The Rise of the Religious Right in Israel

Book Review M. Eliany

Cosmic Fear: The Rise of the Religious Right in Israel
Greenfield Tzvia
2001 Miskal – Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books, Tel Aviv (Hebrew)


Objecting and antagonist orthodox Jews tend not to support a secular Jewish state, which engages in bringing about national redemption pro-actively. According to these groups if Jews follow Torah precept, a Divine peace will reign upon the land of Israel (Leviticus 26:3-6). They wish to derail Zionist nation building and accept life in exile as long as divine redemption does not take place (p.35).

Zionists reinterpreted Judaism in light of their own time, i.e., redefining man as a proactive agent responsible for his personal and national redemption, while orthodox Jewry subjects man to the will of God and divine redemption (Hertzel ??”?; Greenfield, 2001: p.57, 68, 70). Zionism sought to transform newcomers, not only to make political gains but also to reshape the way individual Jews think and behave (Greenfield, 2001: p.73). Labour Zionism, which was characterized by authoritarianism at its onset, contained the seeds of its own destruction since it empowered its members to rebel and seek personal and national redemption simultaneously (Greenfield, 2001: p.75).

Orthodox nationalists support Zionists’ nation building as a preliminary step that precedes divine redemption. They support Liberal Conservatives (i.e., Likud) who opt for expanding Israel beyond its 1967 borders, hoping that an orthodox nationalist agenda will prevail at the end of the road. However, as expansionist policies are associated with political, cultural and economic isolation, as well as with militarism, Liberal conservatives could not sustain such policies and forgo economic development, democracy and international integration (p.36). As a consequence, orthodox nationalists used threats (i.e., civil war) to force Liberal Conservatives to maintain expansion policies (p.88-89). Orthodox nationalists do not accept the reality that a compromise may be necessary to bring about peace and security.

As orthodox nationalists succeeded in shaping Liberal Conservatives policies in terms of settlements expansion and as settlements beyond Israel’s 1967 borders provided cheap housing to all orthodox Yeshiva students, objecting and antagonist orthodox groups joined the bandwagon of expansion, although it contradicts rabbinic rulings relating to rebellious behaviour, hoping that their success would produce a viable alternative to secular Zionism (Greenfield, 2001: p.90). But here, orthodox Jews faced some shortcomings. Some acquired military success. Some made gains in politics. But most had only rabbinic studies to rely on and remained dependent on rabbinic authorities. In other words, orthodox Jewry leadership realized it was short of relevant talent to bring about national redemption, especially in a world of modernity. Thus, they wondered how and why God brought redemption in the hands of secular rather than in the hands of orthodox Israelis. And in order to diminish the success of the first, orthodox Jews point to the failure to provide security inside Israel (i.e., war and Intifadas) and externally to Jews around the world (i.e., terror). They also lent support to the most conservative elements in the Likud (i.e., Netanyahu), in its attempt to ‘dismantle’ the secular Zionist enterprise (i.e., privatization). Orthodox nationalists attribute the success of Zionists and Israel to miracles and divine intent and believe that they are destined to take over the leadership of nation building according to God’s will (Greenfield, 2001: p.91-101).

Greenfield suggests that orthodox Jews missed the opportunity to take part in Zionist nation building because of their rejection of modernity as a defensive measure. Orthodox Jews expect secular Jews to return to the sources to bridge the gap (i.e., return to orthodoxy). She also suggests that secular Zionists need to acknowledge the centrality of Jewish identity to Israel and that efforts in this direction are as important as the struggle for peace with Arab neighbours. Yet she believes that common grounds could be found among all sides, including Arabs, only around the re-focussing of traditions on individual needs and individual rights (p.102-115).

Orthodox Jews have grown to depend on rabbinic interpretation to a point that individual views are suppressed. Rabbinic traditions find support to the primacy of their authority in the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:8-11). But the fear of rabbis to deviate from tradition kept them tied to past interpretations without being able to make Judaism relevant to contemporary needs (p.116-123). Streams in orthodox Jewry became attached to sectarian historical traditions (i.e., Hassidim and Opponents, and more recently some Sephardim) leading to mutual exclusion and discrimination (i.e., in marriage, education, rabbinic authority and politics). This tendency for mutual exclusion led to the development of a Sephardi orthodox stream as a reaction to Ashkenazi rejection (i.e., Shass. Subsequently, Shass also succeeded attracting votes on non-religious Sephardi voters when the Likud, like Labour before, failed to integrate them or represent them adequately) (p.124-135).

