Smotrich's Religious Zionist Party is becoming anti-Zionist - opinion

Religious Zionists should tell Smotrich and the RZP “not in my name” before the national religious banner is indelibly stained with corruption, draft dodging and unjust discrimination.

 FINANCE MINISTER Bezalel Smotrich arrives for a group picture of the new government at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, last week.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
FINANCE MINISTER Bezalel Smotrich arrives for a group picture of the new government at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, last week.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Bezalel Smotrich is sitting on top of his Dati Leumi community, proclaiming that he has brought it to a peak of influence by winning 14 mandates for the renamed Religious Zionism Party. Yet the coalition agreements of the incoming government that he enabled make it clear that he has abandoned the heritage of religious Zionism. On at least three major issues, he adopted the contradictory positions of the anti-Zionist haredim. For accuracy’s sake, we should change the name of his party to the Religious Anti-Zionism Party.

1) The Law of Return 

In 1950, Israel passed a Law of Return, guaranteeing any Jew in the world the automatic right to come to Israel as a haven, including obtaining citizenship, without any restrictions.

The Law of Return is one of the great Zionist laws of all time. It expressed the deep Zionist principle that, in Ben-Gurion’s words, the “central purpose of our state, (is) the ingathering of the exiles,” as well as the Zionist hope that every Jew in the world would come home to Israel.

The Law of Return also expressed the national consensus in response to the Holocaust. Never again would a Jew anywhere in the world facing persecution or death be trapped because the nations of the world close their doors or refuse to extend protection to the threatened Jews.

In 1970, the law was amended, making the powerful influence of the Shoah clear. The amendment stated that the rights of an oleh (automatic admission and citizenship) are given to a child or grandchild of a Jew and the spouse of the Jew unless the person voluntarily became a member of another religion. This categorization recognized that the Nazis persecuted and killed halachic non-Jews whose grandparents had been Jewish. Thus the law was a true tikkun (repair) for the Holocaust.

MK BEZALEL Smotrich addresses the Knesset plenum. The unusual state of Israeli politics has highlighted the attraction of its extremities, says the writer (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)MK BEZALEL Smotrich addresses the Knesset plenum. The unusual state of Israeli politics has highlighted the attraction of its extremities, says the writer (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It reversed the fate of people being persecuted because they were of Jewish ancestry and assured that they, too, would get extra help and protection because of their connection to the Jewish people. This clause turned out to be particularly important in attracting over 1,000,000 Soviet Jews in the past half-century because there had been high intermarriage rates in Russian Jewry for a century.

There has been ongoing conflict over the law for decades, expressed through fights over the definition of wo is a Jew. The haredi community and some nationalists were troubled by the admission of so many non-Jews to Israel. They especially sought to eliminate “the families of Jews” eligibility clause.

The Supreme Court of Israel consistently sought to keep the law’s application as broad as possible. The Law also said that converts to Judaism were eligible for citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled that converts from the Diaspora of any religious stream were eligible under the Law of Return. The court also widened eligibility by ruling that widows of Jews were also included.

Several times in recent decades, haredi Orthodox tried to use their political leverage inside Israel to amend the Law of Return to eliminate family eligibility and to say that only Orthodox converts would be considered Jewish. Thanks in good measure to opposition from American and Diaspora Jews, attempts to narrow the category of eligibility were defeated.

Through all these conflicts, religious Zionists played a moderating role. They strongly supported the initial passing of the Law of Return and upheld its broadest applications. Religious Zionists were committed to all of Israel. They did not want to harm the strong connections to Diaspora Jewry by narrowing the eligibility rules.

Nothing demonstrates Smotrich’s acceptance of the haredi position more than the RZP’s commitment to change the Law of Return. Haredim strongly oppose Zionism. To this day, they do not share the Zionist dream of maximizing the ingathering of Jews. They dismiss giving weight to the Holocaust in many areas of policy. Their opposition to reaching out to all Jews and incorporating them in the Law of Return is consistent with their tradition. But why should the RZP betray religious Zionism by joining them?


The second is the RZP betrayal of religious Zionism in the matter of giyur (conversion). The correct response to the influx of half a million Russians who were not Jewish according to Halacha would have been to reach out to them and offer an easy, expedited form of conversion. Given that their families serve in the IDF and put their lives on the line to defend Israel, the rabbinate should have ruled that they already share the covenant by fate, as do liberal religious Jews and secular Jews.

