Retreat Into Irrelevance

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The silent majority of traditional religious Zionists yearn for the revival of the NRP’s middle way. The writer is co-chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He is author of Jewish Religious Extremism – a Threat to the Future of the Jewish People.

ANY religious Zionist who identifies with the proud traditions of the founders of Mizrachi, the forerunners of the National Religious Party, must be in a state of shock. Many are in a state of near-despair.

The reason is that over the years, the NRP has transformed itself from a religious centrist party into a messianic one-dimensional party committed exclusively to a hardline settlement ideology. It has thus marginalized itself from the political mainstream and effectively disenfranchised and stranded hundreds of thousands of moderate religious Zionists in Israel and in the Diaspora who no longer have a voice.

And, tragically, as the NRP has radicalized, so has Israel’s society polarized.

At stake in this decline of a once-vibrant movement is more than just the eventual passing of another political party from the Israeli scene. For if the malaise is not confronted and dramatically reversed, there could be dire consequences for the unity of religious and secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

It is because of this potentially serious universal impact of the NRP’s retreat into irrelevance that, as a religious Zionist of the Diaspora, I feel I have to speak up. I am convinced that I represent the silent majority of traditional religious Zionists who yearn for the revival of Mizrachi’s middle way, when I appeal to the moderate NRP leaders: Find a way to rejoin the broad mainstream of Jewish political life.

Consider but three elements of the concerned religious Zionist’s trauma. Each has been exacerbated by the NRP’s abdication of its historic role as bridge-builder between religious and secular Jews in favor of its more recent one of upholding, actively or by default, triumphalism and messianism.

First, hauntingly, there is the ambivalent response in the face of evil. Of course, the NRP is not responsible for the Hebron massacre. And true, the murderer from Kiryat Arba may have originally come from Brooklyn.

But he and his supporters were nurtured in Israel’s religious society, a place where many an NRP supporter stood by and did not sufficiently denounce the hatred and lawlessness of his Kach neighbors.

In Israel and in the Diaspora, many religious Zionist activists condemned the Hebron massacre. But many others remained silent.

More disturbingly, some in Israel and in the Diaspora berated Israel’s elected leaders as traitors and quislings. To our shame we have witnessed, for the first time, passionate Zionists wearing the knitted kippa and publicly defaming the leaders of the Jewish state.

Only in an environment where the NRP has lost its moral authority, where its voice of principle in the political debate has been so muted as to be virtually inaudible, could such outrages have happened.

A SECOND tragedy looms over the fate of the settlers. Not only do they face an uncertain future; the majority of them, who are not extremists, have been let down by an NRP seemingly incapable of presenting their case in a reasoned and undistorted way, especially where it counts – in the cabinet.

Just when the settlers’ destiny hangs in the balance, the NRP is out of government and unable to promote, at the highest level, the necessary dialogue which alone could avert confrontation.

The extent of this problem has been evident from Prime Minister Rabin’s own generalizations about the settlers as extremists. Such imagery is deeply troubling.

The overwhelming majority of idealistic religious settlers are not the monolithic bunch of zealous gun-toting cowboys so often portrayed in Israeli media stereotypes. It is sad that the religious Zionist elite who, less than three decades ago, were hailed as the new pioneers, are today denigrated en masse.

They love Eretz Yisrael and – yes – they cherish democracy. But who speaks for them?

Thirdly, an irony: Just when Mizrachi should be at the forefront of Israel-Diaspora relations, helping to halt the Diaspora’s disintegration and corrosive assimilation, it is an offstage minor player.

Is it too late for the NRP to return to its roots? I believe it can still do so. But only if it is willing to abandon the radical theology which has captured the movement and, in some cases, led religious Zionists to challenge the rule of law in the name of a “higher law” which they claim overrides democracy.

At the same time, the NRP must recognize that out of government, it is effectively moribund. In the cabinet, however, it could once again seize the high moral ground between the extremes of haredi ghettoism and secular Canaanism and return to its historic bridge-building ideology.

It could help fight stereotypes of religious Zionists and settlers and actively pursue the peace process, while helping to restrain those who are already prepared to give up too much – even retreat to the 1967 borders.

Most important of all, a National Religious Party presence in the cabinet could avert the ultimate nightmare: violence between Jew and Jew as the peace process inevitably moves forward.

For this alone, National Religious Party leaders should look deeply into their souls.



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