The success of Shass to play an active role in Israeli politics encouraged other orthodox Ashkenazi streams to do the same. Thus a younger generation of orthodox objectionists and antagonists adopted a pro-active role in establishing ‘Degel HaTorah’ with the hope that orthodox Jewry would lead Israel some time in the future in its attempt to take over ‘redemption’ from the hands of non-orthodox Zionists. This trend is associated with a different theological orthodox conception, i.e., with the dispersion of the Jewish nation, individual Jews can plead with the Divine directly and thereby bring about divine redemption. But leaders of the orthodox Jewry (‘gedoley haTorah’) can hardly give up their hold on religious authority to allow an alternative one to take it place. For the same reason, orthodox Jewry cannot concede leadership to non-orthodox Zionists in the domain of personal and national redemption (p.136-144).

Every day life among orthodox Jews

Clothing, hairstyle and religious studies define each stream. In Israel there is a tendency for men to study in a yeshiva until their forties and even later (partly to avoid the draft into the army!) The Israeli government subsidizes Yeshiva studies and women often complement family income through work in education and social services areas. Occasionally, orthodox men also manage a small business in the name of the wife to get an additional income. In Europe and America, students leave a yeshiva after marriage around the age of 19-24, in order to learn a trade or join a family business.

Orthodox Jews, excluding orthodox nationalists and most Sephardi orthodox, perceive military service as a threat to their religious lifestyle and used their political weight to get a legal exemption from the draft. As a consequence, the ranks of Yeshiva students swelled and became a heavy economic burden to the Israeli society. Further, due to the fear of getting enlisted to the army, yeshivas became shelters to students who did not fit the mould. Soon centres of learning which were intended to develop intellectual depth offered merely ritual learning without significant depth.

The focus on Torah learning, without other outlets, turned religiosity into a domain in which community members compete to demonstrate increasing levels of conformity (i.e., getting early to pray, not missing any prayer…) that end up counter productive and stifling. In the case of Hassidim the problem is less severe because community members usually join the labour or business market after marriage in their early twenties. But they too are subject to constraint because of the tradition to consult with their rabbi on every matter whether of great or marginal significance.

In general, the income level among orthodox Jews tend to be low and their economic situation becomes increasingly difficult as the number of children in the family grows. In most cases, women are the main providers. National income security allocations complement family revenues. A few families involved in politics/Israeli bureaucracy get higher revenues but there is also a wealthy elite involved in the diamond industry as well as in investments in foreign markets. More recently, younger generations seem to want to benefit from a richer Israeli economy but without skills or modern education, they are forced into a career in the religious domain as rabbis or kashrut supervisors.

The desire to take part of the Israeli economic success and in modernity led to a variety of responses. Some orthodox groups attempt to stress the value of humility (i.e., Mir and Brisk groups) while others encourage the desire to take part in Israeli politics (i.e., Hebron Yeshiva). But the encounter with non-orthodox Israelis is not easy, as it tends to create a feeling of superiority among orthodox youngsters. Currently, a significant effort of orthodox elites is invested in trading political support for as many allocations as possible to increasingly impoverished orthodox communities. Thus, some objecting and antagonist orthodox communities elaborated a plan to support the establishment of a Palestinian state in exchange of a significant Israeli/American investment in their communities (i.e., satellite orthodox towns). This type of political juggling indicates that economic considerations do carry weight in decision-making within most orthodox circles. The content of orthodox newspapers also indicate to great interest in non-orthodox Israel, especially in the relations between orthodox and non-orthodox parties (i.e., Shass, Likud, Netanyahu).

Increasing poverty, pressures on women to bear more children (as many as 15) as well as the dependence on women as providers have become sources of tension within orthodox circles. Therefore attempts are made to create additional sources of income through mutual help organizations dealing with help to the sick and burials, in most cases financed by the state.

Parents, relatives, friends or professional matchmakers arrange marriages. Women tend to marry between 17-19 among Hassidim and 18-21 among Antagonists. Men marry between 19-24 in most cases. Most marriages take place within respective social strata, i.e., amongst Yeshiva leaders and wealthy families on one hand and the rest on the other. Occasionally, a Yeshiva leader might chose a bright student to marry his daughter or recommend it to a colleague or wealthy family. Marriage takes place within a few months after consent is reached. Parents aim to share the cost of marriage and installation of the young couple in their own flat, although a heavier burden is placed upon the family of the bride (p.145-183).

