Religious Zionism at the crossroads

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Having been raised in a religious Zionist household, I find it painful to observe the ongoing self-destruction of a movement that has so much to offer Israeli society.
Even today Israel’s religious Zionists are represented far in excess of their numbers as elite and champion citizens. This is exemplified by the disproportionate number of religious Zionist youngsters in combat units. They are frequently compared to the pioneers of yesteryear. Religious Zionists motivated by idealism rather than materialism now also comprise a dominant proportion of Western immigrants.

Two years ago, when Effi Eitam assumed the leadership of the National Religious Party, I wrote an op-ed in this paper predicting that this controversial leader would either steer the NRP out of the wilderness or hammer the final nails into its coffin.

I fear the latter was correct. When, in the wake of the exclusion of the non-Zionist haredi parties from government, the opportunity for leadership arose, Eitam was found lacking. Instead of focusing on the NRP’s authentic agenda, he invested all his energies in the settlement issue, reviving the failed radicalism of Gush Emunim. Despite charisma and an aura of pseudo-intellectualism, Eitam’s outlook exemplified the esh zara – the alien fire of messianic religious nationalism, which had alienated many NRP supporters in the past and marginalized religious Zionism from the political mainstream. His stormy temperament and continued use of nationalistic hyperbole drove away many of the remaining traditionalists.

The recent government crisis highlighted Eitam’s worst characteristics. Dismissing the majority decision of his colleagues and failing, in haredi fashion, to persuade hard-line rabbis to order the NRP to leave the government, he and Yitzhak Levi unilaterally quit. Despite a grotesque band-aid compromise enabling one wing of the party to be in opposition while the other retains ministerial portfolios, the NRP effectively split. It is probable that the moderate majority, headed by Zevulun Orlev, will soon also be obliged to leave the government, a move which would virtually guarantee a return to power of Labor’s unreconstructed architects of Oslo.

This would not be the first time the national camp has brought disaster upon itself and, by extension, the country. They broke up the Yitzhak Shamir government in 1992, which led to the 1993 Oslo disaster and also paved the way for the dysfunctional Ehud Barak regime by bringing down the Binyamin Netanyahu government in 1999.

The current party crisis is so serious that some even predict it portends the end of religious Zionism in the political arena.

That need not be so. The Frish Committee, commissioned to analyze the 1996 NRP election debacle, concluded that voter fallout was primarily due to the perception of the party concentrating exclusively on settlements and neglecting issues of wider Jewish concern.

However, the report also suggested that many disaffected NRP supporters could be enticed back were the party to restore its former moderate approach, concentrate on broader Jewish issues, and rebuild bridges with non-observant Israelis. In the past the NRP took pride in basing itself on the Maimonides middle-of-the-road outlook – the shvil hazahav or golden mean – that shuns extremism. It also considered as its primary responsibility the well being of the “soul of Israel,” which meant enhancing the Jewish character of Israel’s society while retaining its democratic values.

THIS IS the central historic task and challenge facing the religious Zionist movement. At its heart is nourishing Jewish heritage and civilization within the general educational curriculum. Unless this challenge is confronted, Jewish identity in secular high schools will continue to deteriorate, and ever greater numbers of Hebrew-speaking Canaanite graduates will emerge.

This is particularly relevant because a review of the relationship between state and religion is now under way. It would be tragic if this were to be undertaken without representation of the religious Zionist movement in a government including the aggressively anti-traditional Shinui and perhaps even Labor.

Despite the aggressiveness of self-styled secular Israelis, most, even the non-observant, favor maintaining the Jewish character of Israel so long as it does not intrude on their personal freedom. They resent the elitist conceit of the radical secular minority.

Indeed, most people probably object to the recent decision of the courts to rescind the ban on the sale of pork because they recognize the legitimacy of self-restraint in the preservation of basic Jewish values.

The conversion disaster is another highly sensitive and complex issue under review that requires an NRP presence. So too is the public observance of Shabbat, not to mention the important issue of marriage and divorce. Add to that the matter of education, and the presence of a united NRP in government is undoubtedly a strategic imperative for religious Zionism.

THE ONE-dimensional activists in the National Religious Party must be made to understand that in quitting the government they would be providing the most extreme anti-religious forces an almost free reign to transform Israel from a Jewish state into a “state of all its citizens.” This would encourage renewed efforts by the post-Zionists to erase the Magen David from the national flag, amend the national anthem, “Hatkiva,” obliterate all mention of Jewish longing for Eretz Israel, and endeavor once again to distort the most cherished foundations of the Zionist narrative in the state school curricula.
Were that to happen, Israel would simply become another Hong Kong.

In addition, while portraying resignation from the government as a strike in support of the settlements, such a move would, in reality, have precisely the opposite effect. It is only at the cabinet table that the NRP can fight for the retention of at least the main settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria and resist the stated objective of the former Osloites to retreat to the 1948 Armistice Lines.

The NRP is facing its moment of truth. If it avoids its true ideological destiny it will stand guilty before the bar of Jewish history. If, on the other hand, it seizes the challenge and goes back to concentrating on the Jewish state of the nation, healing divisions, and promoting tolerance, it could make a historic contribution to the spiritual and cultural welfare of our nation.

The reality is that despite the terror and suffering, the prime long-term threat to Israel does not emanate from Yasser Arafat, but from the erosion of Jewish values from within.



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