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The Only (Illiberal) Democracy in the Middle East

The rise of the Religious Zionism party is bringing a different, and extreme, understanding of Judaism to Israel

Yoav Fromer
December 05, 2022
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Image
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Image

While it is too early to know the long-term consequences for Israeli democracy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory last month, its effects seem destined to reverberate far from Israel’s shores. The emergence of the Religious Zionism party, a self-avowed ultranationalist, right-wing movement, as the third-largest party in the Jewish state, alongside the continued electoral success of the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, ensures that Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition, expected to be sworn in during the coming weeks, will be dependent on partners guided by a fundamentally different understanding of Judaism than most Americans are familiar with—one that is extreme, intolerant, nationalist, militant and profoundly illiberal.

With its founding in 1948, Israel inevitably became both the center and symbol of a new global Judaism that aspired to simultaneously hold onto the mantles of liberalism and Judaism, Enlightenment and tradition, Jerusalem and Athens. But for good or ill, that tenuous balancing act that persisted for 75 years is now set to come to an end. And if there is one central takeaway from the dramatic election results that promise to deliver Israel from the political paralysis that has gripped it for the past three years, it is that the Jewish state has effectively chosen, consciously and democratically, to abandon modern liberal constructions of Judaism and embark on an unfamiliar, and for some, disconcerting new path.

Israel’s founders were committed to meeting the arduous challenge of being both Jewish and liberal. David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister, envisioned a redemptive task for Israel that would be achieved by founding a Jewish society “built on freedom, equality, tolerance, mutual assistance and love of humanity, in other words, a society without exploitation, discrimination, enslavement, the rule of man over man, the violation of conscience and tyranny.”

By following these liberal principles, Israel’s founders hoped to redeem and actualize Theodor Herzl’s original—explicitly secular—Zionist vision. “Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood,” Herzl noted in The Jewish State, his literary blueprint for the future Jewish homeland. “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.”

These values were enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence that explicitly states that the Jewish state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

For all of its internal contradictions and many faces, Zionism was after all fundamentally a secular movement that sought to embrace the liberal tenets of modernity in order to realize Jewish political self-determination. While Israel embraced a liberal Judaism dedicated to tolerance, diversity, justice, and human rights—in thought and spirit, if not always in deed—a competing interpretation of Judaism has steadily evolved in Israel in recent decades. Galvanized by the conquest of the West Bank and the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 war, and cultivated initially among the fringe religious settler movement, this new ideological strain was in many ways not only inimical to liberalism—but proudly hostile to it.

The forms of religious Zionism that have been steadily institutionalized in Israeli life since the 1970s have sought a gradual convergence of Zionism and Judaism in a way that subjugates the former to the latter, rather than vice versa. It is exactly this alternative form of illiberal Judaism that pervades and defines Netanyahu’s incoming right-wing/religious coalition. Rooted in an uncompromising ultra-Orthodox theological tradition, it has been fused with a fiery and militant present-day messianic impulse to create a dangerously unstable hybrid that seems likely to detonate in a region that is hardly known for its stability.

Some trace the origins of religious Zionism to the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Rav Kook). But his capacious—and contested—canon and legacy contains sufficient space and diversity for followers of both modern Orthodoxy and a stricter messianic and mystical Judaism to lay claim to his ideas. A more direct link between Netanyahu’s new political allies and religious Zionism can probably be traced to his son and chief disciple, Rav Zvi Yehuda, who for decades led the influential Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, founded by Rav Kook, where many of the leaders of the settler movement and powerful religious Zionist organizations like Gush Emunim absorbed their zeal and first set their ideological bearings.

The brand of religious Zionism taught at Mercaz Harav forced Judaism into a perilous encounter with power and politics by combining the sacred with the profane. “We are inseparably attached to Judea and Samaria ... through the eternal bond between the holy people and the holy land. We must stand in defense of this to the utmost limits of dedication and sacrifice, without any surrender at all,” Rav Yehuda once declared. Fixated on actualizing “Eretz Yisrael”—the expansive biblical land promised to Abraham and his disciples that includes the entire West Bank—rather than abiding by any legally mandated boundaries sanctioned by the United Nations and international law, religious Zionism effectively transformed Judaism into a geographical project that could not separate Torah from territory and came to view the realization of the former through the conquest, settlement and physical attachment to the latter; perceived as “God’s land”—the fulfillment of the faith naturally demanded the fulfillment of its expansive territorial claims.

