Analyzing the Religious-Zionist debacle

It is time to consider the causes of this trend, and what if anything can be done to reverse it.

RABBI ABRAHAM ISAAC KOOK, 1924 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The elections of 2019 administered various shocks, one of them to the Religious-Zionist sector. There is a real possibility that in the next government, even in the next Knesset, the Religious-Zionist camp could find itself without representation.
This new political reality appears to reflect a long-term erosion of the Religious-Zionist position in Israeli society. Writing in Makor Rishon on November 15, Ariel Schnabel cited a survey indicating that only 54% of the children of Religious-Zionists retain that affiliation as adults (for secularists it is 90%, for haredim/ultra-Orthodox 94%).
It is time to consider the causes of this trend, and what if anything can be done to reverse it. Four main factors come to mind.
• First, the weakening of the Right as a whole, and of Religious-Zionism in particular, may be a “Stockholm/Oslo syndrome” response to increasing hostility from without. In the face of the possibility that any step in self-defense will lead to a war crimes charge, Zionist ideology feels unsafe. Since the settlements in Judea and Samaria incur so much hostility, perhaps we might be better off divesting ourselves of same. Against this instinctive reaction, even the lessons of experience (e.g., the results of the Oslo agreements and the Gaza withdrawal) do not always appear compelling.
• Second, global techno-capitalism – whose influence has amplified in recent years through the spread of the smartphone – is inherently hostile to Religious-Zionism. The large corporations oppose any commitments that restrict the uninterrupted operation of commerce, hence the increasingly-successful assault on Shabbat restrictions. Moreover, Religious-Zionism is an inescapably local phenomenon, and global techno-capitalism tends toward homogenization. It has no use for any sense of place.
• Third, Israel’s territorial setbacks in recent decades have disproportionately affected the Religious-Zionist community, both materially and spiritually. The ruins of Gush Katif represent not only labor lost but unanswered prayer. That message is not lost on the younger generation of the movement, nor on the Israeli public at large.
• And fourth, Religious-Zionism is a more complex phenomenon than either secularism or haredi orthodoxy. It involves a constant effort to strike a balance. This makes it harder to maintain. However, this is also why it is important to maintain. Amid the tensions between secularism and orthodoxy in Israeli society, Religious-Zionism is the center that must be made to hold.
Is there, then, something that could be done, that has not yet been done, to strengthen Religious-Zionism?
IF WE go back to the founding thinker of Religious-Zionism, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, we see that his philosophy has not been fully implemented in three areas:
• First, Rav Kook set us the task of integrating Torah study and observance with secular knowledge. In Orot he says that matters connected with the state must now be regarded as Torah subjects, and many statements to similar effect may be found in the letters and unedited writings. The task there is enormous, and work on it – critical examination of all fields of knowledge in the light of Torah – has scarcely begun. (Bar-Ilan University, founded with such aim in mind, is today just another secular university.)
• Second, Rav Kook wrote in Orot: “Israel and its essence are not confined to a restricted private circle. They are concentrated in a unique circle, and from that center they exert an influence on the whole circumference.” For him, universality was not contradicted by the particularity of the chosen people and the Promised Land. This challenges us to create a different globalism, not placeless and faceless, whereby our survival enables us to radiate an influence on the rest of creation. Such an enterprise could help Zionism to recover spiritually from those territorial setbacks (may there be no more of them).
• Third, the religious institutions devoted to Rav Kook’s teaching have yet to take seriously his belief in the importance of art and especially poetry – that is, to treat this belief as an integral part of his world-view, and to develop a poetics consistent with the Religious-Zionist vision. Part of what poetry does is to strengthen awareness of the connection between the particular and the universal. It can also strengthen imagination and will, which are sorely needed.
To rebuild the Zionist dream would entail, as Motti Karpel wrote recently in Makor Rishon, “a national creative effort that will take a generation.” For this to happen, some people would have to be willing to leave their “comfort zones,” to oppose the inertia of institutions and habits, to do things that will seem, at least at first, inconvenient.
I have one specific suggestion: the “national creative effort” needs a time slot. I propose that motzei Shabbat, the time immediately following Shabbat, be devoted to brainstorming sessions toward the “national creative effort.” Hopefully at this time, when the work week with all its pressures has not yet set in, secular affairs could be contemplated in the spirit of unity which lingers after Shabbat.
The logistics would need to be worked out. But if a number of persons were to set aside this time between the sacred and the secular, it would be a clear signal. It would mean that something has begun.
The writer runs the The Deronda Review.