A dubious achievement for Religious Zionism
Even if there is room for optimism, there is no room for complacency. From the moment that a party whose spiritual leader is Rabbi Chaim Drukman empowers MK Itamar Ben Gvir as a partner, we are in a new reality.
In Spite of Everything, I am still a Religious Zionist
“The appropriate response to horrible ideas? The appropriate response is a better idea.” This is how the head of the US Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria responded to an act of racism that occurred within the academy. The way to defeat bad ideas, is to promote and persuade with a better idea. The way to contend with Kahanism, which has been normalized on a fast track over the last two years of Israeli political chaos, is to make sure that we have better and stronger ideas that we can believe in and promote.
I admit that I was naïve to think the long-standing tradition within the religious Zionist camp that Kahanism is beyond the pale, because of its racism and its history of political violence and intimidation, would hold. The Prime Minister’s narrow political motivations are the reason that this taboo has been broken, resulting in pressure on the leaders of the religious Zionist camp, in particular Rabbi Chaim Drukman. It is also true that MK Bezlalel Smortrich did not give birth to “The Religious Zionists” as a new political venture in order to integrate Kahanism, but the combination of his and Netanyahu’s political interests empowered this move. What a dubious political achievement.
There is a major difference between the Haredi community and the religious Zionist community. 90% of the Haredi men and women understand that voting for either UTJ or Shas is practically a religious command, whereas over the years an increasing percentage of religious Zionists vote for non-sectoral parties. Unlike Haredim, who we vote for doesn’t define who we are.
I am Religious Zionism
Nobody would claim that MK’s Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope), Chili Tropper (Blue & White), Tzipi Hotovelli (Likud) or Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) are not members of the national-religious camp. However, that doesn’t stop people from calling out those who criticize the integration of Otzma Yehudit, Ben Gvir’s party as not being full members. If you didn’t vote for Smortirch or Bennett, then your criticism is not legitimate. Frankly, this is an insulting argument. I live by a religious Zionist philosophy, my Rabbis are religious Zionist Rabbis, my children attend religious Zionist schools and my community is religious Zionist. On every parameter, I am a religious Zionist. Indeed I served as chair of World Bnei Akiva for 15 years. This also means that I am directly affected by the trends affecting the religious Zionist community.
I have no doubt that many who voted for “The Religious Zionists,” including many young people voting for the first time, did not do so out of support for Kahanist values. However, consciously or inadvertently it has helped to normalize them. I contend that this will have an inevitable knock-on effect from a moral and educational point of view. If up to this point there has been no real need to relate or discuss Rabbi Kahane and his followers and their ideology, from this point, it’s on the moral menu whether I voted for Smortrich or not.
There is no Vacuum
My first instinct was to be upset and even a little depressed, because to a degree, in my name the Knesset has been defiled. But immediately I shake myself down and do some soul searching. Maybe I gave up the fight for the high moral ground within my own community? I have spent so much time and effort building bridges across the different parts of Israeli society, to the point of neglecting my own backyard. Instead of becoming educators inside the community we become lawyers or joined the start-up nation.
Perhaps also worth noting that in spite of this unusual set of political circumstances that have allowed Otzma Yehudit back in the Knesset (an achievement that seems beyond them based on their own electoral merits) the actual activist followers of Ben Gvir form a very small part of the wider religious Zionist sector. This is a source of optimism perhaps, but is absolutely no reason for complacency. Once a political party lead by Rabbi Drukman puts out the red carpet for Ben Gvir welcoming him into the Knesset, we are indeed in a new and problematic reality. And the only way to affect that reality is to articulate and promote a better set of ideas.
This column first appeared in Hebrew on the Srugim website, and is posted here with their permission.