Dr. Harold Goldmeier is a business & investment consultant, teacher, and writer. He worked for US governors and was a research & teaching fellow at Harvard. He can be reached at Harold.email@example.com
Now Is Their Time
The election of a right-wing government to lead Israel in 2023 was an epic event for Religious Zionists. The campaign solidified American Mizrachi members. Leaders implored members to support Religious Zionist parties in Israel. Together, they believed, the doors accessing power might be pried open. Religious Zionism had a chance to move from a street ideology into the Knesset policymaking chamber and executive suites that come with influence.
The excitement was palpable seen in their international magazines, open letters, from conference speakers, and in song at every Saturday night kumzits. Religious Zionism no longer was destined to play second fiddle to Haredi definitions of Torah. Religious Zionist lawmakers were on a path to destiny, but are their definitions of Torah law, societal norms, of power politics markedly different from the ultra-Orthodox?
Into the maelstrom that ensued enters Rabbi Doron Perez. His 2023 book, The Jewish State, From Opposition to Opportunity, is an attempt at a Religious Zionist manifesto. Perez describes Religious Zionism as the ideology that will destroy the moral perversion created by the secular demand for individual rights. Now (election time) is the opportunity for “togetherness and camaraderie among the Jewish People…for the inculcation of Torah values.”
Rabbi Perez time and again cautions against employing coercive methods to enforce Torah laws. Yet, he argues, for a Torah state. The Rabbi’s Western value system comes through the fast-read of 178 pages; he repeatedly calls for Jewish unity and acceptance of people, the “others,” who do not believe like Religious Zionists. Perez claims they cannot be coerced, but how do you create a Torah-true state, this reader wonders?
How is he going to allow secularists and minorities to live free? His vision, it seems, entertains notions of a monarchial concept in the image of King David “to heal the fractures of national society and forge a unified commonwealth.”
Who are the Religious Zionists? They sing Hatikva and the ultra-Orthodox do not; the former are ultra-nationalists believing that military service is at the core of their own identity and identity of the Jewish state. The ultra-Orthodox scheme to avoid army service wanting to enforce it as public policy. Religious Zionists are students of Torah and university studies. They are educated in the world’s ways; they are eager to make their marks in business, medicine, and other professions while maintaining Torah traditions, learning, and celebrating the laws in ways central to their lifestyles.
Filling The Void
Religious Zionists grew in the IDF following The Six-Day War. Religious Zionist soldiers were donning tefillin and tallis with a prayer book in one hand and a weapon in the other. Soldiers became officers; female religious soldiers traded skirts for pants. But they were a force without a leader, a movement without an intellectual enterprise. The Yom Kippur War and Oslo Accords were signed by old-guard leftists, and Intifadas radicalized the next generation of Religious Zionists.
My Religious Zionist nephew was raised in the Gush. He once told me that every student in his elementary school knew a family or relative of another student who had someone killed by intifada Arab terrorists. He and his brothers and sisters grew up stellar members of elite IDF combat, intelligence units, and national service. They are Religious Zionist professionals and businesspeople today.
Eliezer Don-Yehiya has pointed out in “Messianism and Politics: The Ideological Transformation of Religious Zionism,” that over the decades Religious Zionist leaders were able to cap extremism from dominating their ideology. But on the ground, the stewpot was bubbling. Young Religious Zionists were growing impatient. Death followed them everywhere: into the halls of Passover celebrations, on buses, in theatres, on airplanes, into schools while they learned science and math and Torah. Terrorists reached into bedrooms slaughtering families while they slept. Youth grew impatient and seethed with anger leaving an opening for extremist voices.
Extremists Fill the Void
Rabbi Perez’s book is a marvelous compendium of the roots and contemporary phenomenon, of anti-Semitism. He traces its history and the links to anti-Zionism. Every student of modern history ought to read these chapters. Religious Zionism, though, was hit hard by the turn of events. Its leaders were not prepared or able to coherently respond to the seismic shift from anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism. Nor were Religious Zionist leaders politically well-organized in Israel. Power eluded them and a vacuum filled the void. Extremism in the defense of Judaism became a vice.
Multiple Religious Zionists were named ministers and bureaucrats proudly proclaiming it their Divine Right to change the modern definition of Israel’s democracy, diversity, equality, brotherhood, and inclusion, once hallmarks of Israel’s political system, to what Rabbi Perez foresees as the last option for the State: “Only after being anchored in religious and national foundations can a universal vision of peace be promulgated.” In that case, extremism and violence between Jews and Jews let alone between Jews and non-Jews in Israel might be the future rather than a memory. Religious Zionists themselves might miss the opportunity to mature their movement if led by extremists much longer.