When I was a senior at the Midrashiat Noam religious high school in Pardes Chana, one of my friends started passing around copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by the American thinker and writer Ayn Rand. In these books, the protagonists are oblivious to social pressure or any altruistic commitment to society at large.
Reflecting Rand’s worldview, her characters are driven by the singular goal of full self-expression. Indeed, a person’s sense of purpose in the world is defined by mastering self-realization and satisfying one’s every desire. As such, the idea of giving something back to society is but a myth, imposed on us by weak-minded people and demagogues, who seek to ultimately crush our individuality.
While Rand’s books were refreshing to read, I and my buddies did not really agree with their central theme. After all, almost all of us would shortly be inducted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the ultimate example of setting aside self-interest so as to contribute to one’s society. In this context, the concept of “giving back” is especially evident when one’s military service takes the form of life-endangering combat service.
However, a few decades later it appears that Rand’s ideas have actually penetrated into the heart of National-Religious thought. Although not the radical form promoted by Rand, core values of capitalism and social libertarianism are today a part of the Religious Zionist worldview.
These ideas are evidenced in several intellectual platforms. The Kohelet Policy Forum, for example, declares one of its fundamental goals as “entrenching the principles of the free market in Israel.” Mida, which defines itself as representing “classic liberal” values, statement of principles professes that “in our eyes, civic, voluntary, and grassroots institutions are immeasurably preferable to a large state with ample budgets that impairs individual personal and economic freedom.”
These positions represent a dramatic shift in the path of Religious Zionism, whose historic slogan was ”Torah and work,” and was a movement that established kibbutzim and moshavim, championed agriculture, cooperated closely with the secular Labor Zionist camp and primarily believed in the importance of social justice and mutual responsibility.
What sparked this change?
One can point to the harsh polarization taking place in Israeli society, which has led many on the left to be disgusted by anything nationalist, and many on the right to be repelled by anything associated with the left, including values connected to the concept of social justice.
Another theory is that it is Religious Zionists’ desire to be part of the Israeli social and economic elite.
However, there is another important reason for this shift toward a more individualistic worldview. Political scientists distinguish between two fundamental approaches to policy making. First, the “idealistic” approach assumes that most people’s intentions are for the best and they accordingly work toward achieving noble goals. In contrast, the “realist” worldview assumes human intentions are bad. As such, the realist maintains that the role of actors on the public stage is simply to survive in a cruel environment, while aiming to maximize individual profits and achievements.
Historically, Religious Zionist youth movements infused the movement with idealism and placed it in the “tikkun olam” camp that placed social justice as a cardinal value. Even Religious Zionist political leanings grew generally out of an aspiration to actualize the broad Zionist vision, not hostility toward the Palestinians or the Left.
But the harsh, ongoing external conflict with the Palestinians, and the internal conflict with the Left, has hardened the heart of Religious Zionism. Over time, the movement, perceiving itself as in survival mode, has become increasingly realist and bitterly cognizant of the unfaltering nature of the world.
This “realism,” which was first applied to the study of foreign relations, has gradually spread to other spheres, including and primarily the socioeconomic.
This dog-eat-dog world is characterized by human beings who are in constant competition for resources, a brutal reality where “might makes right.” the victor may throw a few charitable crumbs at the weak. The fierce struggle for control of Judea and Samaria has hardened Religious Zionist’s heart in areas unrelated to that struggle, too.
Religious Zionism is based on a nationalistic, even hawkish, position on foreign affairs. Such an ethos, especially in the Middle East, thus demands a great willingness to sacrifice. However, this desire to serve the greater good can only be maintained over time if a sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility unites the members of Israeli society. If such a sentiment is largely absent on a societal level, this sense of common cause will eventually also vanish when it comes to matters of national security and foreign affairs.
Sooner or later, it will become impossible to persuade people who feel alienated socially and left behind economically — who no longer feel a part of a compassionate collective — to fight and sacrifice their lives for a society that has thrown them to the wolves.
Yair Sheleg is the head of the Religion and State Program at the Israel Democracy Institute and a columnist for Makor Rishon. A Hebrew version of this article appeared in the journal De’ot.