The popular image of religious Zionists today is the uncompromising, politically far-right settler in the West Bank. However, as the article below shows, there is another side to religious Zionism.
Religious Zionism can be broadly defined as a form of Zionism that believes Jewish autonomy in Israel has religious, not just political, significance. However, this is an expansive framework, encompassing numerous groups and ideologies.
Traditional religious Zionism–influenced by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook–understood Israel’s religious significance in messianic terms. The settling of the Land of Israel was considered a crucial step in bringing the Messiah, and political events were interpreted through this prism. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War seemed to validate previous settlement efforts, and thus awakened messianic fervor.
In addition, the Six Day War expanded Israeli control of “Greater Israel” to include the West Bank and Gaza, which in turn yielded a parallel expansion of the religious-messianic arena: settling the Palestinian-inhabited, Israeli-occupied, territories became the next step in the messianic project for a large group of religious Zionists. The Gush Emunim movement was founded under this platform in 1974.
Religion as Problem & Solution
A year later, Oz Veshalom-Netivot Shalom was established to present a different vision of religious Zionism. As this group sees it, some religious Zionists–including devotees of Gush Emunim–turned the State of Israel into an end in itself, one that incorrectly supercedes the importance of justice, peace, and life itself.
In the 1990s, Netivot Shalom actively supported the peace process. Its leaders advocated for the creation of a Palestinian state and equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. Netivot Shalom directed its platform inward as well, as it tried to cultivate better relationships between Israel’s secular and religious Jewish communities.
Netivot Shalom believes that religion is at the root of the Arab-Jewish conflict, but also at the root of its solution. Its leaders suggest that religious fundamentalism is “the greatest threat to possible coexistence” and thus, “the only effective counter arguments would also need to stem from religious tradition.”
In a speech at a Netivot Shalom conference, philosopher Aviezer Ravitsky cited an example of this alternative religious tradition. According to Jewish law, all land in Israel must lie fallow during the sabbatical year. However, the ancient Israelites who returned from their exile in Babylonia recognized that this ruling could have negative social implications: poor people who couldn’t work their land might starve. Thus the returning Israelites chose not to settle parts of the Land so it would not be officially Israel, and thus available to the poor.
Ravitzky uses this text to show that aggressive settlement is not necessarily the truest expression of Jewish religion. Here is a Talmudic text that privileges social benefits over and above the settling of Israel. Ravitzky suggests that today too, it behooves us to choose the social benefits of peace over and above the inclination toward expansive settling. This choice is not counter-religious; it is prototypically religious.
In addition to Netivot Shalom, Ravitzky is also a leader in Meimad, another moderate religious Zionist group.
Meimad was established in 1988, and in 1999 it became a political party. Meimad was founded by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a yeshiva in Gush Etzion, a block of West Bank settlements. Despite his yeshiva’s location, Amital is open to territorial compromise as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. Like Netivot Shalom, Meimad believes that placing the Land of Israel above all other values and concerns contradicts the Torah.
Meimad also believes that political discourse and halakhic (Jewish legal) discourse should be completely distinct. Meimad’s official platform rejects appealing to halakhah to settle political differences. Meimad does, however, believe in the importance of retaining the Jewish character of Israel, insisting that democracy is achievable in this context.
Traditionally, the “religious” part of religious Zionism referred to some form of Orthodox Judaism, but in recent years, non-Orthodox religious movements have had an increasing voice in Israeli life.
The Reform and Conservative movements have been particularly vocal about their desire to imbue Israeli life with a sense of religious pluralism. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, has called for the dismantling of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and its courts–which control marriage, divorce, and conversion.
In general, Schorsch is heartened by the Conservative movement’s strides in Israel and believes that the Israeli public has gained interest in non-Orthodox religion. He’s noted that “the introduction of genuine religious pluralism is certainly possible. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the faculty of Tel Aviv University decided recently to build on campus a panoply of three synagogues (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) rather than a single, exclusively Orthodox synagogue.”
Not surprisingly, the liberal movements bring their general theologies to Zionism.
Rabbi Richard Hirsch, honorary president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, puts the challenge this way: “The State of Israel is the testing grounds for keeping the covenant between God and God’s people. How do Jews as a people create a just society when they are given responsibility? How do Jews use political power? How do Jews apply Jewish values in everyday conditions of a Jewish society?”
According to 170 religious Zionists who signed a manifesto published in major Israeli newspapers on May 9, 2003, these questions are particularly resonant. The signatories of this document were disturbed by the moral ramifications of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and particularly disturbed by what they perceived as religious Zionism’s silence on this matter.
They wrote: “In the absence of a worthy Religious Zionist leadership at this time, we have no choice but to take the initiative: We call upon the Religious Zionist public to recognize the necessity of giving up our rule in the Territories and turn its energy to dealing with the pressing and neglected issues on its own and on the general Israeli agenda.”
Like secular Zionism, religious Zionism has gone through many changes over the decades of Israeli statehood. As the political and geographic landscape of Israel has shifted, so have the factors and factions influencing the intersection of religion and Zionism. Religious Zionism may have once been monolithically associated with the belief that control over land was necessary for messianic redemption, but today people calling themselves religious Zionists may sometimes offer the opposite view–and any and every view in between.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.
Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.