Israels Election Empowers a More Muscular Religious Zionism

Posted By on December 18, 2022

HEBRON, West Bank The Jewish settlement in the city of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, where a few hundred Orthodox Jews live amid some 200,000 Palestinians, has long been seen as a bastion of the far-right settler movement on the fringes of Israeli society.

But after the Israeli election this month, an alliance of far-right parties, led by the Religious Zionism party reflecting the views of radical settlers, became the third-largest political force in Israel. The alliance, which also included the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, garnered more than 88 percent of the votes from the settlers in Hebron.

The alliance is now poised to become a key pillar of the coalition being put together by the right-wing prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu who received the official mandate on Sunday to form the next government raising fears among secular Israelis that religious and political extremism is entering the mainstream.

Religious Zionisms supporters hope the alliance will use its leverage to strengthen their idea of a Jewish state by, among other things, promoting conservative family values, preserving the sanctity of the Sabbath and applying Jewish sovereignty in parts of the West Bank, a territory the Palestinians claim for a future state and that Religious Zionism considers to be part of Greater Israel and refers to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

The Torah of Israel, the people of Israel and the Land of Israel those are the three flags of Religious Zionism, said Hananiya Shimon, 39, a father of seven who lives in one of the settler compounds scattered around Hebrons Tomb of the Patriarchs, the contested holy site that is venerated by Jews and by Muslims, who call it the Ibrahimi Mosque. The area is fully controlled by the Israeli Army.

During 2,000 years in exile, Mr. Shimon said, the religion is what kept us together.

The Religious Zionism party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, ran on a joint slate with the ultranationalist Jewish Power, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Noam, a small far-right Orthodox party opposed to L.G.B.T.Q. rights. That partnership was engineered by Mr. Netanyahu to maximize his blocs electoral potential in his bid to make his comeback, and represents the religious Zionists most hard-line political incarnation.

There has long been an internal battle within the Israeli religious Zionist community, said Tehila Friedman, a modern Orthodox lawyer and a former centrist member of Parliament. That battle has pit more liberal moderates who want to blend their Jewish tradition with humanistic values against other strident, opposing voices who view humanism as too progressive, she said. The hard-liners want to stick to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law in matters governed by the state.

A more moderate party representing the national religious settlers and public, Jewish Home, was wiped out this time, having lost the trust of its constituency after breaking promises it made in the last election, in 2021, and joining forces in a government with leftists and an Arab party. Surges of Arab terrorism and interethnic and criminal violence over the past 18 months have left many Israelis fearing for their personal security and also bolstered the hard-liners.

Given the lack of an alternative, Ms. Friedman said, The more moderate forces fell in line with the more extreme ones.

The Zionist national religious camp has also steadily become a bigger part of the Israeli mainstream in recent years in a concerted effort to integrate and have more of a say in Israels future.

Religious Zionists have reached the top ranks of the security establishment and the police, have made up a disproportionate number of the graduates of the militarys officers school, have bolstered their presence in Israels mixed Jewish-Arab cities and have developed an increasingly influential voice in the Israeli news media and culture.

We are a Jewish state, and its important that Religious Zionism be in the government and work for its Jewish character, said Rivka Ben Avraham, a teacher and mother of 10 who was volunteering at the Warm Corner, a rest stop for soldiers near her settlement in the Etzion Bloc, north of Hebron. At the same time, we are a democratic state, she said, and the religious Zionists are involved in all aspects of life here.

The religious Zionists include people of varying degrees of religiosity and different shades of mostly right-leaning politics. Estimates of the size of the community range from 10 percent to 30 percent of the Israeli population. A recent survey for the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group, found that about 15 percent of the male population define themselves as strictly observant Jews who support the idea of a Greater Israel.

Religious Zionism has roots in the decades before the state of Israel was established in 1948. One of its founding fathers, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, saw a Messianic calling in the creation of a Jewish state and embraced the avowedly secular, socialist pioneers who arrived at the beginning of the 20th century as its builders.

The National Religious Party, founded in 1956 to unite the religious Zionist electorate, sat in many governments and first focused on matters of religion and state. After Israels conquest of the biblical heartland of the West Bank, East Jerusalem with its holy sites and other territories in the 1967 war, religious Zionists spearheaded the efforts to settle the newly won lands, branding themselves as the next generation of Zionist pioneers.

Rabbi Kooks son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, made an impassioned address weeks before the war, lamenting the fact that Hebron, Jericho and other biblical sites in the West Bank were not under Jewish control. After the victory, and the Israeli occupation of those areas, some of his followers saw his words as a prophecy and the ideological settlement movement took on Messianic overtones.

The eventual goal of Mr. Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism party, is to impose full Jewish sovereignty over all of the territory, and, ultimately, for Israel to be governed by the laws of the Torah. He has refused to define deadly attacks on Palestinians as Jewish terrorism.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a religious Zionist leader at the Har Etzion Yeshiva, a seminary in the Etzion Bloc settlement of Alon Shvut, joined the settlement project early on. But he represents a voice of moderation and tolerance. In the decade after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish zealot, Rabbi Medan worked on a covenant for coexistence between religious and secular Jews in Israel.

This latest election Israels fifth in under four years has underscored the splits within the national religious camp and the rupture with the more liberal half of the country.

Rabbi Medan said he respected Mr. Smotrich, who has been a minister before, but said he had differences with his brand of religious Zionism. Mr. Ben-Gvirs Jewish Power is not religious Zionism, Rabbi Medan said, but rather a protest party against a lack of governance. Protest parties usually fizzle out, he added.

Rabbi Medan said he would prefer to give up some power by having a more left-leaning party join the emerging coalition, though he is no leftist, adding, I am willing to pay that price in the interest of national unity.

Other religious Zionists have embraced the partnership with Mr. Ben-Gvir, a resident of Hebron with a history of provocations and racism, who until recently hung a portrait in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli doctor who massacred 29 Muslim worshipers praying at the citys holy site in 1994.

Now that Jewish settlement is deeply entrenched across the West Bank, Mr. Smotrichs muscular form of Religious Zionism appears to have retrained its sights on changing Israel as a whole.

He is pushing for an overhaul of the judicial system to reduce oversight over politicians and give Parliament more power, which critics say would turn Israels liberal democracy into the rule of the Jewish majority.

He also wants to limit the scope of Israels Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to foreign Jews, as well as their children and grandchildren who may not qualify as Jews under Jewish law. And he has already demanded that the Israeli professional soccer leagues stop the few games that are still played during the Sabbath.

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox parties that focus more on building walls and securing budgets to protect the lifestyle of the Haredi minority, said Uri Keidar, the executive director of Be Free Israel, which promotes freedom of religion and pluralism, Religious Zionism aims to change the DNA of Israeli society, and not just stop Israeli society changing them.

We are getting to a dangerous point, Mr. Keidar said, but we will fight it and we will win.

Itamar Leshem, 39, who lives in Hebron and teaches at a yeshiva in the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba, said he hoped Religious Zionism would infuse the curriculum of Israels state secular schools with more Jewish traditions and undo the efforts of the departing government to liberalize the process of conversion to Judaism and promote gay rights.

Our values were trampled on, Mr. Leshem said, adding that he felt the departing government was insufficiently nationalist. The people of Israel have spoken.

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Israels Election Empowers a More Muscular Religious Zionism

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