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October 27, 2016 / 25 Tishri, 5777
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Divided, Not Defeated

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Are we witnessing the impending demise of religious Zionism? There is no denying that the disengagement process has had a particularly devastating impact on religious settlers and others who believe they must choose between obeying God’s will or adhering to democratic norms.

Politically, religiously, and emotionally, the vast majority of religious nationalists are understandably opposed to Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan. But, regrettably, a minority of radical rabbis has succeeded in transforming a political debate – with religious overtones – into stringent halachic edicts.

This green light has encouraged extremists to challenge the authority of the state, including calls on soldiers to refuse to obey orders and threats to resort to violence.

The crisis has its origins in what is glibly described as the messianically inspired Gush Emunim movement, which allegedly hijacked the National Religious Party (NRP) after the Six Day War. Analogies are made with the kibbutz movement of half a century ago, which trail-blazed the settlement of wastelands. Now religious settlers, threatened with being displaced from communities lovingly built up over generations, are becoming bitter and disillusioned.

It is also alleged that, like their Modern Orthodox counterparts, moderate religious Zionists are becoming an extinct species, their philosophy drained of passion.

It is undeniable that, over the years, many impressionable youngsters in certain hesder and other yeshivot were indoctrinated into rejecting enlightenment and modernity and embracing both extreme nationalism and ultra-Orthodoxy.

It is also true that the NRP lost its bearings, becoming transformed into a one-dimensional party concentrating exclusively on the land and positioning itself on the far right of the political spectrum. It even neglected its primary obligation to promote the Jewish character of the state and Jewish values in the educational system.

Paradoxically, it was an NRP leader, the late Yosef Burg, who confided to me years ago his fear that isolated Jewish settlements surrounded by a sea of Arabs radiating fanatical hatred would inevitably have to be abandoned. Otherwise Israelis living in these areas would themselves become infected by the poisonous climate of intense hatred and evil.

Were he alive today I believe the elder Burg would support the concept of separation but strongly oppose disengagement outside the framework of a negotiated settlement and in the absence of reciprocity.

Equally, I believe he would endorse the calls for a referendum or new elections.

It would represent a major blow to the nation if the national religious camp collapsed. At all levels of society, religious Zionists formed the cement binding Israelis together, and represented the only group having the capacity to act a bridge between the secular and haredi streams.

I believe that while there will undoubtedly be some disillusioned dropouts, and in the short term a divided NRP will probably lose support, the doomsday predictions of an impending disintegration of religious Zionism cannot be substantiated.

Contrary to the image projected by the media, radicals represent only a minority of religious Zionists. Moreover, haredim are inching closer toward nationalism than ever before. While many haredim still do not sing Hatikva, the shrill rhetoric against the Zionist state is all but over.

Even Aguda has overcome its former reluctance to directly participate in government. These trends should accelerate because economic and social forces will oblige haredim to become more engaged in earning livelihoods, bringing about greater involvement in society and – we can hope – even culminating with some form of army service.

While moderate religious Zionists who did not share the vision of Gush Emunim have already left the NRP in droves, most of them remained committed to its precepts. Even as they joined other parties they continued to represent a major religious Zionist force in Israeli society.

Isi Leibler

About the Author: Isi Leibler is a veteran international Jewish leader with a distinguished record of contributions to the Jewish world and the cause of human rights. His articles are carried in media venues around the world.

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