Center Field: Will Revisionist, religious Zionists protect Israel’s soul?

Sadly, the right-wing Zionisms that might protect Israel’s spirit – Revisionist Zionism and religious Zionism – are mostly muzzled.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking after speaking against the alleged corruption charges against him (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking after speaking against the alleged corruption charges against him
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As coalition talks – aka Bibi’s Bazaar – drag on, Israel’s democratic soul seems up for grabs, too.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once defended liberal democracy – even surreptitiously – against party goons. Now he threatens democratic norms with partisan hacks.
Sadly, the right-wing Zionisms that might protect Israel’s spirit – Revisionist Zionism and religious Zionism – are mostly muzzled.
Their silences leave Bibi’s demagoguery unchecked, thuggish extremists unrestrained, democracy strained.
The Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, then of Menachem Begin, was a Zionism of Jewish pride, personal morality and liberal democracy. Revisionist Zionism’s ideological keystone was “hadar,” meaning glory, dignity, majesty.
The Revisionists celebrated Jewish pride and power. But as liberal democrats infused with hadar, Revisionist New Jews were supposed to wield power wisely. Liberated by Zionism from the galut, exile, we would resurrect our ancestors’ hadar. We would be princely – proud but not arrogant; self-possessed, not obsessed with possessions; focused on self-control, not controlling others. And we would act democratically, championing individual rights, personal responsibility and virtue – both individual and communal.
Begin lived Jabotinsky’s ideals. Begin languished in opposition, starting in 1949. Finally, in 1977, Begin started “Revising” Israel. He triggered a capitalist revolution ushering in privatization and entrepreneurship. He welcomed Mizrahi participation, ending nearly three decades of the Labor Party’s negating and humiliating our brothers and sisters from Arab and Muslim countries. He expanded democracy, treating all Israeli citizens, including Israeli Arabs, as equals, with dignity. And he behaved nobly. He didn’t just resist corruption; he embodied virtue – hadar!
Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, continued the Revisionist tradition. Like Begin, Shamir had his militant side, and acted violently to help establish the state. But as prime minister, Shamir repudiated Meir Kahane’s anti-Arab demagoguery in the 1980s. Shamir led all the Zionist parties in walking out of the Knesset when Kahane spoke and helped ban “this dangerous character” and Kach, Kahane’s party.
In that spirit, today’s Likud MKs should ask WWBD – What Would Begin Do? Would Begin shield any Likudnik, even a prime minister, with an immunity law, dodging responsibility for acting corruptly?
What would Begin do? Would he tolerate a law allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court? As a lawyer, Begin respected minority rights and the rule of law. Courts exist to resist popular extremes and demagogic, power-mad premiers.
What would Begin – and Shamir – do? If voters helped Israel dodge a bullet by not giving the United Right-Wing Parties enough votes to elect the Kahanist thugs on their list, would Begin or Shamir approve this proposed expansion of the Norwegian Law allowing multiple cabinet members to resign their Knesset positions and thus welcome Kahanists to the Knesset? Neither Begin nor Shamir would have brokered the dirty deal Netanyahu engineered in the first place. Both would have run these bigots out of the mainstream of Israeli politics rather than smuggling them into the Knesset through the Norwegian back door.
And what would Begin do, even if he were the only one, facing a newly reelected prime minister and a possible loss of power in his own party? He would stand on principle – which is what every Likud MK of conscience should do – following the example the Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar has now set in saying the proposed immunity bill “does zero good and... maximum damage.”
Instead, Jabotinsky’s Likudnik heirs are acting like Bibi’s Smurfs, small, cowardly, ineffectual. Still, I hope, and wait, for more of the impressive people on the Likud’s list to remember their heritage and sabotage Netanyahu’s attempts to dodge responsibility for his actions or pollute the Knesset with Kahanists.
Tragically, like the Revisionists, today’s religious Zionists risk violating their glorious and moral past. The united Right is too thirsty for power and too blind to ethical questions and democratic sensibilities.
Hey kids, look – this is what religious Zionism without a conscience looks like: It does Bibi’s bidding, targets the Supreme Court to centralize all power in the Knesset, and cavorts with Kahanist bigots, while swaggering around pretending God is on its side, as if God trifles with partisan politics.
Right now, Bezalel Smotrich represents modern religious Zionism to most Israelis – too power-hungry, too narrowly particularistic, too insensitive to liberal-democratic norms and too self-righteous religiously. Such behaviors risk giving Judaism, particularism and true righteousness bad names.
So we wonder: Where in the world is Rafi Peretz? If no Likudniks beyond Sa’ar have enough moral courage to stand up, the leader of Smotrich’s party, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, should lead. Peretz is a legendary educator who opposed the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip but respected the rule of law and the army’s need to follow orders from our democratically elected leaders. When soldiers came to evict him from his Gaza home, Peretz danced with them – epitomizing Jewish and democratic values at their best.
Peretz should restrain Smotrich, resist Netanyahu’s demands for immunity and redeem religious Zionism’s moral heritage. Moreover, acting at his Talmudic best, Peretz can demand the expanded Norwegian Law if necessary yet, when he joins the cabinet, refuse to relinquish his Knesset seat to the Kahanists imposed on his party.
Anyone with any influence over Peretz must tell him: political rookies need to develop redlines – quickly. Peretz’s soul and reputation are at risk. He can remain a Zionist hero, protecting our Jewish democracy, rescuing Revisionist and religious Zionism, or he can join the ranks of the once-great ones now Smurfed, diminished by Netanyahu’s quest for power and their own moral cowardice.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea,
published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.