Desperately Seeking the Center

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Religious Zionism is a movement that has nurtured champion citizens. They are to be found at the forefront of all positive areas of Israeli life. They represent the most dedicated and motivated Zionists in the country, exemplified by the inclusion of a disproportionately high number of youngsters in combat units. Today they also represent the dominant element in Western aliya because it is their religious Zionism rather than materialism which attracts them to Israel.

This is the movement that Effie Eitam, the National Religious Party’s newly elected charismatic leader has inherited. Yet he faces difficult choices. If he is to concentrate on hard-line policies, lacking flexibility and adhering to the failed idealism of Gush Emunim, he may indeed assume a leadership of the extreme Right and win more mandates for the party in the short term. But this could be a Pyrrhic victory, and it is the reason the NRP, as a party – as opposed to religious Zionism as a classic mainstream movement – has lost a good proportion of its natural constituents. In this sense, the NRP now faces its ultimate moment of truth and its fate and future will largely be determined by the policies implemented by Effie Eitam.

The NRP is the heir to Mizrahi, the ideological movement created to synthesize traditional Judaism with nationalism and secular Zionism.

Mizrahi fought the anti-Zionist rabbis opposed to the creation of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah, and paved the way for religious Jews to become partners in building the State of Israel.

Mizrahi sought to interpret halacha, evolved over 2000 years in exile, to cope with the requirements of a modern industrial Jewish state. They sought to ensure that Israel would be built on traditional values and created a network of religious Zionist schools. They emphasized Maimonides’s “golden path” (middle of the road) which espoused moderation and shunned extremism, endeavoring to influence non-observant Jews by example rather than by coercion.

In a positive sense, they exerted disproportionate influence to their numbers and frequently served as bridges between secularists and haredim. Their political orientation tended to be centrist and at all times they emphasized the virtues of promoting moderation and unity.

Regrettably, their influence waned. They failed to harness support from Sephardi Jews who were subsequently galvanized by Shas. They became insular and their educational institutions tilted towards greater stringency in the interpretation of halacha.

Mizrahi’s greatest failure as a political party emerged after the Six Day War, when it became messianic and concentrated almost exclusively on the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, neglecting the people and the State of Israel. The exploitation of halacha for political ends and the trend by many NRP activists to move from the center to more extreme nationalistic positions became manifestations of religious radicalism. Those who claimed to speak in God’s name, asserting that only their halachic interpretation of vital matters of national import were to be considered, sowed the seeds for a major disaster.

At its extreme level, this esh zara (alien fire) within the NRP started with the so-called “underground” and reached its climax when a crazed religious nationalist assassinated the Prime Minister. These obscene deviations from Judaism nauseated all but a miserable fringe and were effectively muted. However, the public perception of these events resulted in the marginalization of the NRP from the political mainstream.

Its representatives in the Knesset were no longer perceived as torchbearers of religious enlightenment or unity. Rather, they became relegated to the extremes of the political fulcrum and their impact on the political process was minimized. This happened at a time when religious Zionism should have exerted a major influence in Israeli society, neutralizing the efforts of the post-Zionists and post-modernists.

Yet, paradoxically, it was precisely during the period when the NRP controlled the Education Ministry that post- Zionism made its major headway, infiltrating the secular school curriculum, undermining Zionism, and promoting distorted narratives regarding the Zionist struggle to establish a Jewish state. Indeed, had the NRP not concentrated exclusively on Eretz Yisrael’s settlements, post-Zionism might not have made the tremendous headway which future historians will probably claim paved the way for much of the disasters of the past decade.

Eitam’s task must be to lead the NRP back to the middle of the road. Otherwise, he could permanently alienate the moderate religious Zionists who still regard the party’s primary goal as that of uniting Israeli society within a traditional Jewish framework.

Eitam should distance the NRP from the scandals associated with the other religious political parties. He should discourage the party from blindly following instructions from hard-line rabbis. He should encourage moderate rabbis to deal constructively in halachic terms with some of the difficult problems effecting the Torah and state relations, such as conversions and Shabbat legislation.

Now under the leadership of a highly decorated former general, the NRP should place itself at the forefront of campaigns to end the disgraceful draft exemptions for yeshiva students which remain, understandably, the most powerful barrier inhibiting harmonious relations between religious and non-observant Israelis. It should also condemn any rabbinical courts which require that women undergoing conversion provide an undertaking that they would not serve in the army.

The quid pro quo must be to intensify the teaching of Jewish heritage in the mainstream secular state educational system. This must be education without coercion, but which ensures every pupil is provided with an appreciation of the civilization and heritage on which the Jews’ claims to this land are based.

If the NRP under Eitam can reorient itself along these lines, it may even gain support from non-observant Jews who wish to retain a non-coercive Jewish quality of life in their country.

Eitam undoubtedly realizes that despite the current bloodshed, the primary long-term threat facing Israel is not Arafat; it is the erosion of Jewish values from within. He must therefore avoid hard- line messianic postures which will alienate rather than unify. In other words, he must reconstitute the traditional values of Mizrahi.

Those who believe that religious Zionism can still make a constructive contribution to the unity and spiritual well-being of our Jewish State will wish him well.

The writer is senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

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