Yosef Blau

The extremists in Israel’s government have to go

When the Israeli mainstream is in thrall to the ultranationalist religious fringe, the religious world at large must take a stand to rebalance the country
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu with Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu with Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Sunday magazine of The New York Times (May 16, 2024) featured “The Unpunished: How Extremists Took Over Israel,” a lengthy article subtitled, “After 50 years of failure to stop violence and terrorism against Palestinians by Jewish ultranationalists, lawlessness has become the law.” The article is totally one-sided, in that it focuses on shifts in the Israeli political arena without any mention of Palestinian violence and terror — which necessarily have impact on the Israeli mindset. That said, the pattern of ultranationalist elements receiving some support from within the government has been documented and the New York Times article is basically accurate in this regard. It is certainly true that illegal settlements have become legalized over time, as is the fact that Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis are often subject to different legal systems.

That different treatment may be most palpable in the way that Jewish violence is treated as the behavior of a fringe element, and no such defense is available to Palestinians. Indeed, some of those who supported violence against Arabs — though a small minority in the settler community — are now serving in the Israeli government as key ministers; they control national security, finance and supervision of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depending on the votes of their parties for survival, Ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich can veto policies. The police and army presence in the West Bank has become increasingly irrelevant.

The larger religious Zionist community is not associated with violence — even when it espouses ultranationalist beliefs. The leadership of the community at large, for that matter, rarely criticizes this rogue group either, and that is partly because it is in denial. Because the very notion of violence is at such remove from these leaders, they trust that any and all violence at the hands of Jew must be defensive — and minor, as compared to the violence of Palestinian attacks. Thus, reports of settlers entering Arab villages with little opposition from the army and the police are dismissed as impossible, or at least exaggerated, coming from “human rights leftists” and biased media.

The religious Zionist reluctance to accept reports of Jewish violence may be rooted in more than disbelief, however.

Religious Zionism has always had a messianic component. It is found in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the modern era, in mandatory Palestine, before the establishment of the State of Israel. He was also a trailblazing philosopher bridging tradition and modernity. His approach to the Zionist return to the ancient Jewish homeland incorporated a focus on the land together with humanism and an ethical thrust when it came to society. But the legacy of his philosophy shifted with his son’s leadership (though he didn’t hold the chief rabbi office), in the aftermath of Israel’s total victory during the Six Day War. Namely, in Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s version of his father’s thought, nationalism became dominant. In the decades that followed, the return to Israel of Russian and Ethiopian Jewry supported that vision, and both victories and setbacks were explained as part of a predicted process about the Jews’ sovereignty in the land of Israel.

Hamas’s massacre on October 7 did not contradict the vision. On the contrary, it is a key element in its fulfillment. That is, total victory over Hamas (and its allies) is understood by those in this nationalist camp to lead to Israel’s recapture of the biblical boundaries and, eventually, the final redemption.

Most religious Zionists are aware that this perspective fantasy, but the dream is too precious to be relinquished. Few therefore are willing to take on Ben Gvir and Smotrich directly, to counter their extreme nationalism, for to do so would mean fully dropping the dream of this path to redemption.

If Israel cannot win the war without American aid, which it can obtain only by balancing Israeli and American interests, then Israel becomes a regular country, subject to all the treaties and negotiations of countries the world over. Simultaneously, and in contrast, the same people who object to Israel being “just another country” suggest that the double-standard so often applied to Israel justifies a reduction of ethical considerations. Some would now defend the unfortunate excesses of an army that had always subscribed to a unique ethical code by asserting that other countries do the same and worse. After thousands of years of dependence on others, it is tempting to glory in our military prowess, and, indeed, after 2,000 years of exile, the very existence of the State of Israel is a transformative event in Jewish history. But even the many who view the establishment of the Jewish state in religious terms and want to believe that Israel’s success is guaranteed by God must understand that such a claim is a distortion of Jewish history.

Moreover, the very nature of this new nation — from its values to how it interacts with its neighbors — remains to be determined, even now, 76 years into its history as a state. Within Israel’s Jewish population, there are fundamental disagreements, for example, and the country has consistently had an Arab minority of 20 percent. Thus, for all that one can hope for immediate redemption, Israel has to respond realistically.

Rejecting the extremists in the religious Zionist community will free up the co-religionists who represent differing visions and a rethinking of priorities. Doing so is necessary, and will ultimately produce a richer, more abundant Judaism that will influence a fractious Israel. Only a religious vision that is moral and ethical can create a state that inspires the Jewish people.

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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