Threats to democracy

Orthodox communities perceive themselves as a highly spiritual society whose values are far superior to universal liberal and democratic values held by their non-orthodox counterparts. Torah law is divine in their eyes, preceding contemporary state law. They also see modernity and related technological benefits merely from a material and utilitarian perspective. This of course has implications as to efforts orthodox community members make to acquire skills and education to facilitate their integration in contemporary Israel. For their focus on spirituality leads them to condemn the material world as they see it only from a utilitarian point of view.

Orthodox communities exploit internal solidarity to derive political power and thereby subtract economic benefits from non-orthodox state authorities. They see existing secular state powers as temporary and believe they are in the position to inherit them. Meanwhile they support right wing forces (i.e., Likud and Netanyahu) hoping they would pave the road for an orthodox take over of power (i.e., dismantling of Zionist institutions, including the Superior court).

Orthodox communities do not accept the reality that they represent only a minority and believe their values are those of the majority and thus they wish to supplant the ‘old elite’ as well as its institutions, using democratic (and if necessary non-democratic) means. Greenfield suggests: the non-orthodox Israeli community will have no choice but confront the anti-democratic orthodox forces to preserve the universal, liberal and democratic character of the Israeli society (Greenfield, 2001:p. 184-209).

Orthodox nationalists everyday life

Orthodox nationalists distinguish between Jews and the rest of the world. They wish to lead the nation but lack skills and resources to do so. However, unlike their rejectionist and antagonist orthodox brethrens, they acknowledge modernity without conceding the necessity to adapt Torah laws to contemporary existence. Recent trends among orthodox nationalists, i.e., romantic anti-rationalism (labelled Habakook) and ‘Land of Israel’ revivalism, fail to bridge between universal modern value systems and particular Jewish nationalist value systems because of the fear to re-interpret ‘divine law’ in a contemporary context. As a consequence, when they faced diverging contemporary conceptions held by non-orthodox Israelis, they responded harshly (i.e., killing Rabin and resisting evacuation from occupied territories for peace). And their deception grew as they realized that liberal Israelis reject orthodox nationalist views relating to a forceful occupation of ‘Greater Israel,’ undermining their conception of the world and their orthodox value system. Thus, orthodox nationalists are experiencing a dissonance due to the gap between intrinsic Jewish ethics, which emphasize respect for others and universal peace, and particular nationalist calls for forceful occupation of neighbours. Such dissonance may have dire consequences for the Israeli society should orthodox nationalists choose to use force to impose their views.

Religious nationalists became more relevant to Israeli culture upon the rise of the Liberal conservatives (i.e., Likud) in 1977. Their influence on the political agenda relating to ‘Greater Israel’ and settlements in the occupied territories increased. But they could not make a significant contribution in the economic, technological and international relations domains, mainly due to their narrow focus on Jewish studies and neglect of education in areas of relevance to modern societies. Later, when non-orthodox Israelis opted for peace, religious nationalists failed to comprehend the change and even attempted to oppose it with force. They also failed to understand the international and ethical contexts, which reject occupation and oppression of neighbours. Moreover, they deviated from intrinsic Jewish values, which put a premium on the pursuit of peace and preservation of life.

Exposure to modernity did not go unnoticed in some of the orthodox nationalists circles. Some of their youth have chosen to reconcile modernity with orthodoxy by joining the army, acquiring relevant skills to technologically advanced and modern Israel as well as exploring ways to re-interpret Jewish law to suit contemporary life (i.e., equality of women and their protection in rabbinic courts) (p.210-249).

Yearning for ‘Greater Israel’ and an Orthodox Leadership

Orthodox nationalists, following Rabbi Kook’s centre guidance, chose to give precedence to land sacredness over life preservation contrary to intrinsic Jewish values. Emphasis on land holiness led them to ignore national and international realities, (which impose territorial compromise) as well as to diminish the value of ethics held by non-orthodox Israelis. Further, precedence of land sacredness implies oppression of Arab neighbours, putting at risk a Jewish majority in Israel and defeating thereby the purpose of the establishment of a Jewish state with progressive and egalitarian characteristics (i.e., due to allocation of resources to occupation instead of education and development of the periphery).

Orthodox nationalists imposed their ‘Greater Israel’ agenda partly due to the fact that both Labour and Liberal Conservatives shared their ideology but changed their positions when Palestinians demonstrated strong resistance to occupation. However, attempts to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians did not succeed so far, as the latter have yet to accept to compromise as Jews do too. Orthodox nationalists were happy to see peace negotiations fail as if it proved their point, that peace camp premises are wrong while theirs are right, i.e., Israel must keep all territories and rely on force to do so (for Darwinist reasons as well as because it is a divine wish since ‘Esau hates Jacob!’), but they went as far as claim also that peace pursuit is but an illusion and that it not ‘Jewish’ to de-legitimize a peace camp.

