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The strange bedfellows of the religious Zionist camp

Until recently, the large majority of religious Zionists would have rejected a party of Kahane followers as racist and extreme; now, they may vote for it
Illustrative. Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit party branch in Safed, northern Israel, on September 8, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative. Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit party branch in Safed, northern Israel, on September 8, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Whither religious Zionism? The legacy of Rav Kook or of Rabbi Meir Kahane

A few days before an Israeli election, the religious Zionist community is making a defining choice. While some are casting their ballots from the perspective of strategic voting, the results will define the nature of religious Zionism. It will impact on how religious Zionism is perceived in the broader Israeli society and will send a message to future generations.

The Israeli religious Zionism self-image is one of the followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, often as interpreted by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. The senior Rabbi Kook is best known for his willingness to work with secular, even anti-religious, pioneers. He advocated responding to senseless hatred with senseless love. Maintaining control over the full territory of the land of Israel is a paramount value. But it is to be balanced by the sanctity of the State of Israel.

For the followers of Meir Kahane, the Arabs are the enemy and removing them from the land is a goal. A primary theme is revenge and violence against the Arab enemy is understood, if not encouraged. Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Kahane, who killed 29 Arabs in prayer in a mosque in Hebron, is revered as a martyr. All incidents of Jewish violence against Arabs are defended, since there are no innocent Arabs.  The state is only a vehicle to maintain Jewish sovereignty and if it fails to do so it loses its authority.  Democracy is not seen as a Jewish value.  Those Jews who do not share these values are portrayed as Hellenists and not truly Jewish.

Though reflecting opposite value systems, both groups support Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria. When opposition to any Palestinian state is the key political goal then they can become allies. In this election, however, the two parties are running separately.

In the past, a party of Kahane followers would have been rejected by the large majority of religious Zionists as racist and extreme. With a close election and the real possibility of a unity government with the religious Zionist party excluded from the coalition some religious Zionists are tempted to vote for the Kahanist party to help it pass the threshold needed to be in the Knesset.

This comes with a price. A message will be sent that a version of Judaism that is built on hatred of the other and is racist is an acceptable alternative when there is agreement on a critical political objective. Even if it successfully produces a political victory it will effectively end the role of the religious Zionist community as a bridge to the non-Orthodox Israeli majority. Even more significantly, the essential component of Rav Kook’s openness and love for others will be replaced by divisiveness and revenge.

Religious Zionism has accommodated the religious liberalism of the religious kibbutzim, the Modern Orthodoxy of American olim and the Hardal of Yeshivat Har Hamor. It reflects many approaches within Orthodox Judaism. The critical question is whether there is a version of Judaism that incorporates values that run counter to key elements and has to be rejected. In a few days, the religious Zionist community will reveal whether it accepts the openly expressed values of a party of followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane as a legitimate approach.

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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