Israel’s leadership will become increasingly religious
By Emunah Elon | 01/10/2009
Emunah Elon sketches out a scenario, in which the religious public assumes an increasingly larger proportion of the Israeli population, and consequently takes an increasingly larger role in national leadership. It is from this perspective that she Emunah Elon: “No longer a subtenant of the
opposed the call on Israeli secular state". Illustration by Miri Garmizo
soldiers to refuse to obey orders
An increasing number of religious Israelis are no longer satisfied to play second fiddle to secular action. They want to be at the vanguard of action, too, with the declared aim of not only integrating but also of leading and steering; they want not only to join in, but also to influence and shape
In the not-too-distant future, religious Zionism will cease to be a mere subtenant of the secular State of Israel
The situation has changed considerably since the distant days when we used to count skullcaps on the bus, in the media and among the top army brass. Still, religious Zionism has yet to break free of its self-image as a second-rate minority that lives on the margins of Israeli society. There are too many skullcaps among army officers today to even begin counting, and the same goes
for all the major civilian systems; nevertheless, even now many of us do not feel validated until we receive a secular pet on our covered heads. It is as if nothing has changed since the days when we were shamefaced outsiders barely able to contain our joy at the unforgettable article by the late Moshe Shamir, “The Generation of Knitted Skullcaps”, published in the early 1970s. As if nothing has happened here since the days when we would blush with pleasure at a compliment coming from a “real” Israeli, preferably a kibbutznik, preferably from Hashomer Hatza'ir (the secular left-wing youth movement), who might say that we are actually pretty nice people; or since we used to virtually melt with joyous vindication every time some public iconoclast, preferably a celebrity, arrived at the conclusion that there is a God.
It has been a long time since Israelis who are both Zionists and religiously observant were a dispossessed sector of the population in need of a party to protect its interests. But our self-image as being somehow inferior to the secular majority causes many of us to continue to vote for the National Religious Party (NRP), not for ideological reasons, but simply because the banner of that party is the knitted skullcap. It is no longer rare to see knitted-skullcap-wearing politicians elected to “regular” parties, where they are able to influence Israeli reality – including state-religious education – more effectively than they could as part of the NRP. Nevertheless, many religious-Zionist politicians still insist on crowding into the NRP's political ghetto, where they can aspire at most to a position as minister of social-welfare or housing. They prefer to continue to maintain the party's “historic covenant” with the ruling parties at the top rather than trying to reach the top themselves. Many religiously-observant Israelis function at work or in their army service like everyone else, without feeling intimidated or inferior, while many others accept a status of being a dos mahmad – a pet or token religious person, a term coined by the journalist Uri Orbach – unjustly shunted to their narrow religious-rightist niche, as if it is taken for granted that their being religious is all they are.
The stigma of belonging to a minority is not always the fault of the religious: Israeli society tends to deny skullcap-wearers an individual identity, viewing them first and foremost as representatives of a sector. This is the case in the media, the legal system, politics and many other areas of life, to the point of laying responsibility for the crime committed by Yigal Amir at the door of the entire skullcap-wearing public in Israel. This triggered a hysterical response on the part of some “pet religious people”, who, in their eagerness for secular recognition, hurried in November 1995 to remove the skullcap from their heads, and have still not put it back on, lest they be suspected of being assassins of prime ministers.
Along with these sorts of pathetic phenomena, we are witnessing a new trend in the religious-Zionist public: some people are turning their religiousness from a weakness to a strength, from the disadvantage of belonging to a second-rate minority to the advantage of being members of a high-quality elite. However, this process has only just begun. An increasing number of religious Israelis are no longer satisfied to play second fiddle to secular action; they want to be at the vanguard of action, too, with the declared aim of not only integrating but also of leading and steering; they want not only to join in, but also to influence and shape.