The illiberal form of Judaism represented and actively espoused by Netanyahu’s new partners promises to steer the ideological direction of the Likud-led coalition toward uncharted and disturbing places—whether the embattled Netanyahu, who identifies himself as a liberal, actually wants to go to those places or not.

The Haredi parties make no attempt to hide that they are at war with liberal ideas. They vehemently object to a secular curriculum in their schools where math, English and science have little or no room; women have no place in their party rosters nor a right to be seen or heard in the public sphere, LGBTQ lack rights or recognition whatsoever within their communities, and they wish to bar public transportation on the Sabbath and prevent civil, gay, or any marriage unless sanctioned by the rigid Orthodox rabbinical institutions that they firmly control.

Their newest partner in the so-called “Netanyahu block” offers not just a theocratic but militant interpretation of Judaism. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the driving force behind the Religious Zionism party and the most influential politician in Israel today, heads a movement literally called “Jewish power” (Otzma Yehudit) that consciously aspires to demonstrate as much force as possible. A proud disciple of the teachings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the far-right Jewish Defense League in the United States in the late 1960s, the gun-wielding Ben-Gvir, who in the past was convicted of supporting Jewish terrorism and inciting racism, projects and embodies this alternative form of illiberal Judaism mired in messianic fantasies of territorial expansion and brute physical force applied to people he contemptuously identifies as “Arabs.”

Sporting nonironical T-shirts that read, “to be Jewish in our homeland,” (a pointedly theocratic-reductionist rendering of the yearning expressed in Israel’s national anthem, “to be a free nation in our homeland”), Ben-Gvir’s supporters justify victimizing others—Arab citizens who refuse to embrace Zionism, African migrant workers, and left-wingers opposing the occupation—through perpetual appeal to an often imagined sense of Jewish victimhood. Chants during Ben-Gvir’s election-night celebrations that, “The story of the left-wingers and Arabs is done with,” or his supporters’ fantasies of “outlawing left-wingers,” help drive this point home.

Much has been written about Ben-Gvir’s ultranationalist and racist ideas, including his longing to deport “disloyal” Arab citizens, not to mention left-wing political opponents, who are deemed to be “enemies from within.” But he is not alone: His colleague, Bezalel Smotrich, who formally heads their party, has a long history of spewing homophobic vitriol and has recently suggested that human rights organizations pose an “existential threat” to the country and that Israel’s Arab parties—representing a fifth of the population—should be outlawed. In the past, he even suggested segregated maternity wards for Jews and Arabs. Like him, Avi Maoz, a Knesset member from their party, is notorious for his virulent attacks on the LGBTQ community, whom he once accused of “gay terrorism” for allegedly stifling free speech. The political sect he leads, Noam, compared Reform Jews, gay-rights advocates and human rights activists in one campaign ad to Palestinian terrorists, Arab armies and Nazis, suggesting “they all want to destroy us.” Maoz is slated to become a deputy minister in Netanyahu’s new government and to oversee the Orwellian sounding “bureau for Jewish Identity.”

What is important to understand about the distorted political vision, which is pervasive to some extent among nearly all the partners in Netanyahu’s incoming coalition, is that it is not incidental to their understanding of Judaism but constitutive of it and lies at its very heart. When Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf, the head of the United Torah Judaism faction who is expected to receive a key position in the new government, blatantly dismisses the value of a secular education for Judaism or when Ben-Gvir, the incoming minister for national security, evokes the need for “Jewish power,” they are knowingly also trying to redefine what it means to be Jewish; if tikkun olam, the ancient Jewish dictum promoting universal redemption (which is often associated in the U.S. with left-wing advocacy for progressive causes) seeks in its most basic expression to fix the world, Otzma Yehudit actively seeks to break it.

Exercising power, expanding and flouting it in order to deter, threaten, punish or conquer—this is the alternative understanding of Judaism that now underlies the party upon which Israel’s next government is dependent. Individualism, human rights, tolerance, and pluralism are as alien to their concept of Judaism as they are central to the modern liberal creed. “The public voted today for Jewish identity and heritage,” Ben-Gvir announced after his impressive election performance. He is right. But it’s an identity and heritage that liberal Jews everywhere would find abhorrent.

