Religious Zionism is under siege today. If it fails to confront and overcome its adversaries, it will become marginalized from Israeli society and Jewish life.
To this day the knitted kippot represent the badge of pride of those committed to their homeland and Jewish values, those who promote volunteerism and good citizenship in a society which has become increasingly consumed by hedonism and materialism. It is no coincidence that a highly disproportionate number of national religious serve as officers in IDF combat units.
Regrettably, the political wing of religious Zionism was hijacked by misguided idealists whose one-dimensional, almost exclusive concentration on land settlement has resulted in a lamentable neglect of the people – and the soul – of the nation. This has led to the erosion of Jewish and Zionist values in the secular educational stream and the emergence of high school graduates whose ignorance of Jewish heritage is so abysmal that some are denigrated as Hebrew-speaking Canaanites.
Today religious Zionists are under attack from all quarters. Their greatest setback was the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which devastated them ideologically and materially. To their credit, they behaved with extraordinary restraint, persuading most of their followers who were forcibly expelled from their homes to refrain from resorting to violence.
Simultaneously, the anti-Zionist haredim of the Lithuanian school, symbolically headed by 98-year old Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, have intensified their ongoing efforts to undermine the role of religious Zionists in state institutions.
Political expediency has brought an end to the understanding of successive governments that religious functions of state would be directed primarily by rabbis from the national religious camp (Mizrachi). The chief rabbinate itself, formerly a bastion of the religious Zionist movement, is now occupied by a puppet of the haredim who publicly make a mockery of its jurisdiction.
Retaliating to National Religious Party opposition to the Gaza disengagement, the Sharon and Olmert governments took further steps to empower the haredim. As a consequence, haredi rabbis, many utterly unsuitable and selected on the basis of cronyism and family relationships, assumed control of the key state rabbinical institutions and courts.
This was initiated with a radical review of shmita, the sabbatical year when religious law requires that the land lie fallow. For nearly a century, since the days of the first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, halachic sanction had been granted for the land to be sold during shmita to non-Jews to enable observant farmers to survive. This year, for the first time, under instruction from his haredi masters, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger gave approval for local haredi rabbis to restrict kosher certification to establishments exclusively using agricultural produce imported from abroad, or from the Palestinian Authority. Had this step been fully implemented, the economic consequences for farmers would have been catastrophic. Only after religious Zionist rabbis threatened to set up their own independent authority, and the High Court ruled against the haredim, was a disaster averted.
But the most shameful and explosive incident was a brutal edict from Rabbi Avraham Sherman, head of the haredi Rabbinical High Court. Sherman, whose stringent outlook is exemplified by a recent ruling stipulating that a deaf person cannot be converted, accused Rabbi Haim Druckman, the respected head of the Conversion Authority, of expediting fraudulent conversions. The charge was accompanied by foul remarks from hostile dayanim defaming Druckman. At the same time, Sherman proclaimed that the conversions of those who failed to observe Jewish rituals could be retrospectively revoked even 15 years later – a cruel and virtually unprecedented ruling in Jewish law.
He went further, proclaiming that conversions undertaken by Zionist rabbis like Druckman were invalid and should be annulled. To his credit, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar, supported by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, opposed this shocking edict, which is currently under review by the Supreme Court.
But what brought the already outraged national religious camp to the boiling point was a subsequent decision by the Prime Minister’s Office to retire Rabbi Druckman on the pretext of his “advanced age” – a transparently shameful effort to appease the haredim and cooperate in the dismantling of the Conversion Authority, a body which the government itself had sponsored to work around ultra-Orthodox intransigency. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Amar was so shocked by the decision that he allegedly threatened to resign from his post unless the government reinstated Rabbi Druckman – which it has yet to do.
This onslaught finally convinced rabbis from the national camp of the need now to publicly confront haredi extremism.
Rabbi Benjamin Lau, the charismatic head of Beit Morasha, did not mince his words when he observed that “Religious Zionism has so far been restrained in its criticism of the ultra-Orthodox, out of a feeling of respect for Torah sages and a desire to maintain a united religious camp. No longer! In honor of the state’s 60th birthday we must free Israel, strengthen the Zionist camp and establish religious services and religious courts that are fundamentally linked with the values of the country in which they operate�.
“There is no logic in allowing the ultra-Orthodox to run the rabbinical courts.� There are many rabbis in Israel who serve in the army, send their children to the army, and are full partners in all the challenges of Israeli society.
“The country deserves to have religious court judges who are committed to its future and its fate, and to free itself of judges estranged from the public.”
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a leader of the religious kibbutz movement and a former Meimad MK, summed it up: “Enough with the ultra-Orthodox hegemony. We need another leadership, a moral one with national responsibility.”
The long-term national repercussions of the conversion issue have made this a defining moment for religious Zionists. In recent years their concentration on land settlement diverted them from their former creative initiatives to devise halachic solutions for harmonizing a Diaspora-based Judaism with the requirements of a modern state. Instead, indirectly paying homage to haredim, they concentrated primarily on making ritual observance more rigorous.
The conversion issue can be resolved only by courageously employing a halachic flexibility which takes account of national priorities – deemed irrelevant and regarded with hostility by some haredim. To move forward will thus involve a frontal confrontation with anti-Zionist religious forces.
Religious Zionists must aggressively distance themselves from anti-Zionist haredim who concentrate almost exclusively on promoting their own parochial interests, refusing to assume the obligations of citizenship. They must also condemn both the snowballing haredi draft exemptions and haredi unwillingness to earn a livelihood as being contrary to Jewish religious values. They should demand that haredim at least be obliged to participate in some form of national service.
If religious Zionists are to be constructive partners in state-building and avoid relegating themselves to isolated enclaves, they must take positive steps to preserve and promote the Jewish character of the nation without coercion. It is also imperative that questions of personal status such as marriage, divorce and conversion be reviewed with halachic flexibility, compassion and humanity to provide maximum accommodation and dignity to all sections of society, as befits a Jewish democratic state.
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