Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Religious Zionism provides ideological leadership to the ascendant right-wing bloc and increasingly to Jewish Israeli society as a whole.


 

On November 9, 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned his post as interim defense minister and appointed Naftali Bennet, head of a tiny three-member Religious Zionist party, to replace him. Two days later Israel assassinated a key military leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza along with his wife, and the son and bodyguard of another Islamic Jihad figure in Damascus. The assassinations prompted 48 hours of rocket and aerial attacks that left 34 Palestinians dead, 111 wounded and tens of Israelis injured, most of them lightly. The political rationale of this combined move was quite obvious: It provided a desperately needed distraction from Netanyahu’s legal problems and his continuing failure to form a government (not solely his fault). Bennet’s appointment is also symbolically important: He is the first Religious Zionist politician to become defense minister, the second most important position in the Israeli government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets heads of regional councils in Jewish settlements at Alon Shvut, Gush Etzion block, November 2019. Menahem Kahana/Pool via Reuters

Religious Zionism, despite its relatively modest electoral clout, has become a powerful ideological formation in contemporary Israel and is now in a favorable position to establish cultural hegemony over Jewish Israeli society as a whole. Cultural hegemony, according to Antonio Gramsci, is the ability to define the boundaries of public discourse and establish unquestioned societal norms and beliefs that benefit the dominant group. In order to achieve cultural hegemony, a group needs to form what he called a “historic bloc,” but to do so requires compromise with the interests and values of the other members of the bloc. The core group’s essential interests and values, however, can never be compromised. Religious Zionist parties are working to forge this sort of historic bloc in Israel today.

Israel’s multi-party system is organized now into three political blocs. Likud, along with smaller parties to its right and the religious Jewish parties—both Religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox—form the right-wing bloc. Political parties affiliated in one way or another with the legacy of Labor Zionism form the center-left bloc, currently led by the Blue and White party. And political parties catering mostly to Israel’s Palestinian citizens form the third bloc. Practically speaking, only the two Jewish blocs are relevant for government formation. But after two rounds of elections in 2019, in April and September, neither one of those blocs could muster the necessary 61 Knesset seats to form a government.

The right-wing bloc’s failure to capture enough seats was due to the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman, head of the secular ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), to join with partners in forming a right-wing government. Although his calculations are notoriously hard to decipher since his party is a one-man show, Lieberman’s explanation is that the right-wing bloc is too religious for his voters who are mostly secular immigrants from the former USSR. Although the three religious parties in the right-wing bloc have 23 Knesset seats between them, and Likud, which is nominally secular, has 32, Lieberman is correct when he claims that the religious parties now set the ideological tone for the whole bloc.

Religious Zionism (also referred to as national-religion) encompasses a range of religious and nationalist outlooks, but its most influential and dynamic element is the activist-Messianic tendency associated with the teachings of two ultra-Orthodox rabbis: Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook (1865-1935) and his son Zvi Judah Kook (1891-1982). The elder Rabbi Kook formulated a famous “synthesis” between secular Zionism and Messianic Judaism where he viewed Zionism as the “advent of redemption” and therefore as a semi-sacred enterprise.[1] In May 1967, his son delivered a tearful sermon lamenting Israel’s “loss” of the West Bank, the Biblical Land of Israel. Three weeks and one war later, Israel was in possession of that territory, thus making the rabbi a prophet in the eyes of his followers. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Rabbi Kook forbade giving up any part of the Land of Israel which he believes is granted to the People of Israel by God. This prohibition provided the ideological basis for Gush Emunim, the Israeli settler movement that succeeded in transforming the demography of the West Bank and making the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict obsolete.[2]

The core interest of the activist-Messianic tendency within Religious Zionism is the permanent incorporation of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty. In order to forge the historic bloc needed to achieve that goal, some Religious Zionists, though not all, have been willing to compromise on religious issues. In an attempt to gain more seats, the main Religious Zionist political parties joined an alliance in September 2019, for the second round of national elections, named Yamina (Rightward), with no reference to either Judaism or religion. Even more significantly, the list placed at its head the only woman among them, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is non-observant and a staunch advocate of right-wing positions, both politically and economically. This choice was unprecedented for religious Jewish parties, since a major stream of Jewish religious law forbids women from being in positions of authority over men.

