The Religious Zionist party is neither religious nor Zionist

These politicians have identified genuine problems, but their solutions are wrong


(L to R) Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish power) party, and Bezalel Smotrich, Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP) (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)

For years, Israelis watched English politics aghast. The divisions over Brexit and the removal of successive prime ministers indicated a chaotic political climate. America seemed no better. Now, with members of the far-right Religious Zionist party poised to enter the government; Israelis find their own democratic decisions under the microscope.

The Religious Zionist Party’s radical approach to Palestinians and aggressive opposition to LGBTQ people worries many. Doomsday predictions abound. One New York Times columnist wailed that “the Israel we knew has gone” and a former American diplomat warned that the composition of the incoming government will undermine Israel’s relations with its closest ally. But, as I have discovered, name-calling and hand-wringing will not help.

When I first moved to Israel, I was captivated by the possibility of peace with Palestinians. I worked as a rabbi for left-wing human rights organisations and I was fiercely critical of anyone who questioned my conviction that Israel held all the keys to immediate peace.

One day, a friend took me aside. “Gideon,”  he said. “You don’t understand, almost every family in this country is mourning close relatives murdered by Palestinian terrorists.” It was a sharp reminder that we don’t only need sensitivity and understanding of others, we must have it for our own people. We need to understand why Israelis are voting this way and what this means for Jewish beliefs.

Last May, while Palestinians in Gaza were firing missiles into Israel, Israelis were horrified to discover that many Arabs were taking advantage of the situation to riot and rampage in Israeli towns. Over a few weeks, three Jews were murdered, while ten synagogues and over 100 Jewish homes were set on fire. It raised enormous questions about the possibility of co-existence especially since Israelis experience daily threats from Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all the other Iranian proxies whose terrorists receive tacit support from the Palestinian Authority.

Looking beyond their borders, Israelis see that across Europe, some synagogues now resemble fortresses. Even Jews in New York have been warned of impending terror attacks and flights to Israel are subject to unparalleled security measures.

Israelis are rightfully outraged that Jews are still hounded, hunted and attacked here and around the world. The terror is designed to weaken their resolve, but it has had the opposite effect. Our people are ever more resilient. Moreover, they are encouraged by the increasing number of Muslim countries that have lost patience with Palestinian rejectionism, recognised Israel’s legitimacy and joined the Abraham Accords peace process with Israel.

Determined to defend their families, Israelis reject the Christian concept of “turning the other cheek”. Instead, they embrace the talmudic principle that when someone comes to kill you, you should step up and do everything necessary to stop them (Talmud Sanhedrin 72a). They are, however, exasperated by how little their army can do to defend them. The Religious Zionist party has tapped into this national frustration, promising to weaken Arab resistance, strengthen the army and end Israel’s perceived period of impotence.

These politicians have identified genuine problems, but their solutions are wrong. Simplistic slogans and harsh rhetoric glorifying Jewish power to show “who is the boss here” won’t solve the problems of the Middle East and it’s not the Jewish way because being “the chosen people”, as Rabbi Sacks explained, means that we are called on to serve with humility as well as strength.

During synagogue services, as the Sefer Torah is returned to the ark, we sing a passage celebrating the Torah whose “ways are ways of pleasantness and all of whose paths are peace” (Proverbs 3: 17).

This is not just poetic praise of Judaism, it has halachic consequences for how we practise our religion: for example in determining which plants may be used for the lulav and etrog which we shake on Succot, the rabbis of the Talmud disqualified thorny plants which can wound (Succah 32a). Our lulav and etrog must be pleasing because the ways of the Torah are pleasant. When we make Judaism ugly, we’ve got something wrong.

King David was the successful biblical warrior who defended Israel’s borders, but far from glorifying him as an aggressor, the rabbis of the Talmud honoured him as a gentle scholar who rose each night to the music of his harp in order to study and provide religious guidance to others (Berachot 4a). This nuanced combination of scholar and fighter was reflected in the students at the Religious Zionist yeshivah where I studied. They combined their army service with yeshivah study and their outstanding courage on the battlefield was matched by brilliant scholarship and gentle behaviour.

The recent rhetoric of the Religious Zionist party is neither religious nor Zionist. It’s not religious because it harms innocent people and it desecrates God’s name. It’s not Zionist, because its dangerous bluster about Jewish power has the potential to enrage Israel’s friends, provoke its enemies and enflame the Jewish state.

I hope that Religious Zionism will recover both its religion and its Zionism, enabling the new government to serve everyone living under its jurisdiction in a dignified way. In the meantime, we must ensure that the Judaism taught in our schools, synagogues and yeshivot is a Torah “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all of whose paths are peace”.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi.

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