Last week’s election saw a steep decline in the Knesset representation of the Religious Zionist camp, alongside tens of thousands of votes wasted on parties that failed to cross the electoral threshold. Every defeat carries with it a lesson, and it is time to learn ours.
Professor Yedidia Stern wrote here, over two months ago, of the need for a shift in Israeli politics to a bloc system with four parties: Right, left, Haredi, and Arab. The 2019 election represented a major step in this direction, with Likud (on the right) and Blue and White (on the center-left) siphoning votes and mandates from smaller parties, and very respectable showings for the charedi and Arab parties.
In Professor Stern’s vision there is no place for a Religious Zionist party, and this approach is understandable. Religious Zionists are integrated into every walk of Israeli life. Among the supporters of every major Jewish party, and on the election lists of many, one can find Religious Zionists. What role does this group have in politics if its interests are varied, and are already taken up by other larger parties?
In recent years the Religious Zionist role in politics has been to serve as a right-wing buffer to the ruling Likud. It focuses almost exclusively on a single religious value—the sanctity of Greater Israel. In promoting that end it plays the game of politics like any other party, and allies itself completely with Netanyahu while voicing warnings that he may veer leftward if left unchecked. In fact Likud continues to veer rightward, and these warnings seem unfounded as right-wing voters flock en masse to the Likud. To be a “super-right-wing” party seems superfluous, and this election proved that.
The very name of Religious Zionism’s latest political incarnation—the URWP (Union of Right-Wing Parties)—indicates the extent to which an ostensibly religious party has become just another player in the crowded political field. How can a party supposedly rooted in Jewish tradition and Torah observance leave out of its name any hint of these cardinal values?
There is an alternative model, which I outlined in the context of an objection to the merger between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit in February. If Religious Zionism is to play a role in politics, it should be to inject into the political discourse a distinctly religious voice, one which sees the state as a spiritually significant step in the historical trajectory of the Jewish people while respecting the complexity of Israeli society in its current form.
On issues of religion and state, like Shabbat laws (keeping grocery stores open, public transportation, and state-run construction projects) or marriage and divorce, we most often hear the haredi voice. One gets the impression that the Religious Zionist parties don’t want to “make trouble” about issues which may impede the settlement project.
There are plenty of other issues less obviously religious in nature but on which the Religious Zionist voice needs to be heard. How should we relate to the African refugees streaming into our borders? Or to the inadequacies of our overburdened health-care system? Or to a national leader accepting large gifts from donors whose fortunes are affected by his policies?
These issues are complex, as is the art of applying Torah dictates to them, but the Religious Zionist stance has been to stand alongside Netanyahu and stay mum. Betzalel Smotrich, for example, has been far more vocal about protecting the prime minister from prosecution than about why he needs protection in the first place.
It has recently been reported that URWP head Rabbi Rafi Peretz is forming a negotiating bloc with the charedim on many issues of religion and state, which would be a positive step (leaving aside the question of whether URWP should be entirely in agreement with the charedim on each issue). But a broader change in orientation may be called for.
One of the themes of Pesach, which begins at the end of this week, is the unity which stems from shared national experience and destiny. The custom of ma’ot chittim, giving charity specifically in preparation for Pesach, is explained by the Vilna Ga’on as more than a general requirement to help the needy; it is an obligation to ensure that everyone has the ability to make a seder on the first night of Pesach. The Torah speaks of eating matzah in the passive (“ye-achel”) to make the point that part of my duty is to allow my neighbor to eat matzah too. The shared historical experience of servitude and freedom leads to a sense of communal responsibility.
Politics in Israel emphasizes separation more than unity. As long as Religious Zionism plays the political game and pursues narrow policy objectives, there will always be divisions both in substance and in strategy; the result is a splintering into several groups, and ultimately the parliamentary exclusion we face now. Our focus must instead be on the religious and Zionist values we share, and on how to infuse the political process with a spiritual direction and meaning.
To get past post-election, we need to embrace the lessons of Pesach.