I am a religious Zionist. So are many of my friends, members of my local community, and 20 percent of Israeli Jews. Members of this large group share a number of core values, but are diverse in many other ways. Within is a spectrum: some are on the political right, others not; some are stringently religious, others less so; some are conservative, others take a more liberal view – and on the margins there are some extremists. Religious Zionism is a central avenue within contemporary Israeliness. From the prime minister, other leaders, senior officials, army officers, media figures, academics, and on and on. Religious Zionists carry, along with dwindling numbers of other Israelis, the burden of defense, the economy, development, and social action. The burden of Israeliness. It is difficult to imagine Israel in its 75th year without the contribution of the religious Zionists.
Like any other group, religious Zionists are far from perfect. There is political extremism and racism on the margins that should be eradicated from our community and the broader society. There are among its leaders some who toe a religious-extremist line that invalidates members of other groups, and we must stand against them as well. But they are not the majority. The vast majority of religious Zionists do not beat up Arabs in Jerusalem markets. The vast majority of Religious Zionists do not bellow racist chants after their morning prayers. The vast majority do not hate the other just for being the “other.”
Fifty thousand people affiliated with religious Zionism participated in the Flag Parade, a Jerusalem Day tradition. At its margins were some racist expressions worthy of all condemnation, and cell phone videos of attacks on Arabs have continued to emerge in the press in the two weeks since the march. But that appears to be enough to consign the whole of religious Zionism to the gates of hell — that 20% of Israeli Jews who identify as religious Zionists (leaving aside the fact that a political party coopted the brand name). To vilify this entire group, whose sense of mission drives so much of the burden of Israeli life, is foolish and wrong. It is appropriate to denounce racists wherever they are, but the goodness and decency of the vast majority of the religious Zionist community should be recognized.
The traditional Flag Parade held in Jerusalem was largely an authentic expression of joy over the unification of the city. As happens every year, tens of thousands of religious Zionists constituted the bulk of the participants. As in many previous years (not including last year), the march passed through the Muslim Quarter. Unfortunately, there were intolerable expressions of racism at the fringes of the march, as well as harassment of Arab residents of the Old City. Press and social media accounts reported that these acts were committed by a handful of participants, including members of organizations notorious for their racism – Lehava and La Familia.
But for some journalists and tweeters, the racist violence at the parade’s edges was the signal for a rollout of excoriation verging on incitement. In their eyes, it wasn’t a handful of marchers who harassed Arabs on their way to the Western Wall. It wasn’t even 50,000 marchers. It was the entire religious Zionist sector, no less, that had sinned. The publisher of Haaretz, Amos Schocken, went all out and declared, “Today, the kippa-wearers are carriers of the most pernicious disease, which may destroy Judaism and give it the appearance of a monster.” This discourse, together with the denial of the Flag Parade’s legitimacy as an event that for years has been led by the religious Zionist sector on Jerusalem Day, have virtually marked religious Zionism as an enemy of the state.
The venomous and generalizing rage against religious Zionists – with the Flag Parade as its excuse – is a despicable and dangerous folly. Beyond just being false, it deepens the rift that gapes in all its ugliness within Israeli society. Equally harmful, it pushes religious Zionists into a corner and hampers the ability of the sector’s moderate forces to exert an influence. Racism is a stain, and nationalist extremism is reprehensible, but to blame a million some-odd people for the actions of a few hundred is both an injustice, and a dangerous and malevolent form of demagoguery.