Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was presented to the world as a strategic bid to enhance prospects for peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Proponents of the move argued that removing all Israeli civilians and military personnel from Gaza would take away the source of Palestinian grievances. Once fully appeased, the Palestinians would be forced to behave responsibly, abjure terrorism and build their state — first in Gaza, and then in Judea and Samaria as well.
This was the pretext of Israel’s withdrawal. But it wasn’t the subtext. The subtext of the withdrawal – telegraphed to both Israelis and the international community – was that the withdrawal would cause the demise of Religious Zionism at the hands of the leftist progeny of Labor Zionists. That is, the operation wasn’t about peace with the Arabs. It was about cultural supremacy within Israel.
In the countdown to the withdrawal, the Palestinians did everything they could to make clear that the move would not enhance the chances for peace. They triumphantly declared that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to expel Gaza’s Jews was an admission that Israel had been defeated by the Palestinians. Hamas was ascendant and both Hamas and Fatah declared repeatedly that they would continue their terror war until all of Israel was destroyed. And as the pretext crumbled, the subtext became more prominent.
Haaretz editorialized six weeks before the expulsion of Gaza’s 8,000 Jews, “The disengagement of Israeli policy from its religious fuel is the real disengagement currently on the agenda. On the day after the disengagement, religious Zionism’s status will be different. The real question is not how many mortar shells will fall, or who will guard the Philadelphi route [connecting Gaza with Egypt], or whether the Palestinians will dance of the roofs of Ganei Tal. The real question is who sets the national agenda.”
Religious Zionist leaders were in a horrible bind. If they responded to the demands of their own people and fought fire with fire, they knew – given the Left’s control of the media – they would be demonized for years to come. And they knew that if the Left succeeded in destroying their reputation among rank and file Israelis, they would be powerless to defend Judea and Samaria.
So in the end, Religious Zionist leaders disappointed their followers, making do with mass protests in the countdown to the expulsions and then allowed the IDF to carry out the expulsions largely unchallenged. While they failed to save Gaza’s Jews from internal exile, they at least succeeded in preventing the demise of Religious Zionism as a political and social force in Israel.
Their success was acknowledged by Haaretz. In the weeks that followed the expulsions, Haaretz columnist Orit Shochat bemoaned the fact that the campaign against Religious Zionism had not succeeded. As she put it, “Soldiers who experienced the evacuation won’t travel to an ashram in India because they discovered that there is an ashram next door. The same Jewish religion that they hadn’t seen up close for a long time embraces them into its fold with a song and a tear for a common fate. They have now sat arm-in-arm at the synagogues in Gush Katif, they have now felt the holiness mixed in sweat, they have now moved rhythmically and sung songs. They have stood in line to kiss the Torah scrolls. They are now half-inside.”
Zionism’s revolutionary message to Jewry was that after 2,000 years of powerlessness, Jews would again become actors on the global stage. But Zionism has many movements and not all of them are equally revolutionary. The two most significant Zionist movements today are Labor Zionism and Religious Zionism.
The inherent weakness of Labor Zionism is that it was never aimed specifically at enabling Jews to be Jews. Rather, its purpose was to enable Jews to be socialists. Understanding that the anti-Semitic climate in Europe in the early 20th century rendered Jewish assimilation into a larger socialist sea impossible, Labor Zionists argued that by establishing a Jewish state Jews would be “normalized” and accepted as regular people and socialists by the nations of the world. That is, Labor Zionism’s message was assimilation on a national level rather than on an individual one since conditions in Europe precluded individual assimilation.
Labor Zionists have been confounded by the endurance of anti-Semitism and its transformation of Israel, though anti-Zionism, into the International Jew. The world’s refusal to accept Israel as an equal has been shattering for them. It has caused Labor Zionists to abandon Zionism in the hopes that by doing so they will finally be accepted as equals by the nations of the world. At its core, Labor Zionism is outward seeking rather than inward looking.
In contrast, Religious Zionism is inward looking. It seeks to turn Jews into actors on the international stage as Jews. It also seeks to make Judaism responsive to the imperatives of an empowered people as it was responsive to the imperatives of Jews as a powerless people during the generations of exile. Because of its specific message to Jews as Jews, Religious Zionism is a pure revolutionary ideology.
Religious Zionists are a finger in the eye of the Labor Zionists for their stubborn devotion to Judaism and their relative indifference to whether Israel is accepted by the anti-Semites of the world. And Labor Zionists are not alone in their angry rejection of Religious Zionism’s message. They are joined by the non-Zionist religious establishment.
The non-Zionist religious establishment feels threatened by Religious Zionism’s attempts to reinvest Judaism with its nationalist mission for the Jewish nation. And, unfortunately, the non-Zionist religious establishment is joining forces with the Labor Zionist establishment to attack Religious Zionism.
In early May, a panel of three non-Zionist rabbinic judges on Jerusalem’s High Rabbinic Court published a ruling in a divorce case declaring all the thousands of conversions carried out under the auspices of Religious Zionist Rabbi Chaim Druckman, and the state’s Conversion Authority he headed, null and void. The court argued that Druckman did not investigate sufficiently whether the converts were committed to observing all the mitzvot. Piling on to the non-Zionist establishment’s act, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week removed Druckman from his position as head of the Conversion Authority.
Both Rabbi Avraham Sherman, who wrote the rabbinical high court’s decision, and Druckman’s fellow Religious Zionist rabbis agree that the dispute is an attack on Religious Zionism’s view of the role of religion in Israel rather than a strictly halachic disagreement. In his ruling, Sherman wrote of Druckman and his Religious Zionist colleagues in the Conversion Authority, “All these rabbis have one thing in common. They all see in conversion a sacred commandment as part of their national responsibility…. In other words, the conversion is not primarily the spiritual and religious need of the individual convert who wishes to join the Jewish people and accept upon himself all the commandments. Rather, conversion is a means of improving the spiritual situation of the entire Jewish nation living in Israel. It is a way of bringing Jews closer to their Judaism.”
The Religious Zionist movement is up in arms over the ruling, which its leaders are calling an act of aggression and halachic malfeasance. Rabbi Yuval Che
rlow, who heads the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikvah and is considered a leading rabbinic authority in Religious Zionist circles, called Sherman’s ruling “a desecration of God’s name” and said that if it is not overturned he would set up independent conversion courts outside the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate.
Between the Labor Zionists’ attempts to destroy Religious Zionism politically, and the non-Zionist rabbinic leadership’s attempts to demonize it religiously, Religious Zionism has been under tremendous pressure in recent years. One can only hope its leaders will have the wisdom to persevere. Israel and the Jewish people need Religious Zionism more than anyone will ever admit.
Originally published in The Jewish Press.