Shaked’s position was an overture to secular right-wing voters, interpreted by some commentators as an indication of a weakening of the standing of Religious Zionism in Israeli society. The opposite is true, however: Its poor electoral achievements notwithstanding, Religious Zionism has been able to establish itself as a serious candidate for cultural hegemony over society. Placing a woman at the head of its candidate list was a sign of confidence, not of weakness.

The core interest of the activist-Messianic tendency within Religious Zionism is the permanent incorporation of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty.

This willingness to compromise reflects the progress Religious Zionism has already made toward constructing its own historic bloc. Survey research indicates that the number of Israeli Jews who identify with Religious Zionism is at least as large as the number belonging to the core group itself (about 12 percent of the Jewish population each) and that 50 percent of them are not religiously observant in the traditional sense.[3] This historic bloc extends beyond the right-wing political bloc, well into the constituency of the center-left bloc. As a result, the future of the Occupied Territories is no longer an issue of political debate in Israel, and the term “peace” has disappeared from public discourse.

The Decline of Labor Zionist Hegemony

Geopolitical developments–President Donald Trump’s administration and the rivalry between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, for example–that have diminished the saliency of the Palestinian issue, have aided Religious Zionism’s quest for hegemony. But the main reason for its success is the decline of Labor Zionism, the movement that had enjoyed the hegemonic position within Israeli society between 1920 and 1967.

Labor Zionism’s hegemony within the Zionist movement and during the early years of the State of Israel stemmed from the fact that its goal to establish a Jewish nation-state in Palestine was shared by the vast majority of Jews living in pre-statehood Palestine and by the worldwide Zionist movement as a whole. The extra-market settlement strategy pursued by Labor Zionism to achieve that goal—cooperative agricultural settlement on nationally-owned land financed by public funds and a corporatist economic system—was not as widely supported, but was grudgingly recognized even by its political rivals as the only feasible way to achieve the Zionist goal.

Labor Zionist strategy in the pre-statehood period was to acquire through settlement as much territory as possible while maintaining a Jewish majority and thus the possibility of democracy. Between 1937 (when the Arab Revolt in Palestine turned violent) and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, it was also widely believed that Labor Zionism was the only political movement capable of ensuring the physical security of the Zionist project. After Israel overcame two major crises, the 1947–49 war (known as Israel’s War of Independence and also the Palestinian Nakba) and mass migration (which tripled its Jewish population between 1948 and 1963), the state emerged as a viable entity both economically and militarily.

The three main components of Labor Zionist hegemony—acquiring territory, ensuring security and managing the economy—were, however, rife with contradictions, which came to a head in the 1960s. It was the very success of Labor Zionism that exposed its vulnerabilities and brought its hegemony over Israeli society to an end. Between 1967 and 1977 (when Likud came to power) the governing Labor party was internally split with respect to the future of the territories that had been captured in 1967: keep them under Israeli rule or return most of them for peace. The split was in large measure generational. The older, foreign-born leadership (Golda Meir was a notable exception) favored withdrawal from most of the territories under certain conditions, primarily out of concern for international public opinion. The younger generation of leaders, consisting mostly of retired military technocrats, wanted to keep some or all of the territories, primarily for alleged security reasons. Labor’s inability to decide on a clear course of action on this issue led directly to the disastrous 1973 war and to the complete loss of confidence in its ability to safeguard Israel’s security. Labor thus lost its hold on both the territorial and the security aspects of the Zionist project.

Economically, as soon as Labor reached its declared goal of full employment (for Jews) in the mid-1960s, it had to face workers’ militancy—fueled by full employment—just as the unilateral transfers that had sustained its corporatist economic policy were beginning to dry up. Labor responded by instigating an economic recession that damaged its credibility as a manager of the economy. The spectacular military victory of 1967 papered over declining trust in Labor, but the 1973 Arab-Israeli war brought in its wake another economic recession. By the mid-1970s all three components of Labor Zionism’s strategy—acquire territory, ensure security and build the economy—seemed to be facing a dead end.

