They’re idealistic. They love the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. They believe strongly in the divine promise to Abraham, and in the eternally binding covenant between God and the Children of Israel.
They’re also dead wrong.
Sectors of the religious Zionist world are again stubbornly moving in a treacherous direction which, despite the kippot on their heads and the peyot by their cheeks, is a clear distortion of fundamental Torah ideas.
Let me emphasize the fact that theirs is not only a community I respect, but also a weltanschauung with which I largely identify. I don’t particularly appreciate labels, but if forced to describe my religious affiliation, I would certainly use the term dati leumi — national religious, or religious Zionist. This religious identity is my natural spiritual home, and I agree with many of its central beliefs. My identification with the religious Zionist world, however, is exactly why seeing it progress along a dangerous path is painful even as it is predictable. People like me who both intellectually and emotionally agree with a dati leumi worldview have an obligation to speak out when we think that this sacred worldview has been compromised. And right now, many people associated with this community are moving in a direction that violates the Torah and desecrates the Divine Name.
A typical example of this degeneration took place one week ago, on January 28th, when thousands of religious Zionist activists packed into Jerusalem’s International Convention Center to demand the resettlement of Gaza, and to encourage the voluntary transfer of its Palestinian inhabitants to other countries.
Let’s assume that the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was an historic mistake which eventually led to the horrors of October 7th (a reasonable assumption, in my opinion). Let’s assume that resettling Gaza is a mitzvah, a divine commandment, applicable in 2024. Let’s assume that voluntary transfer is truly voluntary (an assumption, it should be noted, that was belied by the words of Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who openly acknowledged that transfer would indeed involve coercion). Let’s assume that the festive atmosphere of the conference, along with the calls for Palestinian transfer, were not offensive to the families of hostages who are trying to gain international sympathy rather than drive it away. Let’s assume that Israel could accomplish everything advocated in this conference, including finding countries into which the displaced Palestinian population could move, discovering a way to move them, and doing so without starting another war between itself and the Gazan population. Let’s assume that there is nothing morally questionable about any of these policies. Let’s assume that the organizers of this conference actually got their way.
Even if all of the above were true — and it’s not — the religious Zionists who advocate resettlement and voluntary transfer engage in premature messianism, irresponsible territorial maximalism, and impious militarism.
The resettlement of Gaza and the voluntary transfer of its residents abroad would never be accepted by any member of the international community; a belief to the contrary is simply self-delusion. Should Israel insist upon this policy — a policy, not incidentally, which is deeply unpopular within Israel itself — Israel would completely undermine its international standing and credibility. Israel would likely be hit with crippling sanctions, and would be condemned even by its allies. The country would then be unable to purchase military hardware, and Israel’s economy would be battered without any real way to improve it.
Life as we know it in Israel would be over.
Our enemies would look at the disaster we brought upon ourselves, eagerly awaiting the day when we would be weak enough for them to attack again — and this time, with our hands tied behind our backs. And that day would come sooner rather than later.
Israel, in short, would be on life support, decaying from within, as it desperately tried to withstand greater and greater threats from without. (My good friend Rabbi Natan Slifkin explained this in greater detail in a recent article.) Whether or not such reactions are fair is irrelevant; these are the likely consequences of the policies which many religious Zionists are now advocating. There’s good reason why Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite the wishes of members of his coalition, rejected the resettlement of Gush Katif.
Some, of course, will argue that this is an alarmist viewpoint, and that the consequences would not be nearly as dire as I predict. And, given the unpredictability of the international world order today, perhaps they are right.
And yet: are they so positive that this would not take place, so confident in the good graces of the world, that they are willing to bet Israel’s existence on their assumption?
Either way, they will likely argue, Israel is a strong country and we have the ability to defend ourselves. The Jewish spirit will overcome the Israel-despising attitudes of the outside world. Our economy is resilient, and our financial muscle should not be underestimated.