As defined by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, this means that they all share Jewish history, suffering and the responsibility to protect and help Jews. Therefore, they are to be treated as members of the covenant of the Jewish people. The rabbinate should have reduced ritual and faith expectations and converted them.

Polls showed that many non-halachic Jewish Russians were willing to convert to Judaism in order to fit in fully in Israeli Jewish society. However, the rabbinate demanded that they take on all ritual observances and, often, accept formal religiosity at the haredi level. This was in addition to putting them through a painfully slow, bureaucratic, exhausting process of conversion. Russian Israeli popular opinion soon turned against conversion. This has created a monster intermarriage problem for the following generations.

The Religious Zionists positions have been dramatically opposed to the haredi approach, for example, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, the spiritual ancestor of religious Zionism, called for special efforts to recruit and ease the conversion of patrilineal Jews. As well, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uzziel ruled to easily and quickly convert non-Jewish spouses as a way to overcome the bad effects of intermarriage. Furthermore, in Israel, liberal Orthodox Rabbis started a program, Giyyur K’Halachah, to increase conversion of (mostly children of) Russian Jews.

Decades ago,in order to overcome the haredi bottleneck to conversion, Smotrich’s self-declared spiritual guide, Rabbi Haim Druckman, became the head of a Conversion Authority working out of the Prime Minister’s Office. The authority reached out to ease and increase the conversion of Russian Jews. Druckman was repeatedly attacked by the haredi leaders. The validity of his converts was challenged.

In the coalition agreements, Smotrich and the RZP have embraced the haredi demand to disqualify all conversions except those of the Chief Rabbinates. This is a betrayal of Druckman’s past leadership and turns the RZP into a collaborator with the haredim who seek to keep the maximum number of people out of the Jewish people.

In their madness, they hope to become a majority of the Jewish people by demographic expansion while excluding any outsiders who won’t become haredi. Smotrich’s decision to go over to the anti-Zionist side shows bad judgment and loss of the religious Zionist way.


The third major issue is whether Israel should be a democracy. There has been a lot of confusion about this issue in the religious Zionist community. Many national religious people spoke of the Jewish state living based on Torat Yisrael, i.e., by the Torah. However, it was never clear that the current Halacha was prepared to guide a functioning state.

Nevertheless, the Dati Leumi leadership overwhelmingly supported making Israel into a democratic state. Mizrachi and Hapoel Hamizrachi leaders supported and signed on to the Declaration of Independence, which promised democracy and declared that Israel “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed, or sex, [and] will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.”

Then-chief rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog wrote a memorable responsa that Israel could allow freedom of worship to all the indigenous religions even though other halachic authorities pointed to a large body of Jewish law prohibiting alternate religious worship in the land of Israel (including Christianity, treated or defined as avodah zarah).

The classic National Religious Party (MAFDAL) supported moderation in policy. Now, Smotrich calls for a state of Halacha, interpreted as expanding religious coercion and allowing discrimination. He supports delaying a needed communications upgrade to the whole country by not phasing out the 2G and 3G spectrum, in order to allow haredi rabbis to restrict phone internet access for their constituents.

The RZP supports a bill to remove an outside ombudsman who checks rabbinic corruption. The RZP further proposes to end the Supreme Court’s protection of minority rights by setting up an easy Knesset override of High Court decisions.

The peak of this sellout of the national religious position is in the RZP joining the haredi parties in sponsoring a Basic Law stating that learning Torah is a fundamental value of the state of Israel’s tradition in order to allow all haredi Jews to avoid army service. Learning Torah is a fundamental Jewish value but the religious Zionists created hesder yeshivas and pre-military mechinot to enable people to learn Torah and fulfill their obligation to militarily defend Israel.

Maimonides states that in a mitzvah war, e.g., self-defense, everybody should be drafted to go and fight, with no exemptions. It is despicable to use learning Torah as a trick to evade this responsibility.

These laws and acts are pure chillul Hashem (disgrace of God’s name) because they demean the Torah. Religious Zionists should tell Smotrich and the RZP “not in my name” before the national religious banner is indelibly stained with corruption, draft dodging and unjust discrimination.

The writer is an American oleh. In the United States, he was a leader in the modern Orthodox rabbinate and in the work of linking American Jewry and Israel. He was the founding president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, which led the creation of Birthright Israel.