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Is Religious Zionism really religious?

When Israel exports weapons to human rights violators, it loses the moral bedrock without which Jewish sovereignty fails

The Religious Zionist movement today is very religious, and very Zionist. So what I’m about to say will sound surprising, and patently false, but try to hear me out. In a very fundamental sense, the Zionism, in the political sense, of the religious Zionist movement has become utterly secular. Allow me to explain.

The radical innovation of the Zionist movement did not lie in its love of the land, or its desire to return the Jewish people to their position of sovereignty in it. Those ideas and desires were consistently maintained in traditional Jewish thought throughout the exile. What was truly revolutionary about Zionism was the idea that the Jewish people could change their political fate on their own, by their own initiative. This idea was not only in violation of the famous “three oaths” in the Talmud (which appear to prohibit a return to the Land of Israel). It was a violation of the Torah’s basic political philosophy, as it had been understood until that point; namely, we were exiled because of our sins, and we will be redeemed by God in the merit of our observance of the Torah.

It isn’t accurate to say that traditional Judaism in the exile was politically passive. It’s just that its political activism focused on the first half of the Talmud’s equation — “if they merit [redemption] — I will hasten it.” The Zionist revolution essentially suggested that, instead, the Jewish people could play a role in the second half of the equation- “if they do not [merit redemption] — it will happen in its time,” with the understanding that “in its time” meant by historical processes that can be proactively initiated.

The Religious Zionist movement understood that this “innovation,” while long dormant, could be rediscovered within traditional Jewish texts. This allowed it to accept secular Zionism’s political activism, as opposed to the mainstream religious authorities that rejected it. But with time, the fervent  adoption of the activist secular Zionist ethos caused the movement to largely forget the religious political philosophy of the Jewish tradition. This philosophy forms the core idea animating the days of national mourning that we find ourselves in now. Put simply: Jewish sovereignty depends not on political success, but on religious and moral success. The Temples were not destroyed because of bad policies, or ill-advised political strategies, but because of spiritual corruption and failure.

A Zionism, in the political sense, that is religious, rather than secular, is based on that philosophy. In order to achieve sovereignty, we needed, and were allowed, to take political initiative, and realpolitik still cannot be ignored. But to remain in the land, we have to earn it, by creating a society which goes in God’s path of charity and justice.

Yet the Religious Zionist movement today dedicates most of its energies to ensuring our physical hold on the land, ignoring the spiritual conditions which are necessary to justify  it. A truly Religious Zionism believes that the existential threat to Jewish sovereignty is not to be found in Iran, or Hamas, or BDS, but in our failure to live up to the prophetic call of Isaiah, “Seek justice, aid the wronged, judge the orphan fairly, and fight for the widow.” The true existential threat to statehood comes if it is true to say of us now, as it was then, “your hands are filled with blood” (Isaiah 1).

It is painful to acknowledge, but our collective hands truly are filled with blood. While the vision of the national home we’re supposed to be building here is of a place to which the nations of the world flood to learn a Torah that teaches them to beat their swords into plowshares, the reality today is precisely the opposite. With the sixth largest weapons export industry in the world, the nations flood to Jerusalem to learn how to “raise a sword one against the other,” and how to make war.

If it were the case that this export went only to well-ordered nations with moral practices, with a degree of accountability and transparency, there would be less reason to protest. There are times, as the prophet Joel says, that ploughshares must be beaten into swords, that peaceful nations must take up arms, and these days of rampant terror may be precisely that time. In fact, the majority of Israel’s weapons exports go to just such nations, and in those cases, a measure of pride can be taken in the way that little Israel is a global leader in how to cope with the scourge of terror.

But behind that majority, which serves an important role in Israel’s security and economy, hide hundreds of millions of dollars received from some of the world’s worst violators of human rights. In the past, this included sales to the oppressive, brutal military juntas in Argentina and Chile, and to Rwanda before and even during the genocide there. Presently, Israel sells weapons indirectly to South Sudan, where the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 is underway, a crisis caused by war, as well as to Burma, to Burundi, to the Philippines, and the list goes on and on.

Of course, weapons exports to human rights violators is not the only cause for concern for a Religious Zionist outlook in the sense we have developed. When the prophets and the sages spoke about the reasons why the Temples were destroyed and we lost our hold on the land, they mention the lack of social justice, baseless hatred, desecration of the Shabbat. If understood properly, these could set an entirely new agenda and priorities for the Religious Zionist movement. Still, the issue of arms sales touches the very core of our claim to political power. If with the gift of political power that we have been given, we choose to aid those who destroy the world, rather than furthering the interests of peace, a Religious Zionist should wonder how long we’ll be allowed to maintain our political power.

But there is good news. This problem can go a long way towards being solved if a law is passed making it illegal to sell weapons or military training to any nations involved in gross human rights violations. But the law is an orphan — there is no one in a position of power adopting it. The representatives of Religious Zionism in the government, who occupy positions of influence, need to understand that if we want to build a safe and stable “Jewish Home,” what’s really needed is to base our society and our laws on the vision of the Torah, on the vision of Isaiah. But for them to come to this understanding, they need the community they represent to raise their voices and show they care. There is no more appropriate time to raise such a voice than Tisha B’Av, the day marking our failure as a people to live up to our mission, and so a protest, along with a reading of Megillat Eichah will gather in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. Details can be found at the following link.

The writer is an educator and school rabbi at the Hartman high school in Jerusalem, and active on the issue of arms sales.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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