The Dark Demons of Religious Zionism

With the recent political union of Bezalel Smotrich of Bayit Yehuda and Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma, the dark demons of Religious Zionism once again emerge from the shadows and into the light of day. Smotrich is known for his bombastic and often bigoted statements against Palestinians and LGBTs. Ben Gvir is a loyal student of Meir Kahana. He has long advocated expelling Arab citizens of Israel, keeps a picture of Baruch Goldstein on the wall of his home, provides legal defense for Jewish terrorists, and has been personally involved in acts of thuggery towards Israeli Leftists and Palestinians.

Some might counter that the two are not the same. Smotrich uses extreme rhetoric, but unlike Ben Gvir, he doesn’t seek to act on it. However, recent politics in America serve as an important reminder that those who use extreme rhetoric eventually converge with those who use extreme action and when this occurs, the results are always profoundly dangerous for democracy.

Unfortunately, it looks increasingly likely that their political partnership will bear fruit and both will find themselves in the next Knesset. If this indeed happens, they will be the only Religious Zionist party in the Knesset, and while they may not speak for most Religious Zionists, we cannot escape the fact that their prominent presence will reflect on all of us.

Those within Religious Zionism have a responsibility not just to denounce this, but to recognize that their potential political success is also a necessary opportunity for cheshbon hanefesh. We must confront the fact that the political positions held by individuals like Smotrich and Ben Gvir are not just a bug in Religious Zionism but potentially a feature of its thought. As Rav Kook noted, nationalism can easily become chauvinistic and seek to do violence against the other. Religious Zionism is in no way immune to this.

Nationalistic feeling is a sentiment exalted in its honest naturalness, but when it is not properly directed and does not turn to the higher goal of absolute happiness of general perfection, it will eventually burst the bounds of morality when it oversteps its boundaries by raising a hand to capture castles that do not belong to it, without righteous judgement and with no holy goal or purpose. (Olat HaReiyah, Vol 1., 234)

The following is a dvar torah I wrote for Parshat Yitro two years ago in response to an act of Jewish terror. To my great sorrow, it feels equally relevant today.

Yesterday, a student from Yeshivat Pri Haaretz was charged with the murder of Aysha Rabi, a Palestinian mother of eight. According to the indictment, the suspect along with some friends took a walk from the yeshiva to a hill overlooking a nearby highway, picked up a rock weighing about five pounds, and threw it at an oncoming Palestinian car. Rabi was struck in the head killing her. In case there was any doubt, it was recently made public that the suspect’s DNA was discovered on the rock.

Every act of Jewish terror is shocking and must be condemned for what it is, ruthless cold-blooded murder. However, this particular case raises the specter of additional demons. Was this act of violence in some way religiously motivated? Zionism has always had a complicated relationship with messianism and Religious Zionism even more so. Figures such as Shabtai ben Dov of Lehi, Yehuda Etzion of the Jewish Underground, and more recently Meir Ettinger, Meir Kahane’s grandson, have all advocated a religious philosophy that direct violent action against the Palestinians is the only way for the Jewish people to achieve redemption in the land of Israel.

Religious proselytizers often like to quote in the name of the great novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that without God everything is permitted. Without some sort of absolute authority to ground ethics and morality, human beings will descend into the worst the kind of immoral behavior. Most often, this criticism is used to defend the superiority of religious life, however, the truth is far more complex. Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, likes to point out that in fact the opposite is true. With God, anything can be permitted. As Kierkegaard argued, to experience the transcendent God is to enter into a world beyond morality where ethics itself is suspended.

This kind of thinking can be seductive but in case we needed a reminder of its falsehood, Parshat Yitro has arrived at the right time. When the Jewish people stand at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they hear the word of God for the first and only time of their lives. God commands unequivocally “lo tirtzach” “thou shall not murder.” Its not the first time this is stated in the Torah, for how could it be? Again and again, God makes clear that the shedding of innocent blood is a sin unlike any other, because human beings are created in the image of God. To kill just one life is to destroy an entire world and to murder in the land of Israel is to defile the land in such a way that one will eventually be vomited out of it.

The challenge presented to Zionism by Jewish terror is not a new one. In the late 1930s under the British Mandate, Palestinians in Israel attacked both Jewish settlements and British forces in an attempt to create a single Arab state. The Yishuv was divided on how best to respond, with the Hagana advocating for self-defense and the more extremist Irgun clamoring for the need to retaliate in order to deter further attacks. In 1938 a conference was held in Tel-Aviv on the question of “Jewish morality”. Rav Avigdor Amiel, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, spoke out against any attempt to defend the aggressive use of violence as a form of self-defense. He declared, “Judaism says “lo tirtzach” unconditionally.” He also articulated a fundamental truth of Torah, about the nature of messianism and violence, one that Religious Zionism must not forget if it truly believes the state of Israel to be reishit tzemichat geulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

Even if we were to know for certain that we would merit the complete redemption, it would be our obligation to reject this redemption with both hands and not be redeemed with blood.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the coordinator of the International Beit Din Institute, which seeks to educate rabbis about halakhic solutions to difficult cases of gett abuse. His writings on contemporary Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in the Lehrhaus, Arutz Sheva, and Akdamot. His forthcoming book, Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, will be published in the fall. Before making aliyah, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. He has taught in a variety of adult education settings such as the Wexner Heritage Program and the Hartman Institute. He received semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
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