These, sadly, are the thoughts of the credulous and ignorant — even as they represent the opinions of some of our own immature policymakers. In the words of former Netanyahu adviser Shai Bazak, “Those who say, ‘We are strong, we will show the Americans who decides on crucial issues in the Middle East,’ simply do not know what they are talking about. Without the United States, our military power, to put it carefully, would be infinitely smaller. It’s not just ammunition, developments, intelligence and critical collaborations. It is also standing by our side in international processes.”
The Torah itself predicted that the Children of Israel would express overconfidence in our military and economic might:
Lest you eat and be satisfied, and you build and settle in nice houses. [Lest] your cattle and sheep increase, your silver and gold increase for you, and everything you have increases. And your heart will become haughty and you will forget Hashem your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage… And you will say in your heart, my strength and the power of my hand provided me with all of this prosperity! (Devarim 8:12-17)
But, they will counter, we’re not claiming that we will survive by the might of our own hand; we have God on our side Who will surely lead us to victory!
To them I ask: are you prophets that you are positive that God will intervene? Are you so confident that God will not allow another October 7th to occur? Are you absolutely certain that God will protect the people of Israel from another Shoah? There were others who were confident in the past, and they were shown to be tragically, horribly wrong. Trust in God does not mean blindly assuming that He will always help in the way that you anticipate. In a world still awaiting the Messiah’s arrival, where prophecy “was taken away from the prophets and given to madmen and children” (Baba Batra 12b), we need to trust in God’s loving presence, while simultaneously planning as if the future, at least in part, depends upon our choices. We dare not make the policy equivalent of running into the middle of a busy highway, trusting that God will protect us from our own stupidity.
The dati leumi world has long differentiated itself from its Haredi counterpart because of our belief that we must take part in the process of redemption. Taking part, however, is a far cry from rashly doing whatever we want, when we want it, due to a misguided and incorrect understanding of Divine Providence. Just because many in our community are convinced that we hear the footsteps of the Messiah does not mean that he has already walked through our door. The redemption will come, and hopefully it will come soon; but anyone who believes that the redemption has already occurred is blind — and blindness associated with false and premature messianism is an affliction from which, history shows, God does not necessarily protect us.
We cannot be sure that God will intervene simply because we expect Him to do so, or because we demand that He do so. We cannot be so confident in divine favor that we ignore prudence and rely upon a divine promise which, as far as we know, may be centuries away from being fulfilled.
I know that there will be a final redemption — but I also know that it may not happen during my lifetime. While I hope that we are on the cusp of the final redemption, none of us can be sure that it is taking place today. Perhaps the final redemption will occur in a way that none of us has imagined, when the State of Israel is a distant memory. I pray that we’re close — but, in the words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, “I accept the State as an act of redemption, but not every redemption is necessarily Messianic” (Seventy Faces, II: 217).
* * *
As we were driving from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh on Saturday night, my 14-year-old daughter asked me if I am a leftist. I laughed as I told her that I was not; in both Israeli as well as American politics, I try to look at every issue on its own, placing me right-of-center for some, left-of-center for others. Again, I don’t like to be labeled — but if cornered, I would call myself a religious centrist and realist. Nevertheless, if the Religious Zionist political party is representative of the religious Zionist population, I suppose that, from its perspective, I’m on the left — but only because the party has become both fundamentalist and extreme.
Do I think it’s fair that Jews cannot live in a renewed Gush Katif? No, it’s not fair. Do I wish that Jews could live in a renewed Gush Katif? Absolutely. Does that mean that we should make it happen, with all of the consequences that it would entail? Unless someone is privy to a promise from God Himself — and so far, I have not heard anyone who possesses this form of ruach hakodesh (holy spirit) — absolutely, unequivocally not.
It is time for a renewed religious Zionism that offers profundity instead of slogans, nuance instead of simplistic solutions, serious thinking instead of knee-jerk reactions. What should be a movement of great depth has devolved into a well-meaning but shallow coalition of the unrealistic — and it is up to us to change it.