Yoel Oz
Co-Founder of the Abrahamic Movement

A Religious Response to Betzalel Smotrich

Let me begin with the following: I too am a religious Jew who has faith in the God of Israel and the Torah of Israel. I too believe that the Land of Israel was promised by Hashem to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I also see our Return to our Homeland in the past century as a sign of God’s promise that He would return us in the end of days to our Home. I also pray that the State of Israel become the “first flowering of our Redemption”.

But I would like to ask: what is the Redemption supposed to look like? Everything I have ever learned is that we yearn for a world where “nation will not lift up sword against nation, and nor will they learn war ever more.” In other words: Peace. Shalom. Salaam. The word that has become dirtied in contemporary Israeli politics.

So what does an Israeli Religious Zionist have to do with the “Peace Camp”? I start out from very different premises. For me, religion is not an obstacle to Peace. On the contrary, I believe it is only through religious peace and love of our fellow human beings that we will arrive at a solution that will be lasting and a source of pride and light unto the entire world.

How we relate to our fellow human beings is the foundation upon which the entire Torah rests. This is not “liberal” Judaism. This is Orthodox Judaism. There is a debate in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 30B) as to what “the” principle of the Torah is. Rabbi Akiva says “Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Leviticus 19:18) Ben Azzai says it is “This is the book of the generations of man; on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him. ” (Genesis 5:1) Both agree that our fellow human being must be at the center of our religious consciousness.

This is part of my religious heritage. These are the Torah values I learned from my great teachers.

But by an “accident” of history, I was born and raised in the United States to an Israeli father and a Holocaust survivor mother. I am not a Tzabar (native born Israeli), but I have chosen to make Israel my home as a Jew and the place where I want to raise my family. But there were values that I grew up with as an American that I was taught were in congruence with my Jewish values. That all individuals have inalienable rights to life and liberty and that legal, civil rights must be afforded equally. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a religious leader. This was not an accident. The moral urge for the civil rights movement came from Hebrew Scriptures themselves.

Perhaps it is because I was raised in the diverse city of New York that I appreciate a multicultural tapestry in life and that I have grown up knowing what it is like to be a minority. These are values that I bring to the table that Betzalel Smotritch might not have.

Where we strongly disagree is on how we should relate to our neighbors, the Arabs of what was once called Palestine and that we call the Land of Israel. In Smotritch’s recently published plan he calls for encouraging emigration for those Arabs who refuse to give up their national Palestinian identity. “Those who choose not to let go of their national ambitions will receive aid to emigrate to one of the many countries where Arabs realize their national ambitions, or to any other destination in the world.” (

Let us discuss this. I too long fought against the idea of Palestinian nationalism as only a reaction to Zionism. But then, in the Facebook era, I started becoming friends with actual Palestinians that I have now met in person. I started prodding and asking questions and debating. In the process, I came to an undeniable conclusion: we are destined to be neighbors in this Holy Land. Neither of us is going to disappear. Neither we, nor they, will give up our national identities and that we must figure out how to live with one another.

In this manner, I disagree with traditional Two-Staters who believe in separation. We have to learn how to live WITH each other. I disagree with Smotritch type of One Staters, who would only have one flag fly over the land. And I am equally opposed to Palestinian One Staters, who would tear up the concept of a Jewish state.

We have been placed with a false dichotomy. Either Two States or One State. There is another option. It’s called Two States IN One State. A confederation, or as one major lobby calls itself “Two States, One Homeland“.

As I mentioned before, I come from New York. I have also lived in Washington, DC. What both cities have in common is that they are bordered by other states(New Jersey for New York; Maryland and Virginia for DC) with other flags, with other legislatures, with other tax systems and with other police forces. In the United States we take such arrangements for granted. There are bodies, for transportation, for instance, that coordinate activities between the the different states like the Port Authority of NY/NJ and WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority). Furthermore, Washington, DC itself, is not a part of any state and has its own unique political status.

There will be problems and political conflicts. What we need are systems to adjudicate conflicts, so that we don’t go to war over every issue. But it is possible to conceive of an arrangement whereby both parties have their own flags and their own laws.

But let us get into the nitty-gritty. From my conversations with Palestinians, I have boiled down their demands into three major issues. First, they want equality and civil rights. Second, they want freedom of movement. And third, they want national self-determination. I believe that these goals are doable with enough effort and good will.

One major point of this approach is that no one will leave their homes. That neither side is going to disappear is a fundamental value. This is something that both sides need to accept and this is one of the fatal flaws of Smotritch’s approach, i.e encouraging emigration. But it also means that Palestinians will have to accept the presence of Jews living in Judea and Samaria/West Bank. The military occupation can be dismantled, but the people are staying, just as Israeli Arabs/Palestinian Israelis live in the Jewish state.

Jerusalem. This is doable if we use Washington, DC or Vatican City as a model. West Jerusalem will be Israeli, East Jerusalem will be Palestinian and the “Holy Basin” (the Old City and the Mount of Olives) will have extra-territorial status. Jerusalem, Ir Shalem(Salaam)/Al-Quds (HaKodesh), the city of Peace/the Holy City, must be a beacon to the world of coexistence in the service and worship of God.

For Smotritch, it is anathema that a flag other than the blue and white with a Star of David should fly over any territory in the land. But there are plenty of Orthodox Jews (i.e. Haredim) who don’t identify with the flag (and, in extreme instances, even view its veneration as a form of “idol worship”). Ramallah is Eretz Yisrael halachically (according to Jewish law), irrespective of which flag flies over it.

But I will end where I began. Religion must be a force for peace. In my many discussions, there has been one figure who is viewed as a uniter by all three major religions in the Land: Abraham. His name is almost like a magic word. He is the unifying thread in this region, and he is the figure God made famous in this Land. My experience is that Muslims and Arabs understand this implicitly. It is Jews, both religious and secular who have a hard time being convinced.

It seems strange at first, but so many places are named after great historical figures: we have mentioned Washington. There is Alexanderia. Rome for Romulus, and so many more. Religious Jews should understand that Abraham is the source of “Zionism” and is a figure recognized by Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the reason we are in this land in the first place.

To secular Jews I would say this: I recognize that you don’t “connect” to Abraham as a symbol and that you are worried about “religious coercion”. What I will say to you is this: for the sake of Peace you should be willing to concede this point. For heaven’s sake, pun intended, this is the Holy Land. And remember, the name Israel itself, is a religious name and symbol, and you have come to accept that.

Religious Zionists must see that there are paths other than denying the rights of our neighbors to live in dignity in the land that they also call Home. Smotritch’s approach does not take into consideration at all the feelings and identities of our neighbors. “Two Staters” want to artificially divide the land and throw many of the residents of Judea and Samaria out of their homes.

There is another way. The Abrahamic Confederation will take time to get used to as an idea, but the more one thinks about it, the more you will realize that this is a creative way forward.

About the Author
Yoel Oz is the co-founder of the Abrahamic Movement and the author of "Abrahamic Federation: A Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." He served as an Orthodox rabbi and educator in the Washington, DC metro area for five years. He studied at Cornell and Yeshiva Universities and Yeshivat Hamivtar and Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan. He currently resides with his wife and daughter in a suburb of Tel Aviv.