Religious Zionism: Waging a war for Israel's soul - opinion

We have a government that is arguably more “religious” than any previous one. But the question is, what kind of religion does it practice?

 THEY DO not fly the Blue and White: Hanging the flag in Ramat Gan. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
THEY DO not fly the Blue and White: Hanging the flag in Ramat Gan.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Yes, it’s a cliché, but nevertheless true: Religious Zionism is at a crucial crossroads, one that may impact upon every Jew on the planet.

Religious Zionism, the combined devotion to a Torah way of life and a deep love for Israel – dati leumi in the current vernacular – has been around for a long, long time. It can be said that it began the moment that the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people dispersed. While we could take our Torah scrolls and holy books with us wherever we sojourned, assuring our continued link to halachic observance, “holding on” to Israel was a bit more challenging.

And so, in whatever Diaspora we found ourselves, we created stimulants to remind us from where we came and to help us maintain our hope of re-establishing and returning to our homeland. We faced Jerusalem three times a day as we prayed. Twice a year, on the two occasions most attended by Jews – Yom Kippur and the Passover Seder – our last words are L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem. 

At weddings, we would break a glass to express our tragic loss; some people leave a portion of their homes unfinished to recall God’s House still unbuilt; many even include a bit of dirt from the Holy Land in their final resting place. All this helped us perpetuate what the nations viewed as an impossible dream, but what we fervently – religiously – believed was our inevitable destiny.

This insatiable love of Israel was maintained by observant Jews throughout the millennia, and we must acknowledge our debt of gratitude to all the pious Jews who clung tenaciously to Jewish tradition, against every attempt made to assimilate or destroy them. Had they abandoned their faith, we would not be here today.

 Religious Zionist leader MK Bezalel Smotrich. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Religious Zionist leader MK Bezalel Smotrich. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

This was Zionism 1.0. It changed dramatically to Zionism 2.0 in 1948, when the State of Israel was officially declared. This was a 2,000-year-old affirmation and divine gift to all those who waited patiently for our deliverance. It validated not only our “stick-to-it”ness but also reaffirmed our intense belief in an active, benevolent, giving God who did not desert us. A new spirit and breath of life entered our body politic; visions of redemption and the Messiah danced in our heads, even as our legs danced in jubilation upon winning our War of Independence.

BUT AS glorious as this phase was, it lacked one key element: the people. The population of the fledgling Yishuv was just 600,000, a mere 5% of world Jewry. Without a critical mass of much greater numbers, the economy struggled mightily as the surrounding Arab nations plotted to undo our miraculous rebirth.

The religious communities around the world closely followed events, but from afar. Yes, there was a tangible excitement at what was happening across the ocean, but, with the exception of the endangered Jewish communities in the Arab world, few were moved enough to actually move here. 

Aliyah from the West, particularly from America where the majority of Jews lived, was no more than a trickle. I recall fondly how avidly my parents supported Israel, joining together with other like-minded couples in the Hapoel Mizrachi movement, but this was strictly “armchair Zionism.” They never once set foot on Israeli soil, and those few friends who did journey here almost always returned back to their homes.

But the younger generation was filled with an enthusiastic spirit of activism, particularly after the astonishing miracle of 1967. The Six Day War was a watershed event; it not only convinced us that “Israel is real,” but it also ignited our desire to be a part of this historic happening, in body as well as soul. We flocked to Zionist youth organizations like Bnei Akiva and attuned our antennae to making aliyah. 

We studied for it, saved for it, steeled our determination to accomplish it, and gritted our teeth as we broke the news to our parents that we would someday be leaving them for bluer and whiter pastures. We understood, in our kishkes, that the definition of being religious had extended beyond the theoretical dream stage; it now included actually living in Israel. Anything else was hypocritical and false.

So was born Zionism 3.0 – moving to the state, working for the state, soldiering for the state and yes, even dying for the state should that become necessary. This was not just a fad, not a cultural expression; it was the essence of Judaism wrapped up in the flesh and bones of a country reborn from the ashes of history. 

It was based on the rabbinic statement that “living in Israel is equal to the entire Torah.” Religious Zionism captured all the elements of what it meant to be a Jew, as it combined the past with the present and future and was the ideal merger of Eretz Yisrael with Medinat Yisrael. It was, literally, Heaven on Earth coming to fruition. This was our mandate, our driving force, our raison d’etre, and it continues to energize us. 

But now we are in a pivotal stage. Our unshakable opinion of what God wants and expects of us is at odds with a large segment of the religious population. That community, as committed to Halacha as they may be, are more and more detached from Zionism, preferring instead to create a separatist state within a state

They do not send their children to the army, often ostracizing those children who do enlist, even to haredi units. They do not recite either the prayer for Israel or the prayer for the soldiers in their synagogues. They do not fly the Blue and White, they do not recite “Hatikva”; a video gone viral shows one governmental rabbinic figure laughing as he tells his comrades that he was actually singing a Yiddish song as he pretended to sing “Hatikva” at a public ceremony. The examples go on and on.

A battle for Israel's soul

THIS IS a battle for Israel’s soul – nothing less. Religious Zionism can be a bridge to unite all Jews here, as our religiosity connects to one segment, our Zionist fervor to the other, but we are struggling for survival. Will we be maligned and marginalized or will we be appreciated and applauded? We want an Israel that has a high moral character, that values every Jew and every person, that recognizes that each one is atzelem Elokim, a “shadow of God,” beloved by the Almighty, with a unique mission to perform. And we cherish our national identity no less than our religious one. 

There are two upcoming opportunities to showcase the values of Religious Zionism. In a short time, there will be the election of new chief rabbis, as well as the permanent appointment of the rabbinic head of the State Conversion Authority

For many years now, Israel’s chief rabbis have come from the haredi community. It is time that Israel has a truly Zionist chief rabbi, one who proudly sends his children to the army, who is unabashedly devoted to the state in all its glory, who believes with all his heart that we are not only on the way to redemption but that we are the vehicle for redemption. We certainly have enough world-class scholars in the dati leumi world to fill the position.

And we must have someone overseeing conversions who believes that anyone who sincerely wants to embrace the Torah and join the Jewish people should not only be tolerated but encouraged. The Torah does not command us, even once, to love our spouses or love our children but continuously demands that we love the convert.

Yes, we have a government that is arguably more “religious” than any previous one. But the question is, what kind of religion does it practice? If ever there was a time for Smotrich and his party to flex their Zionist muscles, this is it.

As we say in Bnei Akiva: Hashem imachem – y’vareche’cha Hashem; May God be with you and may God bless you. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.