The Religious Zionist Challenge

Since 1935, Religious Zionism had been a junior partner in the historic bloc which sustained Labor Zionism’s hegemony, and its foreign-born leadership was a moderating force in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. By the 1960s, however, the young, Israeli-born generation of Religious Zionists began to challenge their elders’ subservience to Labor, their lukewarm religiosity and political moderation. The 1967 and 1973 wars gave that younger generation, armed with the ideology of Rabbi Kook Jr., the opportunity to take over the Religious Zionist movement and aim, as they put it, to move from the back seat to the driver’s seat of Israeli society. Labor’s loss of the political initiative regarding the Occupied Territories provided the opening for that move.

Rabbi Chaim Retig, chairman of Zehut (Identity), an umbrella organization uniting 45 state-funded non-governmental organizations that engage in teaching “Jewish identity” in secular state schools, expressed the feelings of the Religious Zionists this way in 2014:

For many years we felt like second class. For many years we wanted to be on the front line with the general public in leading the country, but we never thought or dared imagine that there could be a religious chief of [the Israel Defense Force’s] General Staff or a prime minister of our own. We always attached ourselves to others. But … we need to advance a stage and take hold of the wheel and sail the ship of state in the right direction … towards the great horizon of building the Kingdom of Israel in the Land of Israel … The public has a duty to build the [Third] Temple …[4]

Moving into the captain’s position, to keep the Rabbi’s metaphor, has been accomplished at least partially in many areas of social life. Among the more salient spheres are the military, education, mass media and the arts, all fields that play a vital role in shaping Jewish Israeli identity.

As the motivation to serve in the military, especially as a career, for example, has declined with liberalization and growing economic prosperity among secular, middle-class youth, the role of Religious Zionist youngsters in the military has steadily become more pronounced. Currently, Religious Zionist officers comprise about 40 percent of the junior officer ranks (up to company commander) in the infantry brigades and about 50 percent of the cadets graduating the combat branches of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers’ school each year. Their presence in the upper echelons is no less impressive, with a few Religious Zionist officers having advanced to the level of the General Staff. Clearly, the Religious Zionist sector has replaced Labor as the provider of quality manpower to the Israeli military.

The prominence of Religious Zionist officers and enlisted men in the infantry brigades has caused concern that under certain circumstances they may obey their rabbis and defy military orders: for example, by refusing to dismantle West Bank settlements. This situation has not been tested, yet. In the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the IDF avoided deploying Religious Zionist soldiers who they thought were likely to refuse to remove Jewish settlements.

Religious Zionism, which has its own practically autonomous public educational system, has also succeeded in infusing more religious content into the secular public system. In 1991 the Religious Zionist minister of education appointed a committee to investigate the state of Jewish studies in that system and recommend improvements. The probe was conducted in the context of economic liberalization, the first Palestinian intifada, massive immigration from the former Soviet Union and a prevailing feeling that interest in Jewish studies was declining in Israeli society. (Paradoxically, this was precisely the time when Jewish studies as an academic discipline was flourishing in the United States.) The underlying concern that led to the appointment of this committee was articulated by its chair, Aliza Shenhar: “The crisis of Jewish identity in the secular space raises doubts among Israeli youths about the justice of Zionism and of the State of Israel and seriously harms the unity of the Jewish-Israeli collective.”[5] The Shenhar Committee’s recommendations to enhance Jewish studies in the secular state system, which consisted of incorporating even more elements of the religious tradition, were adopted by the (Labor-led) government in 1994. Since then, implementation has been uneven, subject to political and budgetary calculations and in the words of Shenhar, “has raised many questions and discontent.”[6]

Overall, however, under several Religious Zionist education ministers (such as Naftali Bennet in 2015–2019), infusing religion into the secular educational system has proceeded apace in three major ways. First, there has been an increase in Jewish religious content in the curriculum and a greater emphasis on the Jewish aspect of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Secondly, in the context of wide-ranging outsourcing in the educational system, numerous Orthodox religious organizations have been entrusted with teaching Jewish subjects in the secular state system, and they have been doing it with a Religious Zionist or ultra-Orthodox orientation. Third, the target population of the increasingly religious educational system—from students to parents and to the community at large—has been expanded.

