Discover more from Jewcy Magazine
The Old-New Separating Line
As we enter May, there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. For Israel, this means reopening the Knesset and resuming the highly contentious debate surrounding judicial reform. The political climate is reaching fever pitch and with good reason. It is a moment when the country will face a crossroads.
Now more than ever, it is crucial to recognize that the all-consuming debate facing the state, and the seemingly insurmountable dividing line that separates its people, is often mischaracterized. Many have reduced it to a simplistic binary: those who support judicial reform versus those who oppose it. This is a far cry from reality. If anything, the intensity of opposition to the government is the consequence of two related interweaving factors.
Thanks for reading Jewcy Magazine! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Firstly, the radicalism of the version of reform initially advanced by the government, would have led to a situation unacceptable in a democratic country. At this point, it is worth noting that the government declared this extreme change in a country that has shown consistent public support for some form of moderate judicial reform. This begs the question: why then take such an aggressive approach? It is fair to assume that this was merely a negotiating tactic, that's how politics works, and yet beyond this lies the second factor: a slew of accompanying legislation that indicates a desire to fundamentally alter the fabric of the state.
The government's term has been marked by the rapid advancement of over 140 bills, with a focus on promoting Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist values, accompanied by a seemingly endless litany of populist rhetoric, which includes proposed prison sentences for immodest dress at the Western Wall, expanding the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts, setting gender-separate swimming hours for rivers and springs in national parks, setting aside up to 30% of positions in government corporations for Haredim alone, and a fresh proposal exempting Haredim from the IDF draft.
The proliferation of these bills as well as the divisive rhetoric among lawmakers reveals a deepening divide between two conflicting visions for the future of Israel, which underscores the importance of examining the perspectives of the Ultra-Orthodox parties and the Religious Zionist faction. Understanding their beliefs, values, and goals can shed light on why certain decisions have been made and why there is such staunch opposition from large segments of the public.
The question "What is Israel?" has been a long-standing debate among religious Jews dating back to the early days of Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state. For many religious leaders, the idea of a Zionist state was initially met with opposition. The concept of a Jewish state that was based on secular ideologies and principles was seen by many as being in conflict with the traditional religious understanding of the Land of Israel as a divine inheritance. This struggle regarding the state's religious and symbolic significance has had social and political consequences for the various religious Jewish communities in Israel.
In reaction to the successes of Zionism and these ideological tensions, two main theologies emerged. The Ultra-Orthodox, Haredim, took a negative view of the state. They saw the Zionist state, at best, as a refuge for Jews, but attached no symbolic significance to it. Others within this camp, such as the Satmar community, have actively opposed the state since its founding, seeing it as representing anti-religious forces.
The second group, Religious Zionism, Datiim, attributed great religious meaning to the state. Led by Rav Avraham Kook, this ideology saw religious meaning in the creation of the state. Zionist Jews were believed to be carrying out the will of God, even if unknowingly. According to this ideology, the state did not need to be perfect since it was just the first stage, albeit incomplete and flawed, to the ultimate redemption where the entire Land of Israel would be settled. In synagogues, new prayers were adopted, which positioned the creation of the State of Israel with the beginning of the Messianic process.
Moreover, after the 1967 war, this community began to view themselves as the vanguard for Israeli society and henceforth launched the settlement movement, which is seen as a way of fulfilling the biblical commandment to settle the land of Israel.
Over the years, trends in both Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist societies point to a fundamental change in how these groups view the state. Historically, Ultra-Orthodox political parties refused to join a government coalition for the first 30 years of Israeli politics after a falling out with Ben Gurion in 1948 over the issue of drafting females into the army. Politically, the boundaries separating the Ultra-Orthodox political parties began weakening in 1977, when a compromise was reached with Menachem Begin where in exchange for budgets to yeshivot, Ultra-Orthodox parties could be a part of the coalition. However, an important symbolic taboo was adopted in which Ultra-Orthodox members refused to hold any official ministerial position; for this reason, Ultra-Orthodox political leaders would only agree to hold an assistant Minister position. This taboo was later broken when the Supreme Court ruled that a Ministry required a full minister.
While seeing the state in less symbolic terms has allowed more integration for the Ultra-Orthodox community politically, it has had negative effects for the religious Zionist communities. Indeed, there is no longer unconditional support for the state from many members of the Religious Zionist faction.
First, there was the recent establishment of the Noam political party, which was set up after the April 2019 elections by religious Zionist activists. The party was established in large part as a protest against having Ayelet Shaked, who is female and secular, as the head of the ‘united’ religious Zionist political party. It also rose partly as a way to protest certain liberal trends in Israeli society, particularly LGBTQ rights. Fittingly, the campaign’s slogan was “we want a normal state” – where normal meant a state that behaved according to halacha. The party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Zvi Thau, accused secular Israelis of attempting to "destroy family life…grant legitimacy to adultery, homosexuality, incest, single-parent families, and bestiality." In many ways, this party symbolizes the end of an era where such transgressions in the name of religion were forgiven by the state.
