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The holy and the profane
The immediate Jewish religious response to Zionism was overwhelmingly negative from both sides of the spectrum. Reform Judaism saw it as a tribal regression that could actually do harm to the goal of full Jewish emancipation and acceptance in wider societies. The bulk of Orthodox Judaism saw the challenge of modernity as a threat to its belief system and thus sought to withdraw and isolate itself from the secular world. The Zionist movement, albeit drawing its inspiration from the ancient bond between the people and the land, was nevertheless the product of eighteenth century rationalism and nineteenth century nationalism. Thus regardless of the ideological question as to whether a Jewish state could be established before the coming of the Messiah, a large proportion of Jewish Orthodoxy viewed Zionism as part and parcel of the enemy - the secular world - just in Jewish garb. Proof was evidenced in the lifestyle and articulated aspirations of Zionism's principal leaders - far from religious observance and theocratic commitment.
However another religious voice emerged that viewed this secular enterprise far more favourably. The movement, that came to be known as Religious Zionism, was not only motivated by pragmatic support for the movement that would bring about the reestablishment of the Jewish people in its historic homeland. Religious Zionism expressed a bold theology (echoing a theological strain from the past), that put it radically apart from the anti-Zionism of ultra-Orthodoxy. If the Zionist enterprise was secular, it said, that did not make it illegitimate, but rather demonstrated that the holy was to be found and seen in the secular! For this ideology, Zionism manifested the Divine presence working in history, in the secular world. This movement would realise the prophetic dream of the return of the exiles; and to be blind to this - as was ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism - was to suffer precisely from a lack of religious vision! Of course for the Orthodox opposed to Zionism, such a theology was the ultimate heresy - seeking to sanctify the inherently illegitimate and profane!
These warring ideologies within Jewish Orthodoxy have travelled a long way since and their most vocal expressions today reflect how close they have come together, paradoxically after having taken reverse courses motivated by different impulses.
Ultra Orthodox anti-Zionism, (to-day in Israel we speak of haredi society and I shall now use that Hebrew word accordingly), muted its extreme rejection of Zionism in the shadow of the Shoah and in the face of the reality of the State of Israel which it came to see as an "undesirable necessity". The land was still the Land of Israel and living in it was still important and a privilege. At the same time, the gentile world remained the selfsame hostile world and Jews were unsafe in it.
Nevertheless there was no religious significance to the Zionist state as such and as a society it was still basically treif (non-kosher). The haredi concern was exclusively to build up their own society and its institutions. Accordingly they continued to remain aloof from Israeli society and from its chambers of power, authority and responsibility.
It was Menachem Begin who provided the next quantum leap when haredi representatives were brought into an Israeli Government, taking responsibility for a secular state, but also gaining a good slice of the fiscal cake that they badly needed for their own maintenance and growth. In this process, haredi society was irrevocably transformed almost unwittingly. Within a short time they became overwhelmingly dependent on the secular state for their survival and at the same time the inroads of secular society undermined their isolationist ideology and segregated purity (this is perhaps best evidenced in their own "yellow press" and the internal infighting that it reveals, that also undermines claims to unified Torah authority!) Furthermore they used the secular fora of the State - most notably the Knesset - to fight out their own internal battles, e.g. the conflict between Rabbi Shach, the principal leader of the Mitnagdim (the Lithuanian Yeshivot) and the late Hassidic leader, Rabbi Schneerson of Lubavitch. In order to provide ideological justification for this involvement (in addition to the obvious pragmatic dividends), haredi political leadership and its constituency has had to actually aspire to changing Israeli society from within, through political pressures and legislation where feasible. To be sure, the increasing involvement is not welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the rest of Israel's body politic. Nevertheless it reflects the dramatic increased involvement in the democratic life of the State of Israel of a segment of the Jewish people that originally insisted, on religious principle, on having nothing to do with Zionism.
Religious Zionism - a Bridge
The transformation of a substantial segment of the Religious Zionist community reflects a reverse tendency from the above, which has drawn it far closer to the haredi community. As mentioned, it was the theological perspective that declared that the Divine Presence was to be found within the secular world, that could attribute not only legitimacy but also religious significance to the Zionist enterprise. Accordingly, Religious Zionism saw itself as a bridge between tradition and modernity; between the religiously observant and the secular non-observant segment of the population with whom it sought to live in dialogue and cooperation, notwithstanding differences. Moreover in affirming the secular world, it extolled the importance of secular education together with religious education and thus viewed secular culture as having content of value. In short, it reflected a broadminded Orthodoxy.
The change of priorities that overcame a large proportion of that community were undoubtedly stimulated by the Yom Kippur War. However the roots go deeper and these have been exposed incisively by Professor Charles Liebman of Bar Ilan University. Religious Zionism for all its sense of mission, suffered from a degree of insecurity on both sides - something that was felt especially by its younger generation. On the one hand the dominant secular Zionist culture and leadership did not relate to it with much respect and consideration. Religious Jews generally were seen as marginal; at best quaint, at worst an obstacle to secular advancement. On the other hand, as mentioned, haredi society considered the religious-Zionist community to be religiously weak and insincere because of its collaboration with secular Israel and its open attitude towards the secular world and culture in general.
