Elchanan Poupko

Religious Zionism’s Darkest Hour

Religious Zionist Party member Simcha Rotman, seen at the party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** áçéøåú
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Religious Zionist Party member Simcha Rothman seen at the party headquarters in Modi'in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Bad things happen when good people remain silent. 

Recent judicial reforms and legislative blitzes in Israel are no longer a partisan dispute and a matter of opinion. The numbers are in. 

The collapse of the Israeli Shekel, the many billions of dollars that have already left Israel, and the number of investors expressing deep concerns are all very real. The flames of hate, animosity and civil unrest inside Israel are already being celebrated by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. Elite Israeli pilots, tankers, and submariners who should be thinking about the best way to confront a nuclear Iran are having to think of whether or not their children have a future inside Israel, while Mossad and intelligence Cheifs warn this reform is a coup that will cripple the Israeli judiciary. 

The countless Mossad and special agents singing letters that they will stop serving if MK Rothman’s judicial reform passes cannot be ignored either. This is an existential issue and it is not going away. 

The Jewish Federations of North America issued an unusual statement warning of the dangers of this reform, as did President Isaac Herzog. 

While there are many reasons to speak out against this reform, the one that compelled me most was very personal. I think of a friend of mine who lost his father and other relatives while they were defending Israel in the Yom Kippur war, who also spends his nights and days defending Israel. While no one in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, or Iran has made him blink or think twice about his children’s future in Israel, this judicial reform does. 

Being a religious Zionist means two main things: belief in binyan ha’aretz–the physical building of the land of Israel, and supporting the Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, enabling more and more Jews to live in Israel. There is no question whatsoever that recent events have been undermining both Binyan Ha’aretz and the future of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. When HSBCChase JP Morgan, and City Group send dire warnings about the future of the Israeli Shekel under this reform, the matter is no longer debatable. The livelihood of thousands in Israel is likely to be negatively affected, the prospects of making Aliya and moving to Israel will be far less attractive to millions of Jews around the world, and the infrastructure and Binyan Ha’aretz of the land are likely going to suffer as well. Steps undermining the Israeli economy, scaring investors away from the start-up nation, and limiting future Aliya are not part of Binyan Ha’aretz, to say the least.  

Yet there is a more tragic aspect to this tragedy of millions of Israelis feeling their future in Israel is in danger, is the silence of so many religious zionists. This silence comes on top of the role so many other religious zionists have taken in leading Israel into the current devastating, lose-lose crisis. 

Make no mistake: there are many legitimate grievances inside Israel, there are many flaws with Israel’s judicial system, Aharon Barak’s judicial overreach, plenty of room for debate, and a lot of changes that are needed. Many of these were articulated by Israeli president Herzog’s unusual address. Yet, as Israel’s current ministry of economics warns of the devastating impacts this reform would have, as the tear and divide among our people continue to grow, religious Zionism has taken a leading role in the wrong direction, making me embarrassed to count myself among them. Burning down Israeli democracy because of some flaws, grievances, and historical injustices, such as the Gaza disengagement will solve nothing. 

It is one thing to argue for an issue. Religious zionists have done so for decades advocating for countless good causes. Yet in the past few months, some of the most vindictive, cruel, arrogant, divisive, forceful, and uncompromising voices have come from among graduates of the finest religious zionist Yeshivot and communities. With a sense of disbelief, I look at MK Simcha Rothman, leader of the judicial reform, Itamar Ben Gvir, and the headlines he generates; MK Smotritch, MK Shlomo Karei, and his culture wars, MK Almog Cohen, cited for his gruesome and unethical way of speaking inside the Knesset, and so many others, and I ask myself: how have we gone from Chief Rabbi A. I. Kook to here? How have we gone from a rabbi most known for his abounding love to all, despite all differences, to such hostility towards our own people that transcends all similarities? 

I think of these words Rabbi J. B. Soloveitich said about religious Zionism: 

“The Mizrachi Movement is a great movement which saved Orthodox religious Jewry from being forgotten in history as far as restoration and reconstruction of the Land of Eretz Israel are concerned. If not for the Mizrachi, we would have lost much. …If not for Mizrachi, we would have been condemned by history to absolute anonymity. The Mizrachi wrote a glorious chapter in binyan ha’aretz.” 

How has religious Zionism gone from an ideology of building a land of Israel for all Jews to a movement whose most outspoken members seem ready to burn it all down if it serves as a culture war victory? How has religious Zionism allowed itself to be so associated with vindictive culture wars that take no hostages on the way to victory while being willing to tear Israeli society apart? Instead of playing the historical role of being a bridge of reconciliation between different types of Jews, we have become the primary dividers. 

