Religious Zionists are now a force in Israel

The country's first kippah-wearing premier is sign of growing influence


It used to be said that if Israel is a train travelling towards the Jewish people’s destiny, the Religious Zionist politicians sit far from the driver’s seat. They are at the back of the train, in the cafeteria car checking the kashrut of the ketchup; focused on the Jewishness of the nascent state and providing educational frameworks for their constituency, rather than engaging in broader political issues.

All that has changed. Naftali Bennet, head of the Yamina (Rightward) party is now Israel’s first Religious Zionist prime minister. Sitting on the opposition benches are seven members of the ultra-right wing “Religious Zionist Party” and Religious Zionists can be found scattered across other parties too. They are gaining influence in every field.

For many, the Religious Zionists’ overwhelming shift from a small, moderate left wing cadre of Knesset members to forceful right-wing players in Israel’s parliament is shocking. It’s something I struggled with until someone explained to me that almost every Israeli family has now lost loved ones to terrorism. The tragic death toll from seemingly endless efforts to uproot the Jewish State explains why many Israelis have lost patience with the peace process and abandoned its left-wing advocates.

Ironically, Naftali Bennet’s party, which promised to move “Rightwards” has formed an exceptionally broad coalition backed not only by right wingers but also by left wing parties and the Islamic party Ra’am.

It’s not just the politicians who are changing. Over the last decade, Religious Zionist rabbis living on the West Bank, who were once the bogeymen of peacemaking, have been meeting with Palestinians. Some are motivated by a desire to stay on their land and build good relations with their neighbours, others wish to express Judaism’s concern for minorities, while the most ambitious pursue a grand religious vision of regional peace. When rabbis meet Palestinians, they frequently find they share much in common. Both follow rigorous religious lifestyles and they both love the land. These values form the basis of dialogue and cooperation; offering the intriguing possibility that religious leaders will bring the peace that has eluded their secular counterparts.

Changes in the religious world not only impact politics but culture, too. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) taught that the arts can nurture and express our spiritual energies. In this spirit, Jerusalem boasts a religious film school where students can study without compromising their religious observance. Fans of Israeli TV shows like Shtisel and Srugim will testify that religious writers and actors are now exposing and exploring life in religious communities benfitting broader audiences for whom these were closed worlds.

The emergence of religious artistes is just one consequence of the increasing diversity and sophistication of Israel’s Religious Zionist education system. Today, there are numerous yeshivot and seminaries catering to every possible taste. Religious women can combine their studies with service in elite army units and some women study texts traditionally reserved for men wishing to become rabbis or religious judges. These programmes create well-educated Orthodox Jews who are confident in their identity and ready to play leading roles in Israeli society.

Israel’s secular majority may be resistant to religious coercion but when Jewish tradition is presented sympathetically, many avowedly secular Jews are happy to engage. Israeli synagogues are often perceived as the preserve of the religious; uncomfortable places for secular Jews, so sensitive rabbis have turned to the local Community Centres where they run programmes and prayer services which make Judaism accessible to people who previously felt excluded from anything remotely religious.

Likewise, since the rabbinic courts which oversee Jewish marriage, divorce and conversions are often intimidating to secular Israelis, Religious Zionist rabbis have stepped in. They are not only assisting people with navigating the system, they are also challenging the monopolies of these state religious institutions by establishing gentler Orthodox alternatives for life-cycle events, kashrut and conversions. There is no compromise on halachah, just an effort to provide more user-friendly approaches in much the same way as United Synagogue rabbis aspire to make our communities welcoming and accessible to all.

Many of these projects were pioneered by rabbis from the diaspora. Yet the fulfillment of the prophecy that “The Torah shall go out from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3) means that their outreach efforts don’t end at Israel’s borders.

British Jews are also beneficiaries. The Montefiore Endowment partners with a Religious Zionist academy to train British rabbis and dayanim, while Mizrachi is training young Israelis to take on leadership roles in our communities.

Religious Zionists have progressed from narrowly focused ketchup inspectors to political and religious leaders who are the dynamic drivers of the train of Jewish destiny, creating pathways to make Judaism accessible to all.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel rabbi


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