One novel area of cultural production where Religious Zionism has become highly influential is the visual arts. As late as 2008 a prominent Israeli art critic could state:

When the religious aspect merges with the national aspect the result is illustrative didacticism, whose sophistication is extremely poor. Most [religiously] observant artists [who are] very popular among the religious Jewish public, affirm art whose faith-based, ideological content sinks it into a shallow swamp that has nothing to do with the complex form-content synthesis of the 150 years of modern (not to mention post-modern) art … [T]hese artists have no interest in integrating into this modern/post-modern fabric, believing, naively, in a proud Jewish alternative.[7]

In the 1990s, however, an impressively wide-ranging religious art production and art discourse began to emerge with the introduction of art education in state religious high schools and in religious colleges. With the encouragement of the Ministry of Education, this new creative field aimed to integrate into the mainstream of the Israeli art world. For that purpose, religious artistic entrepreneurs incorporated non-observant, even left-wing, teachers, curators and galleries into their projects. In the words of Solomon Porat, director of the religious art college, Pardes: Our “dream is not to create a separatist, alternative art world, but on the contrary—to create an art community that will enter the [currently hegemonic] art world, that will succeed in generating conversation within the art world.”[8] That conversation has increasingly become attuned with Religious Zionist themes and concerns, as non-observant agents in the field have been adjusting themselves to the newly-gained stature of the religious ones. Since 2013, one of the largest and most prominent international visual arts events in Israel has been the Jerusalem Biennale, “dedicated to exploring the places in which contemporary art and the Jewish world of content meet. It is a stage for professional artists, who create today and refer in their work to Jewish thought, spirit, tradition or experience.”[9]

In the realm of mass media and television there has been a marked increase over the past few years in the presence of religious reporters, commentators and anchor people, as well as religious themes. While in the 1990s religious issues were discussed primarily as current affairs, in the 2000s such issues were treated primarily in original dramatic programs and religiously-oriented talk shows.

In response to the inroads made by Religious Zionism into these and many other areas of social life, a supposedly different kind of Judaism has been promoted by the Movement for Jewish Renewal. The movement was launched right after the 1967 war by a group of kibbutz members, some of whom were also instrumental in publishing the soul-searching collection, The Seventh Day.[10] It engages in studying traditional Jewish texts and performing traditional rituals in a network of “secular” religious institutions that encompass synagogues, rabbis and so-called learning communities. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a student in the Religious Zionist university, Bar-Ilan, provided the movement with a major impetus to attempt to bridge the gap between the secular and national-religious sectors of Jewish Israeli society.

The rationale underlying that movement of approximately half a million Israeli Jews, was stated clearly in a document written by “the coordination unit for the promotion of Jewish secularism in Israel.” They claim that,

In the last 20 years one can diagnose clear patterns of an identity … crisis among the secular public in the Jewish context … The issue of Jewish identity in the secular space has a direct bearing on the deterioration of the elements of national resilience of the society and state in Israel in two major areas: a. Doubts about the justice of the Zionist project and the State of Israel. b. Serious impairment of the cohesion of the Jewish collectivity—polarization to the point of tearing apart different groups in the [Jewish] people.[11]

Clearly, the aim of Jewish renewal in Israel is not only to provide spiritual sustenance to individuals but also to reinforce the national resilience of the Jewish collectivity. This aim is perfectly consistent with the Religious Zionist credo, where “resilience” means withstanding pressures to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. Jewish renewal is thus a major element in Religious Zionism’s historic bloc. It is also a vehicle for easing the tension between secular and religious Jews by providing a way for Israeli Jews who see themselves as secular to adopt a more religious outlook.

