Religious Zionism Revisits the State of Israel

By October 6, 2005

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 10

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Religious Zionist community in Israel has been significantly affected by Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. This essay surveys the character and ideology of the Religious Zionist camp in Israel, and discusses various reactions within the community to what many Religious Zionists view as a “betrayal” by the State of Israel. Three alternative political approaches and their implications are reviewed: secularization, fundamentalism and an alternative political approach calling for the establishment of a new ruling Israeli elite.


While on the surface, the unilateral disengagement from Gaza could be considered a success, from a domestic perspective it will undoubtedly have long-term social and political repercussions. One such outcome is unrest in the ruling Likud Party and in the Israeli political system at large. Another sector of Israeli society very clearly affected is Religious Zionism.

Without entering into a debate about whether the disengagement from Gaza was strategically sound, Sharon’s major accomplishment was the avoidance of the fearsome prospect of a violent struggle between Israeli armed forces and settlers in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank (known by its historical name, Samaria). The main force in the struggle against withdrawal was the Religious Zionist camp. Gloomy predictions that the clashes between troops and settlers would result in bloodshed did not materialize. Yet, despite its responsible behavior during the withdrawal, Religious Zionism finds itself in a very gruelling situation and is consequently facing one of the most critical junctures in its history.

Which people comprise this sector and why are they worthy of study? What is the nature of the crisis that they are undergoing? What plausible alternatives does the Religious Zionist camp possess in order to emerge from its crisis and which is it likely to choose?

Who Are Religious Zionists?

The national religious camp seems marginal in Israeli politics. In the last elections, the National Religious Party (NRP), the political arm of Religious Zionism, drew less than five percent of the electorate, winning only six seats in the Knesset. In addition, a large portion of National Union voters, who received seven Knesset seats, also came from that camp. Hence the total electoral power of the Religious Zionist camp adds up to approximately ten MPs (around eight percent of the vote), only.

Religious Zionists, however, have been a permanent fixture in the Zionist movement since its inception in the second half of the nineteenth century. The NRP was a member of almost every one of the ruling coalitions in the Jewish Yishuv before 1948 and in Israeli governments thereafter. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Religious Zionism’s role in Israeli politics changed. Contact with the biblical areas of the Land of Israel conquered during that war led Religious Zionists to exchange their passive role in Israeli foreign policy for an active one. With time, Religious Zionism became the spearhead of the settlement movement that gained momentum, especially following the victory of the nationalist Likud Party in the 1977 elections. In effect, Religious Zionism became the major faction in the settlements, especially those located in isolated areas and closest to Palestinian population centers and villages.

Highly motivated and idealistic, many members of Religious Zionism’s younger generation entered military academies and now comprise a majority in the IDF’s junior officer corps. They took over the role that had been traditionally assumed by what Amos Elon termed “the Israeli Gentry” – the Kibbutz movement. To the opponents of Religious Zionism, this role seemed to constitute a threat; to its sympathisers, a positive move that rescued Israeli society from hedonism. In both views, Religious Zionism represented a socio-political force that could not be ignored. In addition, today, most immigrants to Israel from Western countries are Modern Orthodox, the Western equivalent of Religious Zionist.

The Land of Israel Versus the State of Israel

Despite the attempt to paint the Religious Zionist camp as a messianic movement, in reality Religious Zionism has always included a pragmatic component. Pragmatic religious Zionists tend to be more inclined to accept modernity (secular studies, the changing status of women, etc.) and to see the establishment of Israel first of all as a means of securing Jewish survival. However, the messianic stream saw the State through the prism of Redemption and interpreted the results of the Six Day War in a religious fundamentalist manner. At least at its spiritual leadership levels, the messianic stream has become dominant in advancing and leading the settlement effort and the education system.

However, the failure of its efforts to stop the unilateral withdrawal has presented Religious Zionist rabbinical leadership in particular with a dilemma it has rarely faced in the past. While for the pragmatic stream, the supremacy of the State of Israel has never been questioned, for the messianic stream within Religious Zionism, a crisis is inevitable.

On an ideological level, Religious Zionist theology includes two major components: the sanctity of the Land of Israel coupled with the sanctity of the State of Israel. According to the teachings of the most influential Religious Zionist theologian, the late Rabbi A.Y. Kook (1865-1935), the restoration of the State of Israel was to be an integral part of the Messianic era, as was the resettlement of the Land of Israel. Unlike most ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Kook articulated a theology that sanctified cooperation of religious Jews with secular ones because of their participation in the process of rebuilding the Holy Land. The State of Israel and its institutions, regardless of who was in power, were thus considered holy.

