Yosef Blau

Religious Zionism and compromise on judicial reform

The hardline approach of many religious Zionists must be understood, for it reflects a real shift in the community’s sense of its role in Israeli society

As expressed in rallies favoring the government’s proposals on judicial reform, and in statements by political and rabbinical leaders, the political leaders and many religious Zionists oppose any compromises. The first pro-government rally was predominantly from the religious Zionist community with leaders of settlements sending buses. However there are rabbinic and educational leaders in the religious Zionist world who have argued for compromise, and some have attended rallies against the proposals.

The position of the Religious Zionist party contrasts with that of the Haredi parties, who were ready to support any agreement that Netanyahu would make. It was only after the prime minister agreed to promote a national guard that Ben Gvir would control, that Ben Gvir’s faction agreed to a delay. The hardline approach coming from many religious Zionists has to be understood. It reflects a significant shift in the community’s sense of its role in Israeli society.

The community has long felt that the Supreme Court was not responsive to its rights. When the government signed the Oslo accords, and decided to evacuate Gush Katif, the Supreme Court ignored complaints. On a deeper level the Israeli Supreme Court represents the secular Ashkenazic establishment which maintains some control despite over 45 years of predominantly right-wing governments. The self- perception of the religious Zionists is that the era of domination by the secular Zionists has ended, and that religious Zionism is the future of the state. This sense of destiny has been growing since the miraculous victory of the Six Day War and the initial failure of the Yom Kippur War.

From the beginning of the Zionist movement religious Zionists had to respond to criticism in the Orthodox world about cooperation with secular Jews who led the movement. Leading religious Zionist thinkers, Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik, in different ways were able to find religious significance in a secular Jewish state. The ultimate goal remained a religious state based on adherence to Halakha. When Israel was established, Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog wrote extensively on basing Israeli law on Halakha, while being sensitive to necessary adaptations for a modern state. He found halakhic justification for granting rights to non-Jewish minorities and for women participating in the government.

During the early years of the state, the religious Zionist party was part of the coalition, but accepted playing a secondary role. After the Six Day War there was heightened messianic speculation and the beginning of a sense that the time was approaching for religious Zionists to assume a leading role in the state. The emergence of Gush Emunim and the creation of settlements in the conquered territories led to its adherents seeing themselves as the new Zionist pioneers; they were determined to replace those who no longer had the original vision or commitment. The failure of attempts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians made those who didn’t want an agreement on religious grounds now part of the mainstream.

With the radical decline of the left and the association of Likud with Netanyahu as an individual leader and not with an ideology, there is an opening for a movement with a vision for the state. The recent election victory with the components of the merged Religious Zionist party playing a critical role, strengthened the sense that the state has a new elite. Figures who had been on the fringe now were major ministers in the government. The old elite would have to acknowledge the shift in power and accept the new reality.

There are serious flaws in this perspective. The majority of Israeli Jews are not religious Zionists. Secular Jews are not leaving and haven’t agreed to be replaced. Within the religious community the Haredim are primarily interested in maintaining and getting financial support for their people and not in creating a halakhic state which they assume will only come with the messiah. Many within the broader religious Zionist community have a different vision of a Halakhic state—one which would be more aligned with modern Western democracies.

Perhaps the most significant problem facing religious Zionism is that the current political leadership regards the 20 percent Arab minority in Israel as adversaries and not as citizens with full rights. Plans to annex the territories conquered in the Six Day War do not include allowing the Arab residents the right to vote, but do include encouraging them to leave. Such extreme positions endanger Israel’s relationship with its allies and are rejected by the mainstream, including most Orthodox rabbis.

The unity of the Jewish people has always been a major concern of religious Zionism. While it is unlikely that the political leaders of the religious Zionist parties ( now separate factions) will support compromise, the broader religious Zionist community has the opportunity to re-establish its traditional role as a bridge between religious and secular Israeli Jewry.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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