The internal struggle within Israel's new ruling elite

Religious Zionists dominate public life, but they may not be as united as critics think, says the author of a new book


Thousands of Jewish wave the Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day by dancing through Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall. Jerusalem Day celebrations mark the 51th anniversary of its capture of Arab east Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967. May 13, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** יום ירושלים חגיגות דגל ישראל יהודי צעדה דתיים שער שכם

Kippot come in all shapes and sizes, but the knitted kippah — the symbol of Religious Zionists — is everywhere in Israel. In the Supreme Court and the media, the government and the army, the top brass of the police and the Shin Bet.

Men and women from the Religious Zionist community have made a name for themselves in academia, business, and practically every walk of life in Israel.

The list of Religious Zionists at the top of Israeli society reads like a Who’s Who of the country’s movers and shakers: from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to former police chief Roni Alsheikh; from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to multiple Supreme Court justices; from Channel 12’s political analyst Amit Segal to Professor Menachem Ben-Sasson, the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Sensing that a revolutionary change is afoot, the journalist Ari Shavit dubbed them “Israel’s new ruling elite”. 

And not just any elite. In a far-reaching and eye-opening study from 2014, the Israel Democracy Institute found that roughly one fifth (22 per cent) of Israeli Jews identify as Religious Zionists.

Together, they are known as the “national-religious” (dati leumi) community because of the unique fusion of Zionism and religion in their identity — a fusion that sets them apart from secular Zionists, on the one hand, and non-Zionist Charedi Jews on the other.

The comprehensive study, which questioned a representative sample of 4,600 men and women, revealed that many Israelis who do not necessarily practise a national-religious lifestyle (be they secular, Charedi, or traditionalist) are coalescing around the social nucleus of the Religious Zionist community. 

Religious Zionists are everywhere, and this ubiquity is fostering within the community a sense of euphoria.

One advertising campaign launched in 2016 for the biggest Religious Zionist youth movement declared: “One day, you too will be a graduate of Bnei Akiva!” The campaign in 2016 featured pictures of Orthodox men and women, politicians, rabbis, military officers, academics, and other famous people who had passed through its ranks.

Another Bnei Akiva notice urged Israelis: “Let’s shine the great light — so proud of the impressive graduates illuminating our common future!”

Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Knesset and chairman of the far-right Religious Zionism Party, set an even more ambitious goal on the eve of Israel’s April 2019 election: “When was the last time we told the Religious Zionist community that all the people of Israel would become Religious Zionists? We form the nuclear reactor that provides electric power to all the people of Israel.” 

Meanwhile, on the far bank of the river that cuts through Israeli society, there is mounting anxiety over the increased prevalence of Religious Zionists in positions of power.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual democracy index, as of 2017, no fewer than 79 per cent of secular Israelis agreed with the statement that “religious people are gradually taking over the country.”

This figure can be attributed to the rising profile of religion and religious individuals in the Israeli public sphere, but also to the popularisation of a relatively new word that originated in academia: hadata —“religionisation.”

This term carries a coercive connotation; the trend indicating an invasion of secular space by religious Jewish content, and even by religious Jews themselves. “One Israeli civilisation is evaporating and another is taking over,” Shavit wrote.

“While almost nothing remains of David Ben-Gurion’s heritage, the heritage of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook has pretty much succeeded in taking over the state of Israel.” 

Concern that secular Israelis are about to be vanquished by their national-religious compatriots has induced panic in some quarters.

The columnist Yossi Klein provoked outrage when he wrote in Haaretz, the newspaper identified with the Israeli secular left: “The Religious Zionists are dangerous, more dangerous than Hezbollah, hit-and-run drivers, or girls with scissors.

"Arabs can be ‘neutralised’; Religious Zionists can’t. What do they want? To take over the country and cleanse it of Arabs. If you ask them, they’ll deny it. They know it’s premature to be so candid.

"But don’t believe their denials. Their religious nationalism is extreme nationalism wrapped in hypocritical fear of heaven. It percolates through the education system, grows stronger in the army, and even affects the Supreme Court. They’re already headed our way; in another moment they’ll be breaking down the door.”

The online version of the article featured a caricature by the cartoonist Eran Wolkowski depicting a stereotypical Religious Zionist man in a knitted kippah pointing a gun through a Torah scroll. Like the Bnei Akiva movement, Klein and Wolkowski also saw the “Religious Zionists” as a single, ascendant monolith. 

The Religious Zionists’ newfound power, whether a blessing or a curse, is only part of the story. In reality, Israel’s “new ruling elite” is being heated from within and is quite close to the boiling point.

Beneath the surface of what looks like a community on the rise, a fierce religious and cultural battle is raging.

A battle that, as a journalist who has covered this story for two decades, I believe will be the most significant struggle within contemporary Judaism: one that pits observant Jews against other observant Jews.  

Extracted from Frayed —the Disputes Unravelling Religious Zionists by Yair Ettinger, published by The Toby Press, $29.95

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