The national religious community in Israel is poised, in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal, for at least the third major directional shift since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. What direction that change will take is far from clear, and is currently a topic of much debate in national religious circles. But that there will be such a shift seems beyond doubt.
The original national religious movement was closely allied to the general Zionist movement. In the words of historian Yosef Salomon, "The motives of religious Zionism were similar to those of the Zionist movement as a whole. Its proponents sought a solution to Jewish woes." The religious content appended to the Zionist idea "was merely supporting text." Salomon pithily summarizes the initial impulse as "Zionism for religious people, not religion for Zionists."
Religious Zionists viewed themselves as partners, albeit very junior ones, in the Labor Zionist movement. Rabbis had little say in the political activity of the movement, which, in return for the patina of Jewish trappings to the State – a chief rabbinate with control over issues of personal status, official observance of Shabbos and Jewish holidays as days of rest, and some level of kashrus in the army and other public institutions – took a largely accommodationist stance to the ruling authorities.
In the notorious affair of the Yeldai Teheran, for instance, Mizrachi basically sided with the Jewish Agency, on whose directorate it sat. Between 1939 and 1942 nearly 1,000 Polish children, between 80-90% of which came from religious homes in Poland, were brought to Palestine via Teheran. In the camps set up for them in Teheran by the Jewish Agency, they were fed non-kosher food, prevented from any religious observance, and denied all access to European rabbis then in Teheran.
When the children arrived in Palestine, they were divided into 11 camps, eight run by secular movements and 3 by Mizrachi. Though Agudath Israel had prepared 600 places for the children, not one was placed under its auspicies. In response to this blatant soul-snatching, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog called for a boycott of all Diaspora contributions to the Jewish Agency. In response, some in the Jewish Agency threatened to cut off all funding for the Chief Rabbinate, a call that was echoed by the Mizrachi representative on the Jewish Agency executive.
THREE EVENTS DRAMATICALLY CHANGED the course of religious Zionism between 1967 and 1977. The first was Israel's miraculous victory in the Six Day War, in the course of which the historic heartland of Jewish people came under Israeli control. Shortly thereafter began the movement to settle that heartland, even in the midst of areas densely populated with Arabs. The lightning victory of 1967 made it easy to read history as if it were moving rapidly towards the messianic era. That reading was most evident in the writings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, head of Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. Rabbi Kook invested the state with immense theological significance. He spoke frequently of the "holiness of the state," a holiness that was in no way contingent on the Torah observance of its citizenry.
Of course, the potential for messianism had always lurked within national religious thought. By terming the state of Israel, "the first flowering of the Redemption," Mizrachi had, in effect, proclaimed history to be moving into a new stage, something typical of all messianic movements in Jewish history. Nor was the central focus on the Land, as an outgrowth of the settlement movement, completely new. The first religious Zionists had been largely agrarian, and the slogan of Mirzrachi – the Land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the Torah of Israel – gave pride of place to the Land. (Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz once remarked that the elements of the slogan were all right but in reverse order. It should have been: the Torah of Israel for the People of Israel in the Land of Israel.)
But both the belief in the imminence of the messianic age and the centrality of the Land became much more pronounced after 1967. For the next three decades, the best energies of the national religious movement went into the settlement enterprise.
The trauma inflicted on the traditional elites by the Yom Kippur War provided a further boost to the sense of national religious youth of themselves as the vanguard of Israeli society. Within the IDF, hitherto dominated by products of the kibbutzim, young men wearing kippot serugot came to dominate the junior officer's corps. From being the junior members of the Zionist movement, religious Zionists came to see themselves as its leaders – indeed as the last true Zionists.
The election of Menachem Begin in 1977 marked the final collapse of the old elites. For the first time since 1948, Labor did not control the government, the Histadrut Labor Federation's control over the economy was past history, and the kibbutzim were increasingly in a state of collapse.
On the night of Begin's victory, David Luchins came to visit Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University in New York and the long-time head of the American Mizrachi movement. He expected Rabbi Soloveitchik to be in a state of elation. He found just the opposite, and asked Rabbi Soloveitchik why he looked so morose.
The latter replied that until now Mizrachi had always clearly understood its role within Israeli society - a brake on a car careening downhill away from all Jewish identity. But Begin, he said, speaks our language. He talks of Eretz Yisrael Hashleimah; he punctuates his speech with "Baruch Hashem." Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed his fear that Begin's words would have an intoxicating effect on national religious youth, and cause them to see themselves as part of the mainstream of Israeli society.
The awakening from that long period of intoxication has now come to pass, leaving a painful hangover. On the theological level, religious Zionists feel betrayed by the very state that they invested with holiness. The withdrawal from Gaza forebodes an even more painful withdrawal from history-drenched areas of Judea and Samaria. Though Mashiach may still come tomorrow, it is no longer possible to read recent history as a blueprint for his imminent arrival.
On the sociological level, the religious settlers have discovered that they are a vanguard with no followers. They may be the supreme Zionists, but Israeli society today has little interest in Zionism, and certainly none of the original pioneering zeal, which the settlers exemplified. For many secular Israelis, the settlers have supplanted the chareidim as public enemy number one. (We shall discuss in coming weeks the fear of religious Jews that permeates secular elites today.)
In the aftermath of the dramatic reversals it has suffered by virtue of the Gaza withdrawal, there are many calls within the national religious world for charting a new course. Communal self-examination is taking place at many levels. Some of that rethinking is political. The question is being asked: Why was the national religious public unable to win over the Israeli body politic to oppose the Gaza withdrawal, even in light of the immense security concerns attendant to that withdrawal?
But the self-critique is also directed to first principles. Some are challenging the long-standing intellectual dominance of Mercaz HaRav over national religious thought. The call upon religious soldiers to refuse to participate in the uprooting by former of former Chief Rabbi and long-time Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, went almost unheeded and encountered some fierce intellectual opposition as well.
Some younger national religious rabbis have urged a return to a more pragmatic, less theological, approach to the State. They would define themselves as religious Jews, who also happen to be Zionists, in the sense that they view the creation of the state as a pragmatic solution to some of the travails of Jewish history. That, interestingly, appears close to the position of Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, as described by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman in Tradition Magazine. Rabbi Soloveitchik, according to his nephew, consistently spoke of the state in practical, not theological, terms.
Whether this will become the dominant intellectual approach within religious remains to be seen. Likely, it will be one of a wide variety of different approaches fermented by the Gaza withdrawal.