Wherever they resided, religious Zionists at all times identified themselves with the triumphs and tribulations of Israel. They were drawn toward Zion like a magnet and viewed the restoration of Jewish statehood as a manifestation of the Divine presence.
Over recent decades they contributed to the welfare of Israel, far in excess to their numerical representation. They regarded themselves as bearing a mission to unify the nation and invested much of their effort into trying to build bridges between disparate sections especially with the non-observant and the haredim. In an age of increasing cynicism they remained fervent patriots and their children were often perceived as role models in the army and all walks of Israeli and Diaspora life.
When the Israeli political consensus supported the creation of settlements, religious Zionists became the vanguard, transforming barren sand dunes into flourishing garden settlements and assuming a role reminiscent of the halutzim in the early days of the Yishuv. When the intifada erupted they and their families were on the frontlines and incurred more casualties from terror than any other sector of Israeli society.
THE SEEDS for the tensions which now overshadow relations between religious Zionists and other Israelis were sown many years ago. A number of over-zealous rabbis, influenced by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, adopted a messianic outlook in relation to the land and many of them began acting as though they and they alone had direct communication with the Almighty. Those who differed with them were frequently dismissed as heretics. They hijacked the National Religious Party which became a one dimensional party whose overwhelming emphasis on the land led to neglecting the soul of the nation - the educational system. They also became increasingly influenced by haredim and many began to reject modernity and isolate themselves from Israeli society by living in self-imposed ghettoes.
When the dismantling of the Gush Katif and Northern Samaria settlements finally shattered the dream of Greater Israel, most of their non-religious supporters deserted them. The media denigrated and ultimately demonized them. For the settlers displaced from their homes - the bulk of whom to this day have yet to be provided with accommodation and livelihoods - it was an absolute catastrophe. It was a devastating blow for all religious Zionists.
This led to widespread bitterness with some religious Zionists beginning to lose faith in their ideology, even questioning whether the state should still be viewed as "the beginning of the flowering of our redemption."
Small vocal groups, primarily but not exclusively comprised of settlers from Judea and Samaria, went so far as to as to promote the view that, in religious terms, Israel had become a failed state. The most extreme followed the approach of radical haredim, challenging the legitimacy of the state, refusing to celebrate Independence Day, sing "Hatikva" or display the Israeli flag. They objected to the recital of the prayer for the welfare of the state or remained seated when it was recited in synagogues. Some even announced their refusal to serve in the IDF.
Although today such trends are limited to small pockets of extremists, one must not underestimate the potential impact of such bizarre views on increasingly alienated impressionable youngsters, some of whom already wear T-shirts emblazoned with the message "Disengage from the State - Connect to the Torah."
The seeds for this madness were sown well before the understandable frustration, rage, grief and feelings of rejection which climaxed with the unilateral withdrawals and police brutality at Amona. It started when responsible religious Zionists failed to purge from their ranks the radical activists who first began promoting these outrageous views.
IN RETROSPECT it was unconscionable for religious leaders who regarded the creation of the state as representing an act of Divine intervention, to sanction a forum for views supporting the rejection of the state because they concluded that a particular government had acted abominably.
Of course religious Zionists were entitled to feel aggrieved. But from the outset responsible rabbis should have condemned as sacrilegious any suggestion that the failures of a particular government could ever warrant the repudiation of the state.
There is today a crying need for spiritual leadership in this area. A religious Zionist who rejects the state is a vile aberration who should be expelled from the mainstream no less than an idol worshiper. If there is continued hesitation to eradicate such misguided zealots from its midst now, religious Zionism is poised at the edge of an abyss, and what is currently only a marginal phenomenon could spread rapidly, especially among confused and bitterly disappointed youngsters.
Fortunately responsible leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the gravity of the problem. Rabbi Haim Druckman recently described such zealots as heretics and demanded the joyful celebration of Independence Day as "an enormous gift from the Almighty."
Rabbi Zalman Melamed of Beit El told his followers on Independence Day that "We are obligated to thank the Master of the Universeâ€¦ the very existence of the State is a Divine gift on our way to Redemption and we have to rejoice in this."
The Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria also unequivocally demanded that their followers distinguish between the acts of a government and loyalty to the state, insisting that prayers for the welfare of the state in synagogues are mandatory. However, they have yet to appreciate the negative impact on the symbols of the state which they inflict on youngsters by acts like their recent crass commendation of Sgt. Hananel Dayan for having provocatively refused to shake hands with the IDF Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz in the course of an Independence Day ceremony.
Secular Israelis in positions of influence are also recognizing the enormous danger to the welfare of the nation if these issues get out of hand. Thus the chief of General Staff recently announced that he was initiating dialogue between branches of the IDF and religious Zionist educational institutions in order to heal rifts and ensure that religious Zionist youngsters continue to enlist en masse in the IDF.
Religious Zionists must return to their core obligations, concentrating primarily on the soul of the nation, in the absence of which commitment to the sanctity of the land becomes meaningless. They must promote the revival of Jewish heritage and strengthen the Jewish values in the state. Without coercion they should endeavor to create an educational and cultural climate in which Jewish spiritual values rather than Zen or other Eastern mystical movements attract non-observant Israeli youngsters. They are obliged to maintain the beacon of idealism in a society which has begun to lose its natural bearings because it has become swept up with consumerism.
They should make every effort to neutralize the Hebrew-speaking Canaanites who are once more regrouping in order to transform the Jewish state into "a state for all its citizens."
In a word, religious Zionists should renew their outreach to the nation beyond the political arena and seek to build alliances and renew dialogue with non-observant and secular groups who are also committed to ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish state.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran international Jewish leader.