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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2005, pages 54-55

Judaism and Israel

Religious Zionism Suffers a Crisis of Faith In Wake of Israeli Withdrawal

By Allan C. Brownfeld

Right-wing Israeli yeshiva students listen to their rabbi, Daniel Hacohen Stavesky, in the northern West Bank settlement of Homesh Aug. 22. After residents of the illegal settlement were evacuated as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, Israeli soldiers demolished all the buildings before withdrawing in mid-September (AFP Photo/Menahem).

ISRAEL'S withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank has prompted an emotional and ideological self-examination for many religious Zionists who, for three decades, believed that by expanding settlements they were reclaiming the nation’s biblical birthright and hastening the Messianic age. When Israel won control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights in the l967 Six-Day War, religious Zionists interpreted it as proof of their ideology.

According to some religious Zionists, such as Rabbi Yisrael Rosen of the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, leaving the settlements over the Green Line and returning to Israel proper means “going into exile.”

In its Sept. 5 edition, The Jerusalem Report noted: “The disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank has undermined the relationship of many in the religious Zionist camp with the state they viewed as the vehicle for the Jewish people’s redemption. As their shock and sense of betrayal deepen, the community faces gripping questions of where to turn and what to believe...After Sharon’s pronouncement l8 months ago, displays of religious fury with the state escalated. Pro-settler rabbis called on Orthodox soldiers to disobey orders connected with the withdrawal. Spiritual leaders delivered sermons questioning the secular state’s authority to give up parts of the divinely granted homeland. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu declared that the disengagement simply would not happen. Orthodox women held nightly vigils at the Western Wall; tens of thousands prayed for miracles. But the prayers weren’t answered...and the Whole Land of Israel idea has been repudiated by the state—which religious Zionists have seen as sacred and as a divine vehicle for fulfillment of Biblical prophecy—the crisis has only deepened.”

Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal has sketched out four separate paths that this fractured community may take: A minority of religious Zionists, he predicts, will perceive the clash over the disengagement as a “culture war between Jews and Hellenizers, meaning gays or Russian immigrants.” Sensing that living in Israel is some form of “internal exile,” this minority will move toward ultra-Orthodoxy. Next, Halbertal says, a small extremist apocalyptic group will be determined to “force the redemption” by any means—even deliberately provoking a confrontation with the Muslim world. A third group is likely to start a “type of New Age a replacement for the failed philosophy” of redemption through settling the land. The fourth, and largest, sector, according to Halbertal, will “not break the bond with mainstream Israel.” His evidence is that the heads of the majority of hesder yeshivot, which combine military service with religious studies, did not support the call of some influential rabbis to disobey army orders to take part in the pullout.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a leading Orthodox dove and Israel’s former deputy minister of diaspora affairs, told the Sept. 9 Forward: “They [religious Zionists] feel that what is being done is to crush the ethos, the narrative of religious Zionism. It is seen as a breach of the narrative that goes into all fields of life, even theology.” According to this view, Melchior said, “Sharon is interfering with the messianic process.”

So extreme are some religious Zionists that one prominent opponent of disengagement, former Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, preached a sermon in which he concluded that Hurricane Katrina was punishment from God in response to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the Bush administration’s support for this policy. Katrina, he went on to say, was retribution not only for the Gaza withdrawal, but because black Americans do not study Torah. According to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot, the rabbi declared: “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study. Black people reside [in New Orleans]. Blacks will study Torah? [God said] let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”

More and more, religious Zionists view Israeli society itself as the enemy of their own dream of a Greater Israel and their messianic vision. Notes Dr. Evan Kaplan, assistant professor of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati, and author of the book The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and Its Ideological Legacy, “The hard-line national religious settlers view current Israeli society as a community on the verge of internal collapse. According to Hanan Porat, one of the leading ideologues of the national religious camp, ”˜Israeli society is experiencing a crisis: a desolate and divided political situation, an extreme polarization, declining morals, the undermining of concerns, weakness of mind, flabbiness of action...The settlers in the frontier of the hills of Judea and Samaria, on the other hand, are perceived by the national religious ideologues as the only ones who keep the Zionist torch of commitment to and self-sacrifice for the cause alive...The ideological settlers, who view history from a messianic perspective, would probably eschew any sort of pragmatic compromise. Their ultimate battle with the Israeli government would be their Armageddon.”