Ideological Leadership

The rise of Religious Zionism to a nearly hegemonic position in society may seem surprising, given the secondary role it played in the Zionist movement and in the State of Israel prior to 1967. But a closer observation of the historical trajectory of Zionism reveals the underlying factors that helped Religious Zionism achieve the position it now holds. With all its efforts to present itself as a revolution against traditional Jewish life in the Diaspora, including its religiosity, Zionism could never really divorce itself from Judaism, for two obvious reasons: The only cultural marker shared by all members of the Jewish nation that Zionism claimed to represent was the Jewish religion, and the connection between that nation and its supposed homeland was a religious connection. These realities secured a privileged status for Judaism, and the Orthodox political parties that represent it, in the Zionist movement and in the State of Israel far beyond their weight in the Jewish population.

When the hegemony of the Labor Zionist movement eroded, the young guard of Religious Zionism was ready to take its place. Since 1967 they have been playing a leading role in settling the Occupied Territories and in subverting any and all attempts at making peace through the two-state solution. Although electorally the representation of Religious Zionist political parties has never exceeded 10 percent of Knesset membership, their occupation of key government ministries, such as interior, education, and justice, has enabled them to wield great influence over the shaping of Israel’s social and political life.

It can legitimately be asked, however, why is cultural hegemony reverting to Religious Zionism rather than to the Revisionist Zionism of Likud, a much larger political movement for whom permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank is no less fundamental than for Religious Zionism? Charles Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya, two moderate Religious Zionist professors at Bar-Ilan University, argued in 1983 that in view of the violent history of Israeli-Arab relations since 1967, the instrumental, security-based argument for maintaining Israeli rule over the territories captured in 1967 cannot carry much weight.[12] By itself, Likud, being a secular political party (at least in Israeli terms), can justify its claim for Greater Israel only on that unpersuasive security argument. But that claim requires a much stronger justification, one that is rooted in metaphysics and supports the idea of a divine grant of the entire Land of Israel to the People of Israel. And that divine grant is the essence of Religious Zionist ideology. Thus, while Likud brings the numbers, Religious Zionism provides ideological leadership to the right-wing bloc and increasingly to Jewish Israeli society as a whole.[13]

 


ENDNOTES

[1] I am greatly oversimplifying. For a study of the senior Rabbi Kook’s thought see Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993).

[2] Ian Lustick, Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[3] Tamar Hermann, G. Be’eri, E. Heller, C. Cohen, Y. Lebel, H. Mozes and K. Neuman, The National-Religious Sector in Israel 2014 (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute, 2014).  [Hebrew]

[4] Propagating: How the Religious Right Took Control of Values Education in the [Secular] State System (Jerusalem: Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, 2017). [Hebrew]

[5] Aliza Shenhar, “A Crisis in Judaic Studies—and the Academic World is Silent,” Kivunim Chadashim 16 (2007), pp. 77–82. [Hebrew]

[6] Ibid, p. 80.

[7]Gideon Ofrat, “Is there a ‘Cultural Revolution’ Among the Knitted Skullcaps?” Kivunum Chadashim, 17 (2008), pp.164–76. [Hebrew]

[8] Racheli Rief, “Art has an Opportunity to Revive Judaism,” Shabat: Makor Rishon Supplement for Torah, Thought, Culture and Art (February 15, 2013). [Hebrew]

[9] See the website of the Jerusalem Beinnale: https://jerusalembiennale.org/the-jerusalem-biennale.

[10] Avraham Shapira, ed., The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six Day War (London: Deutsch, 1970).

[11] UziArad, Meir Yaffe, “The Place, Contribution and Role of NGO’s in the Area of Education for Judaism as Culture in the General State Educational System and its Community Space,” Panim: Everyone Deserves Jewish Culture (2006). [Hebrew]

[12]Charles Liebman, Eliezer Don-Yehiya, Civil Religion in Israel: Traditional Judaism and Political Culture in the Jewish State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[13] For a broader elaboration of this argument, see Yoav Peled and Horit Herman Peled, The Religionization of Israeli Society (New York: Routledge, 2019).

 

How to cite this article:

Yoav Peled "Toward Religious Zionist Hegemony in Israel," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
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