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The Religious Zionist party and the significance of a name

The new party and its priorities make it clear that the religious Zionism of over 100 years remains relevant in religious terms, but not in political ones
Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

The choice of the name “The Religious Zionist Party” for the merger of the breakaway right-wing of Yamina with the Kahanist party and a small party started by a Hardal (“Haredi leumi”) yeshiva, primarily concerned with Israel acknowledging the LGBT community, is a statement. While the merger was orchestrated by Prime Minister Netanyahu for his own political benefit, the broader Israeli society sees the name as appropriate. The traditional religious Zionist party no longer exists.

The values that defined religious Zionism over the course of 100 years remain relevant primarily in religious terms and not in political ones. Moreover, the pandemic has exacerbated the level of conflict between the Haredim and secular Israel. This tends to obscure the reality that the majority of Jewish Israelis are traditional and far from the extremes. The model of Judaism that permeated religious Zionism has much to offer, as a bridge.

The religious thinkers who influenced religious Zionism differed in many ways, but there are common themes to their thought. The most basic commonalities are (1) to see religious value in working together with non-Orthodox Jews, including those who are totally secular, (2) to advance the needs of the Jewish people, and, in particular, (3) the return to the land of Israel. The justifications for this according to Rabbis Avraham Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik are different, but, as an example, a secular state has religious significance for both.

A primary religious Zionist goal was to develop a renewed Judaism where sovereignty would expand Judaism to incorporate a social vision of a just and compassionate society. This extended beyond the importance of the agricultural commandments that can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. Indeed, the religious kibbutz movement was one implementation of such a vision.

Religious Zionism has a universal as well as a nationalistic component. This aspect of Rabbi Kook’s thought has been neglected in recent years. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s demand that the National Religious party support a state commission to investigate any Israeli responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, though it was done by a Lebanese Christian army, was consistent with the religious Zionist concern for the welfare of humanity. Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog’s writings on the rights of non-Jewish minorities in Israel reflected a similar mentality.

Because the survival of the nation was at stake, Rabbi Yitzchak Reines supported Herzl’s proposed temporary haven in Uganda for persecuted European Jews. His commitment to the return to Israel was absolute, but the people of Israel came first. Even after the emergence of cultural Zionism, which challenged traditional Judaism, the religious Zionist organization Mizrachi did not waver from its involvement in the World Zionist Organization.

Religious Zionism in Israel and Modern Orthodoxy in America — while not identical — share many characteristics. Both have left and right wings which make defining their boundaries difficult. Yet common to both is a level of openness to the outside world, non-Jewish and Jewish, combined with a loyalty to Orthodox Jewish living. The fundamental distinction between living in a Jewish majority state in Israel and being a small minority in a democracy in America expresses itself in confronting different challenges.

Religious Zionist educators created the yeshivot and ulpanot of Bnei Akiva, combining high levels of religious and secular studies. The Hesder movement, which combines yeshiva learning with serving in the Israeli army, is revolutionary. Advanced Torah studies for women, including Talmud, is essentially a phenomenon of the religious Zionist community.

As a political party, “Religious Zionism” reflects little of this history; nonetheless, the religious values of the past continue to be relevant today. The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state depends on incorporating many aspects of historical religious Zionism.

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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