We must save religious Zionism from the Religious Zionist Party - opinion

Do we want a zealous, anti-humanist and anti-democratic Religious Zionist Party alienating Israelis from religious Zionism like the rabbinate does for Judaism?

 FINANCE MINISTER Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, addresses a meeting of his Knesset faction on Monday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
FINANCE MINISTER Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, addresses a meeting of his Knesset faction on Monday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

I wish to report a double-hijacking: The Religious Zionist Party (RZP) is misusing God’s lofty words for prosaic political matters – and besmirching religious Zionism’s reputation. Last Thursday, journalists speculated how long Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious coalition might survive. Leftists predicted that Israeli democracy wouldn’t survive. I wondered: with the Religious Zionist Party claiming to define it, can religious Zionism survive?

I write as a loving outsider. I lack most religious Zionists’ intimate faith and Jewish fluency. I did not graduate from those impressive yeshivas, seminaries and youth movements sharpening young minds – and stretching Jewish souls. Still, some of my best friends – and most of my children – are religious Zionists, making me religious Zionist-adjacent. And I am moved by the cascading kindness, charity, familial devotion, community-building, idealism, and heroic nationalism I see day-to-day from religious Zionists, making me religious Zionist-positive. But color me Religious-Zionist-Party-repelled.

As a boring, long-married, father of four, I don’t understand how gay-bashing reinforces my family values. In fact, autocrats preening about “our” way of life while othering others looks insecure. As a Jew who grew up as a minority in America, I don’t want to live in a society where anyone might be denied medical treatment or hotel lodging based on how they look, what they believe, or with whom they partner.

Similarly, I don’t understand how demonizing Arabs or undermining the military chain of command protects me. We need politicians strengthening our society and reinforcing our soldier-heroes, not inflaming tensions.

I join Avi Maoz in rejecting the postmodernist assault on family, on tradition. But I want to win the argument with respect and constructive role-modeling, not insults and repressive legislation.

 Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich  gives a press statement at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 26, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich gives a press statement at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 26, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Such bullying is not countenanced by the Torah, by the Judaism I cherish – or by the history of religious Zionism.

At first glance, religious Zionism offers the most natural, least-neurotic, Zionism. Religious Zionists effortlessly integrate their love of God, Judaism, the Jewish people, the Jewish state, and humanity. Rav Kook’s “Four-fold Song” harmonizes the songs of self, nation, humanity and the universe. Kook honored early Zionism’s seemingly-rebellious pioneers for making the Holy Land bloom again. Today, my kids see religious Zionism as the “glue” uniting Israel – not the grenade launcher for fragmentation bombs pulling Israel apart.

Nevertheless, religious Zionism has always been the starchy, buzz-killing uncle often marginalized at the Zionist party. Zionism is democratic and Jewish, Western and forward-thinking not just Mid-Eastern and traditional. Most early Zionists rejected tradition and powerlessness. These secular Zionists wielded power more comfortably than religious Zionists first did.

MOREOVER, UNDERLYING the rabbinic critique of Zionists for not waiting for the Messiah was a fear of power tainting Judaism. Similarly, Roger Williams, America’s icon of church-state separation, wanted to protect the church from the state – fearing politics’ pollution.

The late Bambi Sheleg considered the Yom Kippur War as religious Zionism’s great inflection point. The 1973 war demoralized labor Zionism but boosted religious Zionism. After fighting heroically, religious Zionists focused on building their own communities, improving their social standing, and settling the territories. But, Sheleg lamented in 2005, “Embarrassing as it is to admit, we fell in love with ourselves.... On the way to redeeming the land of our forefathers, we forgot our people.”

“Embarrassing as it is to admit, we fell in love with ourselves.... On the way to redeeming the land of our forefathers, we forgot our people.”

Bambi Sheleg

This unhappy history risks repeating itself. Power not only corrupts – it overinflates egos too. The triumphalism this small religious Zionist party oozes, with 10.38 percent of the vote, defies every Jewish text preaching humility, modesty, respect for others, and peoplehood.

So where are the rabbis to balance, to brake? We need religious Zionist leaders denouncing the Noam Party’s blacklists and blackballing, Otzma Yehudit’s snarling and demagoguing. We need devout insiders decrying these supposedly-religious leaders enabling corruption, demonizing gays, threatening Arabs – all in God’s name, God-forbid.

Fortunately, at least one petition of rabbis and educators, including Rabbis Ohad Teharlev and David Bigman, posted on the Srugim website, described “our Torah” as “the Torah of kindness and justice” while repudiating any bigotry in the name of the Torah. More leaders must follow!

Religion can do much good, personally and communally, bringing out the best in people and a people. Today, too many moderns, with God-size-holes in their hearts, suffer existentially. But historically, political power often brought out the worst in religious leaders. The Bible is neither a real estate manual nor a party platform. It is, however, an ethical primer warning about kings becoming besotted by their own religiously-fueled power trips.

Invoking God the eternal when passing laws fixing passing problems reduces God to a political prop. It makes these crusading politicians insufferable. And, it sacrifices long-term values and visions for short-term gains.

For decades, the rigid, haughty, out-of-touch, anti-Zionist Rabbinate has alienated many Israelis from Judaism. Do we want a zealous, anti-humanist and anti-democratic Religious Zionist Party alienating Israelis from religious Zionism too?

These Religious Zionist Party goonatics risk hastening the silent exodus of young people of conscience from religious Zionism, unwilling to sacrifice their instinctive respect for LGBTQ+ rights for these wrong-headed arsonists.

I love the religious Zionists I sing with, dance with, pray with, learn with, and live with. Theirs is a Judaism that smiles not snarls; theirs is a Zionism of outstretched hands – both human and celestial – not clenched fists. Leading religious Zionists must lobby internally, urging moderation, condemning corruption, and supporting Israel’s Jewish democracy. 

Meanwhile, I beg the Noam Party fanatics: add my name to your blacklists – that’s where I belong, and where the religious Zionists I admire but I’m not hearing belong too.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).