Tragically, much of the conduct and extreme legislation on the part of religious Zionist lawmakers is not accidental; it is the product of a new phase of ideology in our camp we can no longer ignore: the yearning for theocracy. 

Some religious zionist rabbis have been saying the quiet part out loud. Rabbi Dov Lior, an influential religious Zionist rabbi and the rabbi of several religious zionist Knesset members, asked members of the Knesset to advocate for a legal pathway for people to be judged by Biblical law. A similar position was taken by Rabbi Dov Bigon, head of Yeshivat Machon Meir and someone considered to be a moderate in the religious zionist community. MK Bezalel Smotrich famously said that he would like to be a minister so that Israel can follow Torah law. 

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, Religious Zionist Jews around the world need to get on the record and be very clear about our position: do we believe in a theocracy? If we had our way and enough political power and cloud to do so, would we force this way of life on Jews who don’t believe and practice as we do? My answer is of course, not. Sadly, too many secular Israelis are looking around, asking themselves what will happen when they and their children are in the minority. Those speaking loudly of their passion for turning Israel into their version of Sharia law should not be surprised when those who do not want to live under that law, do not think that law will have the same financial rules, regulations and safeguards as other western countries, or have a different version of what Jewish law might dictate (spoiler alert: no two Jews agree on everything), are absolutely terrified by this idea. Even from an orthodox Jewish perspective, to create a theocracy one would need one of two things: a provable model of successful implementation and the creation of an exemplarily moral and righteous society, or for the skies to open with an open miracle and Divine intervention. To the best of my knowledge, neither has happened recently. 

Sadly, recent events are giving too many Israelis a bleak picture, which is why so many of them are taking to the streets. If it becomes clear that Israel is a country where only some kinds of Jews can live–and others just leave–it will be a catastrophe of epic proportions. In that case, we are not on the eve of “Churban Bayit Shlishi–the destruction of the third commonwealth,” as many Israelis have been warning; we are on the brink of “Galut Bayit Shlishi–the exile of the third commonwealth.” For the first time in history, Jews will have expelled one another from the Land of Israel, a land we have returned to after two thousand years of exile. If such a possibility does not terrify each and every one of us, it would be hard to refer to ourselves as religious or zionist. 

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 11, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90

When Rabbi Jonathan Sacks saw members of ISIS beheading human beings in the name of religion, he wrote, “not in God’s name.” When people use religion to hurt others, religious people must speak out. We cannot allow this to be done in our name.

At this point, I turn to my fellow religious zionist friends and say: you cannot remain silent. Those who have gone to Yeshivot from Yeshivat Hakotel to Gush Etzion, Yeshiva University, Ma’aleh Gilboa, or any other religious Zionists and ask: how can you remain silent? 

You may not remain silent as some of your ideological brethren in Israel look like they are intoxicated with power, profaning God’s name, scaring the life out of half of Israel and the vast majority of diaspora Jewry, and remain silent. You cannot look at laws floated in the Knesset that suggests six months in prison for a woman who dresses “immodestly” at the Western Wall without saying loud and clear: not in our name. 

Some of you have been silent because “this is an internal Israeli issue.” It is not. If you cannot assure non-orthodox Jews that we are not here to dominate them in a Kleptocratic theocracy, as is being done now in Israel, this is on us. You cannot take pride in the Start-Up Nation while remaining silent about its destruction. You cannot speak of Eretz Yisrael and Ahavat Yisrael when our co-religionists are sewing horror in the hearts of their fellow Israelis in the names of ideals associated with you.

Modern orthodox rabbis in America have never shied away from opining on what is happening in Israel, from discussing medical issues on which they will never have input, halacha in space, what being Israeli really means, and countless other topics far beyond our reach. If the people you went with to Yeshiva, who you bring to speak in your community, perhaps your own children, have the belief that they have the right to use the power of government to coerce the entire state of Israel into their specific version of Judaism, that is probably something we should sit and discuss. 

Rabbis living in Teaneck, Riverdale, Westchester, Los Angeles, and Long Island cannot say they would have done differently than the Rothmans, Smotritches, and Ben Gvirs, if they will not strongly condemn a strong-armed theocratic push dividing Israel to its core. You cannot pray for Israel, say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and be okay with the trampling of half of Israel’s population, its basic institutions, and much of its economy. Until we hear a broader response from our community opposing abrasive theocracy, kleptocracy, and using state force to dominate others, our moments of silence are religious Zionism’s darkest hour–a stain on a glorious movement that has done so much good in the now forgettable past. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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