“As often happens in messianic movements,” argues author Gershom Gorenberg, “initial disappointments lead many believers to redouble their fervor. The desire to push away doubt, to prove it’s really happening, powered Gush Emunim and its push to settle in the territories. Making land the highest value warped religious Zionism. An early Gush Emunim platform declared that Israel should take a ”˜resolute’ military policy, ”˜not deterred by “moral” or political considerations.’ A Judaism that puts ”˜moral’ in quotation marks deepened the alienation of other Israelis from their religion...In the end, getting over messianism is getting over group mania...In ordinary history, there’s a better chance of measuring how Jewish the state is by how it helps its poor, how it treats its sick, rather than what land it holds.”

Jerusalem Report contributing editor Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky wrote in its Sept. 5 issue, “The uncomplicated identification of the Torah of the Land of Israel with the increasingly sectoral project of settling the West Bank and Gaza has proven to be not only a poor guide to the concrete realities facing us, but has corrupted the power and beauty of the idea of the Land of Israel itself. On the other hand, the Jewish book-shelf actually groans with Hilkhot Galut, or tales of exile, and we have much to learn from that library. The painfully learned and deeply compelling lessons of the Jewish people’s millennia of exile—skepticism toward power, the moral perspective of the outsider, the deep awareness of complexity, the recognition that one’s dreams will not be fulfilled tomorrow—all these have been steadily vanishing not only from religious Zionism, but from much of Israeli society and culture as a whole. It is time all of us, religious and secular alike, learn those lessons anew.”

Rabbi Elisha Aviner, a teacher at the Ma’ale Adumim yeshivah and pulpit rabbi of a large modern Orthodox congregation in the settlement’s Mitzpeh Nevo neighborhood, predicts that the disengagement will “crush the dynamism and spirit” of religious Zionism. “What is Ariel Sharon doing?” he asks. “Between the Arabs, Russian new immigrants, ultra-Orthodox and post-Zionists, who believes in Zionism these days?”

Jewish Opposition to Zionism

The fact is that, from the very beginning, Zionism has met strong opposition from both religious and secular Jews.

This long tradition of opposition to Jewish nationalism is described in “The Anti-Zionists,” an article in the August 2005 Moment. Reports author Liel Liebovitz, “My great-grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, had been a fervent anti-Zionist. The leader of the Orthodox community in pre-state Israel, he had gone to great lengths to persuade the Arabs that the Zionist settlers did not represent the Jewish community at large. In 1924, he had even met with Jordan’s King [Abdullah]. True Jews, he told the king, and anybody else who would listen, realized that a Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel could be rebuilt only by God. My great-grandfather was far from an anomaly; Orthodox leaders the world over once shared his views. Even today, some Hasidic groups, especially the powerful Satmar sect, vehemently oppose the state of Israel. The tiny—but vocal—Naturei Karta, descended from Hungarian Jews who settled in Jerusalem during the l9th century, go so far as to collaborate with Israel’s avowed enemies.

“To complicate matters,” continues Leibovitz, “there are Jews on the opposite end of the religious spectrum who oppose Zionism for entirely different reasons. Under banners such as Marxism, humanism or post-colonialism, they advocate stripping the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River of specific Jewish characteristics. Later, when I finished my [Israeli] army service and moved to New York, I would encounter this alternative universe of Jews who believed a Jewish state was a mistake, including Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and other high-profile Jewish academics...”

From the beginning, the idea of Jewish nationalism met strong Jewish resistance: “An opposition movement emerged, led by stringently Orthodox rabbis...[who] held that a nation-state in Eretz Israel could be restored only by divine providence, and only after all Jews were living in strict accordance with halachic law. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a prominent l9th century German rabbi, warned his flock that Jewish autonomy had always led to disaster. He cited the Bar-Kochba revolt, a failed second century Jewish uprising against the Romans, as a ”˜disastrous error,’ an all-time reminder that ”˜Israel must never again attempt to restore its national independence by its own power.’”

In the U.S., Liebovitz writes, “The Reform movement opposed Zionism in its founding document, the Pittsburgh Platform of l885, which declared that Reform Jews were ”˜no longer a nation, but a religious community,’ and that they expected ”˜neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

In Israel, as well, Liebovitz notes, there are many who challenge the state’s Zionist orthodoxy, citing Uri Avnery and his Gush Shalom movement, who prefer to call themselves “post-Zionists.” In a 1971 book entitled Israel Without Zionism, Avnery proposed establishing a “Semitic Union” between Jews and Arabs that would end the “Zionist chapter” in history.

Now, in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal and increasing pressure to leave the West Bank, the whole edifice of religious Zionism appears to be crumbling. For those interested in genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians, this is surely a positive development.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.