As of now, however, it is doubtful whether the public at large – including a large proportion of the religious public – is aware of the significance of this phenomenon. Examples such as the high-quality Makor Rishon newspaper, which set out to establish a new criterion for the Israeli press in general, or the Jewish Leadership Movement, which is working to gain influence over the entire country from within the Likud party, are still perceived as intriguing curiosities rather than part of a historic trend. To say nothing of the veteran Gush Emunim movement, which was founded not only to move national-religious life from one geographic location to another, but to shape the map of the state and its political agenda. However, in particular after the disengagement from Gush Katif, many now view it as no more than a passing “messianic” caprice.
Israelis interested in preparing for the future should get used to the fact that in the years to come, an increasing number of individuals identified with religious Zionism will be among the leaders of the country. The religious public has begun to internalize the fact that secular Zionism has completed its role, especially since the Oslo dream of “peace” shattered into the war of the past years. Israeli society can argue as much as it likes for and against withdrawal from the “occupation” of 1967, but the Palestinians have already made it patently clear to us, through both words and terrorist attacks, that such a withdrawal will not satisfy them unless it is also accompanied by their “right of return”, a concept that means only one thing: Israel's withdrawal from the “occupation” of 1948. In other words, if the Zionist movement is not founded on the “religious” basis of the divine promise to our ancestors, it has no raison d'etre in Judea and Samaria or within the boundaries of the Green Line, either. It is becoming increasingly clear, even if not everyone will admit it yet, that only the Torah can justify the ingathering of Jews of the past 150 years from all over the world to the heart of the Middle East, and the price – which all would agree has been heavy – that the Arab inhabitants of the land have been forced to pay.
Comparison between the grandmothers' descendants
Another, more prosaic reason for the fact that Israel can expect to see more religious leaders in the foreseeable future has to do with numbers. Although it may be considered crass to discuss these numbers and some non-religious Israelis probably shudder at the very thought, the fact is that the percentage of religious and “ultra-Orthodox” Jews in the country is simply growing by leaps and bounds from one year to the next. An acquaintance recently suggested a comparison between the number of descendants of my late grandmother who currently live in Israel with the number of Israeli descendants of the grandmother of any of my secular friends. Like it or not, the conclusions drawn from such a comparison present a fairly clear picture of the demography of Israeli Jewish society in another ten or twenty years, even without taking into consideration religious immigration to Israel from the United States and Western Europe. While these calculations should under no circumstances allow religious Zionism to become arrogant or smug, they should awaken it to prepare for the future or at the very least, to start shedding its self-image as a minority that has to watch its step.
If not for that self-image as a weak minority, certain members of the religious-Zionist community would not have threatened, as they did before the disengagement, to “disengage” from the army and from the state. A community preparing to take a central role in the leadership of the country must act with full national responsibility. It cannot afford to battle the existing government through extremist means, the use of which only fringe minorities can afford. Actions such as soldiers refusing orders in the army irreversibly vitiate governmental authority, potentially undermining future leadership no less than the present leadership. This could endanger the very existence of our young Jewish state, which is just as dear to the opponents of disengagement (and some might claim even more) as it is to those who support further territorial withdrawals and uprooting of settlements.
A community that expects to playa major role in its country's leadership must do whatever it can to safeguard the existence of the state, its ethos and the safety of its citizens. In the world of contemporary Torah-observant Israelis (even if not tainted by a “messiah complex”, in the perception of the secular Zionist Ariel Sharon), all these matters are related to the Biblical redemption process of which the return to Zion of the past 150 years is part. But at the same time, it must be careful not to unravel the delicate fabric of the basic Israeli lifestyle. It must observe the rules of democracy, safeguard the unity of the nation and consider the international feasibility of its national aspirations – because without all of these things, our state will not be able to persevere, and the vision of the prophets will not have a place in which to be realized.
In the not-too-distant future, religious Zionism will cease to be a mere subtenant of the secular State of Israel. In preparation for that change, we must stop behaving like mendicants begging for a room in a building that is already, standing, and start acting as if we are prepared – alongside the existing landlords and one day, perhaps, as a chief landlord – to bear the onerous yet exciting burden of managing this beloved building, and reestablishing it anew each day.
Emunah Elon is a columnist and author