, given to the people of Israel, and their mobilization to this end, is what brought about the establishment of the state of Israel and its flourishing, not the actions of the Zionist movement and the decisions of its leaders.
The fact that faith in messianic redemption, constrained for 2,000 years by a religious edict forbidding taking action to hasten the Messiah’s coming, did not bring about the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in its historical homeland — an event that had to wait for the Balfour Declaration, the granting of the right for self-determination and the ratification of the British Mandate in 1922 — did not shake the belief system that always ties, in the eyes of the messianic faithful, all events to the Jewish God.
The Chief Rabbi in Mandatory Palestine, Rabbi Kook, had no difficulty in embracing the Balfour Declaration when he wrote that “the commencement of redemption is appearing before our very eyes ... anyone with a soul, who can see through the external trappings of events, knows that the hand of God is evident in guiding history, and it will lead this process to its culmination.”
The fact that secular leaders — Herzl, Weizmann, Jabotinsky, Ben Zvi, Ben Gurion, Sharett and others — were the ones to adopt the political ambitions of the Jewish people and work towards their fulfilment within a framework of a national movement, Zionism, does not rattle the underlying assumption of the followers of Kook.
The disciples of messianic nationalism did not see the settlement and diplomatic policies of the Zionist movement as a necessary step on the way to building the economy and institutions of the fledgling state, but as a divine sign of the end of exile and the beginning of redemption.
The messiah’s donkey
They aren’t impressed with the fact that secular Zionism wanted to establish a secular and liberal society, as Jabotinsky threatened determinedly: “In our national home we’ll consider those Jews who do not shake off the rust of exile and who refuse to shave off their beards and sidelocks as second-class citizens. We won’t give them voting rights.” In their view, secular Zionism is the donkey on which will ride the messiah king announcing the coming of redemption, as described in Zacharia 9,9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass”.
Rabbi Kook’s son mobilized in the effort to explain the religious “miracle” which was revealed in the founding of the state. According to his vision, the partition plan wasn’t the fruit of enormous diplomatic efforts by the Zionist movement, a result of the impact of the Holocaust and the consolidation of the Jewish community in Palestine. It happened only because God moved the hearts of the world’s nations to support the process of redemption, and when redemption begins there is no room for pulling back. “Just like the morning star is the redemption of Israel.”
According to the messianic ones, the victory in the War of Independence wasn’t a product of the far-sightedness of Ben Gurion and others. Anita Shapira, his biographer, emphasizes the protracted search by Ben Gurion for the right timing of establishing the state, basing his assessment on data and not on miracles. “During the 1930s he talked of reaching a solution with the Arabs but at the same time, quietly and surreptitiously, he noted every month the numbers of army-age men among Jews and Arabs, calculating how many more we need in order to oppose them.”
Victory, in the eyes of the messianic ones, was a divine miracle, since only thus can one explain the myth of a victory of the few and weak over the many and strong. The meticulous preparations of the Jewish pre-state community, under the leadership of Ben Gurion - as he explained to the Knesset in 1960: “In the War of Independence the Arabs were disunited they weren’t well-equipped when our equipment arrived it was better than theirs. Besides, as strange as this may seem, we had a larger army than they did” — these are insignificant historical facts to them.
The Six-Day War also became a divine miracle for them. Even the settlements in the occupied territories, the flagship of their worldview, were explained by the fact that the secular donkey working in their service changed, “not knowing who was driving him”. Allon, Peres and Rabin tried to lure young kibbutz and moshav members to the Jordan Valley, although not altogether successfully. It was Sharon, the secular pragmatist, who turned the settlement enterprise into what it is today, taking advantage of the housing shortages faced by ultra-Orthodox families and pushing them into Modi’in and Beitar Ilit, and luring secular people —immigrants and lower- and middle-class people to Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. The national messianic ones didn’t establish even one settlement numbering ten thousand Jews. Most of their communities are small, isolated and dependent on government assistance.
