How did Religious Zionism become a pillar of Israel?

‘Everyone feels something towards this sector,’ explains the IDI’s Yair Sheleg.

Israeli soldiers pray at the Western Wall. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers pray at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
The religious Zionist community is a pillar of Israeli society, but this was not always the case; it only began to have an impact in society in the late 1960s and ’70s.
Earlier this week, the Israel Democracy Institute released a book titled From the Margins to the Fore: Religious Zionism and Israeli Society.
Edited by Yair Sheleg, research fellow of the IDI’s Religion and State program, the book deals with this question in depth looking at its progression over the last decades.
Sheleg sat down with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday to discuss how religious Zionism has become so influential in many spheres of Israeli society.
“This sector was very marginal before the Six Day War,” Sheleg explained. “They themselves felt very marginal, especially the youngsters of the sector. They felt that no one really appreciated them – [and] they were not appreciated. The secular didn’t appreciate them because they were not so involved in the kibbutz movement [and] in the combat units of the army, and the ultra-Orthodox didn’t appreciate them because they were compromising on some of the religious aspects.”
This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, because the feeling of the National-Religious youth was that “we have to be much more effective.”
How they did this, Sheleg said, was by “maximizing their Zionism and at the same time, their religiosity. It was like saying to the Orthodox and the secular, ‘everything you can do we can do better.’ So they became much more committed to the mitzvot and much more committed to the secular Zionist ‘mitzvot,’ like serving in the army, especially in combat units, and settling the land,” Sheleg noted.
After the Yom Kippur War, which was considered a disaster by Israeli society, religious Zionism created Gush Emunim and offered to lead the settlement in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan.
“After a few years, the religious Zionist sector started to become much more effective in the army,” said Sheleg. “In officers courses today, there is something like 30% to 40% religious Zionists, and the percentage in the Jewish population is something between 12% and 15%, so it’s much higher than their percentage in the population.”
Over time, “they became much more involved in the media, in politics, in culture, theater and cinema, in the judiciary sector – there are four members of the Supreme Court who are religious people, and Attorney-General Avichai connected to the religious Zionist sector. The religious Zionist sector is very much in the center of the country.”
Addressing the relationship between the National-Religious sector and Israeli society, Sheleg explained that “this sector creates a lot of emotion toward it. Everyone feels something toward this sector: the non-religious Zionists admire their idealism and the fact that they settle in hard places, some are in combat units – so the right-wing admire this, but the left-wing have negative feelings toward them because they see them as the leaders of the West Bank annexation, and other such values, which they are against.”
The religious Zionist movement is also the most complex of Israeli society, Sheleg said, because it has a lot more diversity, and also it stands on three pillars – the religion pillar, the national i.e. Zionism pillar, and the universal liberal pillar – whereas the ultra-Orthodox and the secular stand on one or two.
Sheleg noted that “there is a strong divergence” on issues that matter to the liberal religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox religious Zionists, which is why there has been elements of in-fighting within the sector: some religious Zionists like Naftali Bennett are of the more liberal stream, while people like Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich are part of the ultra-Orthodox in the National-Religious camp.
According to Sheleg, these two streams of religious Zionism have huge differences over issues of religion, the image of Shabbat and conversions, and the West Bank, for example annexing just Area C versus annexing the whole of the West Bank.
“There is a duality because they want to be a part of the world and society but they are also proud of their religion,” he said.
But at the end of the day, the national pillar is the most important one to the National-Religious camp.
Asked about comments made by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday in which he claimed that pre-military academies in the religious Zionist sector “are cultivating soldiers who will listen to their rabbis instead of the military commanders,” Sheleg disputed this.
“Liberman tried to divide their national ideology, which he of course accepts, and their religious ideology, which he rejects,” Sheleg explained. “Now Liberman said that in those academies, we saw last year that the religious pillar is higher than the national pillar, and because of that we can’t rely on them – when there will be an order from their rabbi or an order from their commander – whether they will obey the commander and oppose the order from their rabbi.”
Sheleg explained that this is not a real concern or fear because most of the religious Zionist youngsters see the national pillar as the most important, more than even the religious pillar.
“Although there are some fears that they will disobey their commanders, I don’t think it’s a high number,” he said, adding that the rabbis may have an influence on soldiers maybe for the first year in which they learn in the religious academy. “But when they become much more adult, what affects them is no longer the academy they learned in at 21, but the general society.”
For those who go into higher positions, “the values of the army, the values of obeying their commanders and the government, are much more important to them then the effect of the rabbi,” Sheleg said.