Religious Zionism reaches the crossroads

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Not so long ago, religious Zionism was widely admired as a moderate movement which harmonized Torah, modernity, and love of the Jewish people.

After the Six Day War, most religious Zionists believed they were not only seeing a miracle, but actually witnessing the beginning of the redemption. The knitted skullcap was a proud symbol, admired and widely hailed throughout the Jewish world.

Then came the Jewish underground and its program of terrorism, and a growing awareness that the lofty messianic world of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, and Gush Emunim, had within it the seeds of potential disaster.

Love of Eretz Yisrael mutated into a fanaticism about the “sanctity” of the land which brooked no compromise, not only in relation to issues connected with pikuah nefesh – life or death – but on the future survival of the state itself.

This was accentuated by the Rabin assassination. Although the overwhelming majority of religious Zionists were as shocked as other Israelis, many had remained silent earlier when extremists and some of their rabbis spoke in apocalyptical terms of Rabin, the din rodef, and other evil mumblings. One could also not ignore the fact that Yigal Amir was in every respect – until the murder – a religious Zionist role model.

Today, the nine-seat National Religious Party Knesset contingent represents the most right-wing group in the Knesset and, aside from Moledet, the only party refusing to consider a land for peace trade-off. It has become a one- dimensional party, marginalized from the mainstream, and no longer exerts leverage or influence on anyone.

Yet, never has there been a greater need for a constructive involvement by religious Zionists. The level of hatred in the community against all religious Jews, exacerbated by recent outrageous behavior from some of the haredi groups, has created an environment in which an anti- religious lobby, which could reverse the influence of the religious groups, is emerging. In such a scenario, a radical separation of religion and state could ensue, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the long-term Jewish character of the State of Israel.

But instead of attempting to build bridges between religious and non-religious Jews, the NRP continues to focus almost exclusively on efforts to break down the peace process.

SINCE Zevulun Hammer’s death, his successor, Yitzhak Levy, appears to be moving the NRP even further to the Right. One of the major differentiations between Mizrahi and the haredi groups was that while rabbis were listened to with respect, their interpretations of political issues were never binding on the NRP.

Today, Levy’s mentor, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, is emerging as the NRP’s supreme authority on political issues in a manner that former Mizrahi leaders would never have tolerated.

The combination of Rabbi Eliahu and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Avraham Shapira giving what amounts to halachic edicts on redeployment to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and implying (not yet demanding) that the NRP withdraw from the government if a redeployment is implemented, represents a stark testimony to the new role of the rabbinical radicals.

Indeed, there is little doubt that if the rabbis issue a clear ruling against redeployment, the NRP would obediently quit the coalition, a suicidal move which, to the delight of most Israelis, would pave the way for a national unity government.

But I do not despair and do not believe that the doomsday scenarios will eventuate. Despite the NRP’s radical MKs, the majority of religious Zionists, including many settlers, are the most dedicated citizens of Israel, and much more level-headed and pragmatic than their public image suggests.

The victory of the radicals at the Bar-Ilan University student elections suggests that the younger generation is moving toward greater extremism. However, the fact that only 15 percent of students voted, suggest that the real problem rests with the inertia which prevails among the silent majority of religious Zionist moderates.

Admittedly, the battle within the religious Zionist camp has yet to be resolved and if the extremists triumph, it could lead to catastrophic repercussions affecting the entire Jewish people. But despite some indicators to the contrary, the pendulum is already swinging toward moderation.

New voices from the religious Zionist camp are condemning extremism. And they do not only come from Meimad, the NRP breakaway group.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron is a remarkably broad-minded Jewish leader, highly sensitive to the burning social issues that require halachic creativity. There are also many young Israeli rabbis speaking out and presenting a more balanced approach to national issues. A number of moderate NRP supporters have also come out of the closet in recent months. The threat of forming a radical breakaway party (T’kuma) suggests that the NRP’s constituency is far from being united in support of the extremists.

The fallout from the Neeman Committee has also demonstrated that there is a silent majority of religious Zionists who support moderation and seek to find solutions consistent with Halacha.

Despite the hijacking of the debate by radicals from both sides, the fact is that the vast majority of Israelis from all camps support accommodation rather than confrontation.

The writer is chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.

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