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'Religious Zionist' who aren't really religious at all

Orthodox and secular Jews exchange comments at a demonstration Monday in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews argue for gender segregation, while secular Jews plan a rally Tuesday to assert gender equality.
Orthodox and secular Jews exchange comments at a demonstration Monday in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews argue for gender segregation, while secular Jews plan a rally Tuesday to assert gender equality. | Reuters/Oren Nahshon

The greatest surprise of the recent election in Israel was the meteoric rise of the “Religious Zionism” slate of three parties from the extremist fringes to holding the balance of power, winning as they did the third largest number of Knesset seats of any party.  

The combination we call “religious Zionist” in Israel is a difficult one for many. The clear and proud merging of faith and politics makes Americans uncomfortable, given the constitutional separation of church and state. That combination is also a real challenge for Christians, whose religion is more based in faith and belief than it is in an entity like the unavoidably political concept of the Jewish people.

A century ago, that combination was also counterintuitive in the Jewish world. Zionism began as a secular, socialist project, one at odds with a religious view reluctant to “force God’s hand” with a Jewish return to the Land of Israel. But the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) lay the foundation of a resolution to this tension between religious and secular visions. He asserted that even without their intention or knowledge, this secular movement of Jewish nationalism reflected God’s will and was helping to bring about the Messiah. Ideally, in this thinking, Jews should both participate in this ostensibly secular venture but be able to see the “divine spark” underlying it.

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We can only wonder what this revolutionary thinker might say about the democratic election of a religious Zionist party that includes leaders with views and histories like Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich.

In recent years, the modern Orthodox community has made great strides toward greater roles for women, toward broader acceptance and understanding for the challenges of LGBT people in our families, and toward openness and love for Jews whose Jewish practice is different than our own. Those are all positive developments.

But racism, hatred and violence are simply incompatible with religious faith. Young men on Jerusalem Day shouting "Death to Arabs!" and "May your village burn!" and “A Jew is a soul. An Arab is a son of a whore” in the face of Arabs while dressed in the garb of faith is repugnant. Rioting, destruction of Palestinian property, violent assaults on other human beings are more than just civil crimes. Regardless of how people spend their sabbath, regardless of the depth of their prayer life or the seriousness of their Torah study, it is time for a new name. This cannot and must not, be religion. Our faith leaders must adamantly and vociferously reject such attitudes and actions. 

Something is profoundly broken within the religious Zionist vision today, but it doesn’t have to be. Support for the state of Israel that is grounded in a religious vision isn’t itself the problem. It’s easy to assert that the problem is nationalism itself, but this is cheap. It is nationalism and our own nation-state that are ensuring Jewish qualitative and quantitate survival into the future.

But there is a problem nonetheless, one that is acute and that should trouble us deeply.

Language and the way we use it are important. The fact that a person observes religious practices or wears religious clothing does not in fact make them religious. These are not “religious Zionists” or “religious Zionist extremists”. They are racists and bullies. They are rejecting, ostracizing, and even violently attacking people who carry God’s image.

This has nothing to do with being “leftists” or being “soft on terror” or any other dismissive assertion. It is about the need to make a clear and serious assessment of what it means to be people of faith and what it means to strive for holiness.

I am not naïve. I understand our situation here is a complex one, and we do not have the luxury of pretending that we live in Toronto, New York, or London when it comes to relations between Jews and Arabs. But the time has come for us religious Zionists to put our foot down firmly on this issue of our treatment of Arabs. Violence, racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia are absolutely incompatible with the mission to be a holy people.

Religion must be part of the solution, a mechanism of human flourishing, and a source of life. And until religious Zionist rabbis, teachers, and parents can clearly call out such behavior and attitude for desecrating of God’s name, we are implicated not only in a terrible sin, but a dangerous colonization of our minds and language about what it means to revere God.

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is the director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and a senior fellow with The Philos Project.

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