At a time of relative prosperity and peace, Israelis have consciously chosen to abandon the liberal course they had charted to opt instead for a far darker, militant, nationalist, and extreme version of Judaism. This choice seems irreversible in the near future for several reasons. First, because the demographics are overwhelmingly in favor of those espousing an illiberal Judaism: with nearly twice as many children living in Haredi-dominated cities like Jerusalem and Bnei Brak than in liberal enclaves like Tel Aviv and Haifa where the birth rates are far lower, there is little chance for secular Jews to remain a majority in the coming decades. Unlike in the U.S. where there remains at least the possibility for ideological fluidity and change, the rigid illiberal theocratic and nationalist views held by voters representing the fastest growing segments in the Jewish population (like Haredi and religious Zionist) do not seem likely to soften let alone liberalize anytime soon. What this effectively means is that the day may not be too far off when a majority of Israelis decide, democratically, to do away with Israel’s liberal democracy.

Although a healthy civic culture and liberal education have historically acted as the main bulwarks in defense of democracy in similar cases, the second fundamental threat to Israel’s liberal future lies in the gradual and systematic erosion of its educational and cultural institutions. Under the helm of right-wing religious Zionist education ministers like Rafi Peretz and Naftali Bennet (before his pivot to the center), an increasingly illiberal curriculum was implanted that severely undermined the ability of a generation of Israeli youths to function in a democratic society and abide by its norms and customs. Instead, a stream of right-wing governments has instilled in students a set of values that are far less tolerant, pluralist, and inclusive and far more religious, nationalist, and exclusive. The relentless attacks on Israel’s civil society and press by Netanyahu and his allies have further delegitimized the belief or necessity in an open and tolerant public sphere. If and when a majority of Israelis begin to turn on their democratic institutions and seek to dismantle them, don’t expect the younger generations, who are less liberal than their elders, to come to their defense.

Third, the legal counterrevolution being prepared by the incoming government threatens to neuter Israel’s independent judiciary that for years has acted as the primary source of protection and last resort for persecuted individuals and minorities. Even before the proposed legislation to enable the Knesset to bypass any Supreme Court ruling deemed disagreeable—for instance, laws protecting Palestinian property from confiscation—an Americanization of the Israeli legal system has been underway in recent years: Under the guise of “democracy,” it seeks to replicate the legal success of American conservatives in curbing “judicial activism” in the name of majoritarian principles. These reforms are of vital import to both the scandal-ridden Netanyahu who is still in the midst of a corruption trial, as well as to the Religious Zionism party which considers the judiciary a primary obstacle to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and will seriously hinder the courts’ ability to defend Israel’s liberal institutions.

Finally, and most consequentially for the fate of Israeli democracy, is the backlash to the unprecedented efforts by the outgoing Bennet-Lapid coalition to incorporate Israel’s Arab citizens into the government and do what no one prior—including the left-wing parties—has ever really done: give them political power. Ben-Gvir’s rise and the public’s rediscovered zeal for Jewish power cannot be understood without realizing to what this call to arms was reacting: not only to the utter failure of the peace process, and the resulting fear and mistrust of the Palestinians, but to the fact that for the first time in Israeli history Jews sensed they might lose absolute control over the Jewish state. The threat to total Jewish hegemony in the face of genuine Arab political power in government, alongside the traumatic deadly mob violence instigated by Israeli Arabs against Jews during the “Guardian of the Walls” operation last spring, sent scores of anxious Israelis into Ben-Gvir’s arms, offering a sobering reminder that when forced to choose between a Jewish and democratic state—many if not most Israelis will opt for the former.

Israel, as the old trope that Israelis never tire of repeating goes, might still be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” though it is increasingly becoming an illiberal and intolerant one that seems more likely to ignite conflicts with its neighbors rather than serve as a model or a beacon. Since the American-born Kahane and his militant “Kach” party were the ideological forerunners of Ben-Gvir and his followers, it is ironic that with the demise of liberal Judaism in Israel, the responsibility to defend and promote it must now migrate back to the United States. For all its internal squabbles, the American Jewish community, whether Democrats or Republicans, is still overwhelmingly liberal—in its values, if not necessarily in its politics; individual liberties, human rights, equality before the law, pluralism, and tolerance remain the compass through which they continue to navigate public life. Now, it seems, they must also lead the way for liberal Jews everywhere—including in Israel. 

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.