Second, there has been a steady rise in anti-state and revenge ‘price tag’ acts of vandalism and accompanying violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. Most recently in Huwara. At the most extreme, is increasing support for groups such as the Hilltop Youth, who believe that there should be a religious state – the state of Judea – which is separate from the State of Israel. This is exemplified by the case of Meir Ettinger, a leader of the Hilltop Youth who was arrested in August 2015 for his support of religious terrorism and the eventual replacement of Israel with a religious state. Others, who consider themselves more “moderate” among this group, support a single state where Arabs may be given local rights, but not full citizenship.
Third, dissatisfaction with the state has also motivated increased participation in the state. This more statist camp within religious Zionism is no longer satisfied with the classic Zionist state but wants to run the state of Israel in greater accordance with religious principles, some may even say with the eventual goal of religious take-over. Yishai Fleisher, an advisor to Itamar Ben-Gvir and a spokesperson of Hebron, succinctly summarized this goal in a tweet when he stated that, "the old state structures are eroding in favor of a process that will eventually lead to a God-fearing DAVIDIC MONARCHY." This trend became stronger after the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and Northern Samaria, which was seen as a betrayal by the state against the religious Zionist community and its perceived historic mission of bringing about messianic redemption through settling the land. This is precisely why Ben Gvir's Otzma Yehudit recently championed and then passed the disengagement repeal law which will retroactively legalize Israeli settlement in the Northern Samaria region. This has been explicitly prohibited by Israeli law since the 2005 disengagement.
All of this brings us to the other vision for the future of the state, the vision on the opposite side of the separating line, which represents the blowback against the government, the essence of Zionism, and its founding principles.
In pursuit of subduing this vision lawmakers in the government made one grave miscalculation. They failed to comprehend that most Israelis outside of their narrow ideological camps are unwilling to participate in their vision for Israel. They mistook public indifference to their ideologies for support and have marched to a near-destructive climax that is wholly self-inflicted. As a result, they have plummeted in the polls and the state is witnessing the largest protests in its history. The demonstrations and polls have indicated that a considerable majority of Israelis have an uncompromising stance when it comes to safeguarding democratic principles against any potential threat – even one they may have voted for.
Benny Begin, son of the Likud party’s iconic founder and former PM Menachem Begin, said “there was nothing left of his father’s vision in the current party.” Director General of the Prime Minister's Office and former Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Yoav Horowitz joined the demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Columnist Sara Haetzni-Cohen, head of the right-wing activist group My Israel, wrote: “Almost every day we awaken to another idiotic bill or embarrassing public statement produced by this coalition. There are laws that are populist to the point of danger, like the ‘immunity for IDF soldiers’ bill, which actually could deliver our best sons and daughters to The Hague. It all looks like it’s being done flippantly, with arrogance and hubris.”
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi David Stav stated that Religious Zionism has become a cause for separation. "It is chilling to think what has happened to the religious-Zionist community, from what was considered to be a bridge between religion and Zionism, Torah and avodah [business ventures], Torah and mada [science] and Torah with derech eretz [proper behavior]...some of our leaders, elected officials, and rabbis speak in a tone that frightens many people in Israeli society – and rightfully so. An absolute majority of Israelis want a Jewish state based on the Declaration of Independence.”
A recent poll by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) further reflects this sentiment among the Israeli public. Findings concluded that the vast majority of Israelis agree on the fundamental tenets of the country as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Most want to live in a state that is rooted in a set of principles formed at the foundation of the state for 75 years, not a kind of representative theocracy.
This is the will of the people in protest against the government. These are the two sides of the old-new separating line. It is not because of legislative technicalities, nor because of some binary opposition to reform itself, but because most will not stop until Herzl's commitment to the "Jewish State" is protected: "We will not at all allow dark desires for power to arise in the hearts of our rabbis... We will know how to keep them in the churches, just as we keep our armies in the barracks. That is to say, the religion, like the army, is recruited for the service of the nation, and the rabbis, like the generals, have no authority to decide the affairs of the state which respects them and takes care of their salary."
Not many of the lawmakers in the new government represent Zionism, not in ethos, nor in essence. If one were to seek accuracy upon such assessment, they are more lodged somewhere between myth and to use the words of Rabbi Herzog "the remnants of the exiled perspective." But, for anyone who doubted it, Zionism is still very much alive in the State of Israel — its call to action has been met by the will of the people — in their broad consensus that spans across party lines and more traditional divisions in support for the founding document.
Welcome to "Israel From Within", a column by Samuel Hyde bringing the conversations happening in Israel to the diaspora by providing a unique perspective and greater understanding of Israeli society, the Israeli political system, and the debates of our time. Join us as we explore Israeli society and uncover the fascinating nuances of this complicated, multifaceted country.