The Influence of the Six-Day War
For Religious Zionism, the stunning success of the Six Day War was proof of its theological claims. Not only the return of the people to the land, but the return of the land to the people - especially the historic lands of Judea and Samaria - had religious, indeed messianic significance. Accordingly settling these lands came to be seen as the Divine imperative. This was taken up with great passion after the Yom Kippur War. The movement for such, that took the name of Gush Emmunim (Bloc of the Faithful), provided young religious Zionist Jews with the ability to affirm their superiority, or at least their leadership, over both the secular and the haredim. This after all was clearly the Divine agenda and they were fulfilling it - not the haredim who were still aloof from it all. Furthermore they saw themselves as the new haluzim (pioneers) who were continuing the original Zionist vision with the zeal that had dissipated amongst what they viewed as an increasingly self-indulgent society. Indeed particularly during the years of the Likud leadership that followed, the settler movement was allowed to lead the country by the nose, dictating foreign policy as well as economic priorities.
These social and above all political influences, led to a narrowing of perspectives among the Religious Zionist community. As the mission was seen increasingly exclusively in terms of the land, the attitude towards the people as a whole, towards secular society and culture, increasingly narrowed, bringing those elements in the religious Zionist society much closer in their weltanschauung to haredi society. More seriously however, the value of settling the land was increasingly portrayed as so overwhelming in its importance, that all demographic, economic, political and even ethical questions, were all deemed if not irrelevant, then subordinate. After all, settling the land was the Divine agenda!
The most destructive elements in this narrow obsession became evident in the relationship of its proponents to the non-Jewish Palestinian society amongst whom and often upon whose lands they settled. More often than not the Palestinians became invisible for them. But sometimes the conflict of interests with them was reconciled by identifying them with traditional Biblical enemies - e.g. Amalek. While such may have been more the exception than the rule, the downgrading of non-Jewish rights, lives and dignity became commonplace. Long before Baruch Goldstein massacred innocent Muslim worshippers at prayer at the mosque of Maarat Ha Machpelah in Hebron, there had been statements by Rabbis such as Rabbi Lior of Hebron, Rabbi Ginsburg of Shechem and many others, demeaning the sanctity of life and dignity of non- Jews - specifically, the Palestinians. Furthermore acts of violence against Palestinians who did not pose a direct threat were tolerated and even condoned, such as in the case of Rabbi Levinger.
The midrash (Tanan de bei Eliahu) declares that "to lie, to steal from (let alone) even murder a non-Jew is worse than to do so to a Jew, not only because it involves a public desecration of God's Name, but also because he who does so to a non-Jew will ultimately do so to a Jew as well."
In other words chazal are telling us that the value of human life and dignity is indivisible and to behave otherwise will inevitably result in a boomerang - and boomerang it did, culminating in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. However the root of this moral degeneration was precisely the idolatry of the land which thus saw the idea of territorial compromise as the supreme treachery.
The Murder of Yitzhak Rabin
It is ironic therefore that the murder of Rabin has produced not only greater support for the government and its peace process than at any other time previous, but that it has had a greatly delibitating effect upon the political right wing and religious-zionist extremism in particular. In fact the shock within the religious Zionist community at what its own ideology has spawned is leading to a genuine reappraisal of its educational and political direction. Above all however, that militant religious-zionist ideology has lost its access to the moral high ground and to the political credibility it once had. It wasn't that it represented a large segment of the population, but it was able to count on widespread tacit approval, even admiration. This is now lost as the focus of consensus has shifted and the former is increasingly marginalised. And as the peace process moves ahead, now faster than ever before, and as Israel pulls out increasingly from the territories and from our intrusion in the lives of the Palestinian population, this religious-Zionist militancy will become all the more peripheral and irrelevant. (I might mention in passing that for those of us in the religious Zionist peace camp, we have experienced the reverse. This government and its Oslo accords have removed us from marginalisation in Israeli society to centre stage, which is even more so the case after the Rabin assassination.) However the murder was but a manifestation of the desperation of an idolatry that even if subconsciously, senses things slipping away from its control and direction. In that regard I think it is right, and thank God that that is the case, while praying that this tragedy will help bring religious Zionism back to its senses, to its historic vision, role and purpose.
Rabbi David Rosen was Chief Rabbi in South Africa and in Ireland before settling in Israel. He now lives in Jerusalem and is Director of the Pinhas Sapir Centre for Jewish Heritage and Director of International Religious Affairs in Israel for the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B'rith.
This article is the reflection of a Rabbi, living in Jerusalem and deeply committed to the interreligious dialogue and the peace process.