In contrast to messianic dogmatism which explains the twists of history only as serving territorial expansion, backed by divine decree, Israel’s key leaders knew how to persist in their pursuit of the Zionist vision of a democratic state for the Jewish people at historical intersections, even when this meant scaling down. They succeeded in shaping reality by correctly understanding it. A careful consideration of diplomatic and demographic conditions motivated Ben Gurion to make do with the Armistice agreement lines (the “Green Line”) in 1949 and to withdraw the IDF from Sinai in 1956. Thus, Begin decided on peace with Egypt in exchange for returning Sinai and Rabin returned to Jordan some land that Israel had taken over in the Arava as part of the peace agreement with Jordan in 1994. Barak withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, and five years later Sharon withdrew the IDF and evacuated settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria.
In all these cases, to the messianic-nationalists’ chagrin, no divine intervention, not even at the last moment, stopped the unfolding of events. These leaders saw territory held by Israel as a means for meeting the changing diplomatic, economic, cultural and social objectives of Israeli society, not as an immutable, sacred objective, in and of itself, overriding any other interest or consideration. They did not sanctify the status quo as Golda Meir and Yitzhak Shamir had done earlier, and as Netanyahu is doing today, but chose active and responsible Zionist action.
Because of the blind faith of those who espouse messianic nationalism, that everything that happens in the political and diplomatic arenas is an expression of divine preferences, and that the ability to fathom the ways of the divine is given only to them, they don’t need a democratic system. “It’s time it moved over,” said Yehudit Katzover.
Furthermore, these disciples, who claim that “every step we take, every waving of our arms, opens electrical circuits that turn on lights in divine spheres” demand preferential budgeting. An extreme expression of this attitude was evident in an article published last year by MK Bezalel Smotrich under the caption “We deserve more”. He explained, without an iota of embarrassment, that it is seemly that the state allocates more budgets to Zionist religious education. Why so? Since according to his belief, religious Zionism was given the task of leading the people of Israel.
Lead it in which direction? Hanan Porat has the answer — “to establish a kingdom of priests and a holy people”, the return of divinity to Jerusalem, the establishment of the Kingdom of the House of David and the erection of the Temple — as the key elements in repairing the world and establishing the kingdom of God on earth.” This answer, given in 2008, only repeated what was written in 1974 with the establishment of Gush Emunim, the settlement movement which tried to block diplomatic agreements that entailed withdrawal from conquered territories, while taking over the reins of Zionism: “Gush Emunin was established with the aim of infusing an old-new message into existing vessels, in order to arouse people to fully fulfill Zionism by action and by spirit, while recognizing that the source of its vision lies in Israel’s heritage and the roots of Judaism, and that its objectives are the full redemption of the people of Israel and the entire world.”
At the time only a few people understood the magnitude of the threat to the Zionist vision. They included Rabin, who wrote in 1979: “I saw in Gush Emunim a very grave phenomenon — a cancer in Israel’s democracy. To counter their basic conception that is contradictory to Israel’s democratic basis it was necessary to wage a battle of ideas, in order to expose the real significance of the movement’s positions and modes of operation.” Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz explained that the messianic teachings of the younger Rabbi Kook would lead to a transition from “humanity, through nationalism, to bestiality, turning the people of God into ignoramuses”.
Today, successive Netanyahu governments have turned the nationalist-messianic approach into official policy. Its key representatives hold important ministerial posts — education, culture, justice, internal security, immigration, tourism and even representing Israel at the UN. Their words and deeds shape the image of Israel in global public opinion, repelling and distancing Israel’s closest friends, causing continuous erosion in the support of Diaspora Jews. The chance of returning Zionism to its origins and to its rightful heirs depends on a sobering up of the Jewish public in Israel from the delusion of man-made messianism, which in practice only amounts to down-to-earth politics, proceeding on a path of racist ultra-nationalism, tinged with corruption. This path is threatening the security and the democratic, moral and social future of Israel.