This dogma allowed religious Jews to participate in the Zionist enterprise and also motivated many to enter the Israeli army. It was this thinking that distinguished Religious Zionism from the Ultra Orthodox (haredi) camp in Israel.

But today, in light of the uprooting of Jews by the State, Religious Zionist belief in the sanctity of the State of Israel has been dented. To the settlers and many of their sympathisers among the Religious Zionist camp it is not the idea of the Land of Israel that has proven to be delusive, but rather the State, the agency responsible for implementing withdrawal, that has failed. Hence, some now say, the participation of Religious Zionism in this enterprise may have been erroneous. Moreover, in retrospect, some would argue that the Ultra Orthodox theology that rejects the holiness of the State of Israel was right.

Many among the Religious Zionists feel that, considering their sector’s disproportionate participation in Israel’s security effort, the way they were treated in Gush Katif signals lack of appreciation. Such feelings are conducive to a sense of deprivation and alienation from the State. Indeed, the discourse heard from that camp is, “Are we only good for cannon fodder?” Or, “When Sharon needed us for his settlement drive we were kosher. Now that he has changed his views, he is throwing us to the wolves.”

Whither Religious Zionism?

Two extreme alternatives could result from the current crisis. The first would be the abandonment of religion, an acceleration of the steady trend towards secularization that already exists among Modern Orthodox youth. Since the prophecy of leading Religious Zionist rabbis (that the Sharon plan would not be implemented) has proven to be false, this may lead not only to a questioning of the rabbinic leadership and its preaching, but also to a crisis of faith in God among Religious Zionist adherents.

Another possibility is change in the opposite direction, namely towards Ultra Orthodoxy. Again, this trend has existed for many years and is often termed “Hitchardelut”. This stands for an acronym in Hebrew implying a combination of ultra-Orthodoxy and nationalism. In light of the betrayal by the State, the national component may be dropped and the Ultra Orthodox way of life and value system may be adopted.

Despite the existence of both trends, a third option is already evident in Religious Zionist discourse and internal debates. I here term it the political path. This option is based on both the importance of the State in Religious Zionist ideology and on the feelings of deprivation mentioned above.

The logic is simple. Some Religious Zionists would say: “The lesson we learn from the current ordeal is secular Israel cannot be trusted to lead the Jewish state. That is something we have to do ourselves. The betrayal by Ariel Sharon, the closest ally of the settlement movement, teaches us to trust only leaders who belong to the “Emuni” camp.” (In Hebrew, the word “Emuni” connotes both loyalty and belief.)

Like the options of defection and fundamentalism, the political approach is not new. Voices arguing for this direction have been heard primarily on the extreme margins of the Religious Zionist camp. The notion of promoting the “right (Emuni) leadership” reflects such voices. But this way of thinking is now moving from the periphery to the center of Religious Zionism.

Is Promoting the Emuni Leadership a Viable Option?

Despite the global phenomenon of secularization, God has made a comeback in the post-modern era. One can thus assume that the renewed potency of religion will not by-pass Religious Zionism, and that secularization will not gain momentum beyond its current level. At the same time, the sanctity of the State is too central in Religious Zionist theology to be abandoned by the Religious Zionist rabbis. Proof of this is the fact that most of them warned their disciples not to use force against Israeli soldiers.

Moreover, the importance of the State cannot be forsaken for practical reasons, for Religious Zionism can hardly exist outside of the State of Israel. While both other sectors, secular Jews and Ultra Orthodox Jews, could ultimately live without Israel being a Jewish state, Religious Zionism could not fulfil its double definition of being both modern and religious without the Jewish “public square” of Israel. Hence Religious Zionism has the highest stake in the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.

Further Implications of Attempts to Establish a New Emuni Ruling Elite

First, in contrast to hopes on the left of the political spectrum, some sectors of which dubbed the settlers “masters of the land,” the third option would imply a greater involvement in Israeli politics on the part of Religious Zionists, rather than a decline. Greater participation in Israeli power centers would require broader religious representation in the media, the national security bureaucracy, the High Court, the academia, the economy, as well as the creative arts.

At the same time, traditional wisdom suggests that adoption of the political option would entail pragmatism and more centrist positions. By definition, the norms of the international system are contrary to those associated with “religious fundamentalism”.

Finally, modification of Religious Zionism’s political direction could also lead to a redirection of its energies internally, in ways that could have wide implications for Israeli society at large. Paradoxically, the Israeli left may miss the days when its opponents on the right were principally occupied with settling hills in the territories.

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Prof. Shmuel Sandler
Prof. Shmuel Sandler

Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and Dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Regional College system. Email: [email protected]