Orthodox nationalists believe in the holly purpose of settling the Greater Land of Israel. It is a divine duty that no secular authority can override, not even a democratic majority. Deviation from this divine purpose will bring to the destruction of Israel. Therefore, orthodox nationalists are talking about an alternative regime based on rabbinic law and possibly a kingdom. And if they do not succeed to take over Israel, they would make an attempt to drag it into a permanent war with it neighbours to prevent territorial compromise. They believe the ‘old elite’ lost its fervour and that it seeks territorial compromise only to preserve its privileges and wealth (p.250-279).

Greenfield suggests that Liberal Conservatives (i.e., Likud) with the support of orthodox parties could win an election to impose on Israel a nationalist agenda to the detriment of a universalistic and democratic agenda. She feels that Liberal Conservatives failed to fulfill the needs of the periphery, whose population sought comfort in the support of an Oriental orthodox party (i.e., Shass), which only strengthens the nationalist coalition in Israel (p.280-291).


Greenfield’s insider description of the Israeli orthodox sector is quite impressive and tends to be quite factual in the most part, although a mix of erroneous premises, emotional speculations detract her from sound analytical conclusions.

Greenfield, for example, ignores the basic premise that Judaism does contain strong universal and democratic values. Therefore, although there exist within Judaism particularistic and nationalistic tendencies, represented nowadays by objectionist, antagonist and nationalist orthodox groups, non-orthodox Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) have always put an emphasis on universal and democratic values. These values facilitated integration and assimilation of Jews in hosting populations around the world and across the ages. Jews held universal and democratic values and resisted authoritarian rule since Biblical time both in Israel and elsewhere. Torah law prescribe direct grass root representation and avoidance of kingly rule and even when kings were appointed, constitutional constraints were imposed on them. Judaism has stressed the importance of the rule of law as well as fair and equal treatment of the foreigner in the Land of Israel on the basis of the principle of reciprocity (i.e., do not do to your neighbour what you do not wish done to you or you shall love your neighbour as you love yourself).

Contemporary Orthodox Judaism and especially its nationalistic brand have gone astray based on Greenfield’s empirical observations, because of their narrow interpretation of Jewish Law and excessive emphasis on ritualism and particularistic values.

Labour Zionists made concessions to orthodox Jews to prevent a schism in a time when solidarity was necessary to facilitate nation building. Orthodox groups exploited concessions made by the non-orthodox majority (i.e., sectarian education, relief from army service and other subsidies) to acquire strength in order to promote their agenda (i.e., bring back Jews to religion) as well as undermine the rule of the majority (i.e., settlement and expansion policies). But Israelis will not make these concessions forever. As the nation-building phase nears its conclusion, a confident non-orthodox majority is likely to impose its will. It has the strength to do so (i.e., withdrawal from Gaza). It voted with confidence for territorial compromise as well as a peaceful resolution of the Israeli Arab conflict. It has also accommodated Russian and Ethiopians immigrants who do not fit the orthodox definition of “Who is a Jew.” And it has adopted a modern lifestyle unbound by orthodox interpretations of Jewish Law.

Further, there are indications that some orthodox Jews tend to support the non-orthodox majority. Most of the ‘Oriental’ Jews who support the Sephardi orthodox Shass party are far from rejecting universal and democratic values. They also do not object to territorial compromise or peace. They want to be treated fairly. For this purpose they shifted their vote from Labour to Liberal Conservatives (i.e., Likud) and switched to Shass to express dissatisfaction from both. ‘Oriental’ voters, although under-represented in the Israeli parliament, have representatives across all parties and have used their votes to express a plea for fair treatment without undermining national solidarity.

To conclude, it is doubtful if a political alliance between objectionist, antagonist, nationalist orthodox and non-orthodox nationalists would be able to impose its will on the non-orthodox majority in Israel (and by extension on Jews elsewhere). Non-orthodox Jews may continue to make concessions to their orthodox brethrens due to their attachment to a heritage they value greatly but also to prevent dissention. In any case, concessions made by the majority should not be taken as a sign of weakness but a mark of strength and generosity towards the orthodox minority.

References Hertzel, B. Z., ??”? Altneuland, Neuman Books, Tel Aviv (Hebrew)

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