Is religious Zionism in crisis? The 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and the Oslo peace process that preceded it, have shattered the movement’s territorial aspirations and distanced it from the Israeli mainstream. It’s a curious thing: How did this movement, passionately dedicated to grand ideas of both the Bible and nationalism, find itself savaged by critics as irrelevant fanaticism and bemoaned by its own adherents as a failure?
In the centuries before Zionism emerged, the Jewish people suffered not only persecutions and expulsions but also repeated messianic movements that dashed the hopes of the downtrodden. Those of Bar Kochba in the second century and Shabbatai Tzvi in the seventeenth are only two of the more famous. Jewish history is replete with such unfortunate episodes. (I live near a street named after the twelfth-century messianic pretender David Alroy. Only in Jerusalem do they name streets after false messiahs.)
Zionism emerged in the nineteenth century, promising to herald a new day in Jewish history, and perhaps we should not be surprised that many religious Jews at the time denounced it as a false harbinger, especially given its frequently antireligious leadership. The messiah will come when he comes, they asserted—so why should we expect him in the guise of a nonreligious movement? Such rejection of Zionism has ideological descendents today, including among the Ultra-Orthodox Israelis who refuse to serve in the army and the much smaller (and overexposed) group of anti-Zionists known as the Neturei Karta, who actively oppose the state’s existence.
But other religious Jews welcomed Zionism as an opportunity to emerge from their downtrodden political condition. For entirely pragmatic reasons, they supported the nascent nationalistic movement as a chance to break the bonds of exile and depravity. Their political party, Mizrahi, attended the Zionist congresses early in the twentieth century, with the party’s founding leader, Rabbi Isaac Reines (1839–1915), declaring: “Zionism is devoid of any trace of the idea of redemption. . . . The sole intention is to improve Israel’s situation, to raise their stature and accustom them to a life of happiness.” The party even supported the British plan to grant persecuted Russian Jews refuge in Uganda.
As the Jewish settlement in the Middle East evolved into a sovereign state, and its territories grew through the “miraculous” victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, a more messianic strand of Zionism gained support, drawing on the teachings and charisma of Rabbi Abraham Kook (1865–1935), a brilliant Talmudist and mystic philosopher whose writings proclaimed the inherent holiness of the land and its rightful inhabitants.
Perhaps this messianic effusion was inevitable, given the inherent tension experienced by Jews who, praying daily for redemption, found themselves arriving in Israel and tilling its soil. How else could one explain the miraculous return of Jewish sovereignty, particularly after the Holocaust?
Still, Jews correctly saw that the secular trope of a modern Israeli nation was hard to reconcile with the biblical account of redemption. The religious Zionists answered with a complex theology. In one of the essays in Religious Zionism Post Disengagement, a recent volume in Yeshiva University’s distinguished Orthodox Forum series, the scholar Dov Schwartz notes certain marks of this new theology. It contended, for instance, that Zionism marks the beginning of the ultimate redemption, in which the world will develop into a unique stage of moral and religious development.
Indeed, these religious Zionists thought, Israel’s secularism represents the mere husk of a genuinely religious core, which soon will be revealed through the redemptive process. Thus the settlement of the land, itself endowed with tremendous mystical significance, will help bring about the genuine renewal of the religious national spirit. As a result, any relinquishing of territory represents a rejection of the divine plan.
To be sure, religious Zionism remains multifaceted, with other strands minimizing its messianism or supporting territorial compromises for the sake of peace. Yet almost all strands of religious Zionism contain some latent messianic hopes for Israel, deeming it, in the weekly “Prayer for the State,” the “first flowering of our redemption.”
How, then, could religious Zionists not see withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank as a rejection—a repudiation—of the messianic vision? This was the Holy Land being abandoned, even while important portions of the increasingly secular Israeli population were adopting post-Zionistic ideologies and deriding religious ideologues as extremists. It seemed to beg the question: Was Zionism a false messianic movement, unable to bear the first fruits of redemption?
At the very least, religious Zionism faces a political crisis in Israel. Dov Schwartz perspicaciously notes that many adherents, consciously or otherwise, used the bravery and idealism of Israel’s modern settlement to create a “foundational myth” that would compensate for their perceived relegation to the periphery of Zionist history. This self-image now damaged, religious Zionists currently disagree about how to recapture a more influential place within the larger Israeli society. Some emphasize such values as education and social issues, while others stress continued work on settlements and inroads within the army’s upper echelons. This divide, in part, kept the two religious Zionist parties from uniting in the last elections.
Following the Gaza disengagement and the violent dispersal of the Amona outpost settlement, some commentators worried about a loss of faith (in both Judaism and the Israeli state) among the young—with a resulting decline in army enlistment and religious commitment. Undoubtedly, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow observes in Religious Zionism Post Disengagement, the emotionally laden theological questions following the Gaza withdrawal remain piercing. Religious leaders were labeled divided and ineffective, the state and military heads were indicted for incompetence and betrayal, and even God himself was accused of abandoning the righteous settlers who were displaced despite their tremendous sacrifices.
Nonetheless, in my rabbinic seminary I meet many young religious Zionists who remain committed. They continue to enlist in the army. Some, admittedly, do so in spite of their disillusionment with Israel’s leadership and direction. But the majority enlist out of a sense of loyalty to both the nation and the religious Zionist vision.
Given the possibility of further territorial compromises, and the recognition that the secularism of the larger population will not change anytime soon, the viability of the messianic vision remains the most vexing proposition. In Religious Zionism Post Disengagement, Moshe Koppel—and, to a lesser extent, Kalman Neuman—scathingly critique the messianism attached to religious Zionism, contending that it blinded believers to the realpolitik of both religious and military issues. Religious Zionism ought to have been pragmatically building coalitions and forging compromises on such issues as Jewish identity, civil marriage, and settlement blocs. Instead, the religious Zionist community counterproductively worked toward a mythical utopian state. Analysts such as Koppel and Neuman advocate a more realistic, nontheological strategy in which we patriotically work toward advancing the state, much as Poles loyally serve Poland.
These calls for a more pragmatic agenda invoke the policies not only of Rabbi Reines but also of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–1993), the famous American religious Zionist theologian who promoted a decidedly nonmessianic approach to Israel. Is this model viable for contemporary Israel? Some religious Zionists, particularly those less affiliated with the movement’s more prominent rabbinic ideologues, subtly believe in such a vision. Yet for those nationalists with stronger theological orientations, this model remains unlikely to capture their hearts and is an uncertain option for the near future.
One thing remains clear: Religious Zionism will not wither like other messianic movements. When Bar Kochba failed, thousands were killed and countless others were brutally displaced. When Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam, mass disillusionment and theological chaos ensued. Here in Israel, however, a basic fact will keep religious Zionists committed to the larger cause: Israel has successfully gathered millions of Jews, not only as a place of refuge but also as a homeland in which a modern-day democracy and economy sustain a vibrant Jewish culture.
Will this ultimately usher in the messianic era? I hope so, but God only knows. In the meantime, I thank him every day for the blessings he has afforded us. Perhaps this is the message that American religious Zionists should constantly bring to their Israeli brethren.
Rabbi Shlomo Brody, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, is online editor of Tradition and its blog Text & Texture.