Religious Zionism’s Triple Mission

Yair Sheleg Tradition Online | December 31, 2023

Mount Herzl Cemetery

The names and identities of those who have fallen in this war make it impossible to ignore an obvious fact: The statistical prominence of Religious Zionists among the fallen. Prof. Asher Cohen, a scholar of the Religious Zionist community, determined that the proportion of soldiers from what are considered distinctly religious towns who have been killed reaches 31%. To these must of course be added Religious Zionist soldiers from all the larger mixed Israeli cities, and together the resulting picture is close to 40% of those who have lost their lives in the war—more than three times the proportion of Religious Zionists in Israel’s overall population (which is only about 12%). The Yesha Council found that the proportion of fallen soldiers from settlements in Judea and Samaria (some of which, admittedly, are secular or mixed communities) is close to 20% of those lost, or four times their size as a proportion of the national population.

This is not said to denigrate any other sector of the Israeli population; certainly not concerning the secular public, whose children are also suffering severe blows. The losses cut across the population, they belong to kelal Yisrael, and in all cases, a high casualty rate is not a pleasant flag to wave. The statistic has one public importance: To defy the wicked, long-standing campaign that seeks to present Religious Zionism as a messianic, fascist, racist sector, alongside a host of other derogatory epithets that are even difficult to repeat.

True, there is no necessary contradiction between the data. Some critics would argue that standing out among the fallen, which reflects the community’s intensive education toward the value of combat service, actually corresponds to Religious Zionism’s “fascist” worldview. Those who claim so will have to first ask themselves whether the secular members of the Kibbutz movement of the first decades of the State were similarly fascistic, on account of their outsized representation among the fallen (and in fact, even today). But mainly, examining the biographies of the fallen will reveal outstanding, remarkable young people, who contributed in their lives to society as a whole. This has nothing to do with fascism or misanthropy. In all cases, the question should be asked: Who dared to determine that some “hilltop youth” who practice violence against Arabs, and who must be opposed, are more authentic representatives of Religious Zionism than soldiers from within that community who fall in battle in defense of the State and its citizens, each one distinguished by his service and love of his fellow Israelis?

To be sure, prominence on the battlefield does not confer superiority in ideological arenas. A person, and even an entire camp, can be a great idealist, and yet adhere to an incorrect worldview. When it comes to the political field, there is an even greater fear that the idealists may err by his very nature, which does not take into account pragmatic constraints, which are required when one must also factor in other opposing forces. But idealism requires the refinement of one’s own positions. This is required by the very nature of proper interpersonal relations with those whose opinions you reject. You have the right to argue with my position, but not to demonize or delegitimize me to win the ideological debate.

Religious Zionist idealism is also important for another reason: The battle for the image of Israeli society, a necessary stage in completing this war. This struggle will be long, difficult, and much more Sisyphean than the military battles. It will also have fewer heroics than the military battle, so there will probably be fewer willing to enlist in it—but it is no less essential. For too many years, Israeli society has been addicted to the false culture of “wealth, power, and honor.” This process degenerates, weakens, and endangers all Western nations, and the democratic-liberal culture itself, in dealing with much more entrenched forces such as Chinese or Muslim culture. For a country surrounded by enemies on all sides, like Israel, it is terribly dangerous on an immediate existential level, as we saw in Simhat Torah.

Religious Zionism has an important, almost decisive, role in this struggle. Not only because of its idealism, but also because of its triple identity, which includes the religious, national, and universal-liberal components. This affords us the ability to understand and communicate with all sectors of Israeli society and the Jewish people, which are usually lacking at least one of these three elements of identity.

But the ability of Religious Zionism to fulfill its critical role in the battle for the image of Israeli society also has one handicap: Religious Zionism, certainly in the public face it presents (its rabbis, prominent educators, politicians), tends to ignore the universal-liberal element, although it is certainly present in the wider Religious Zionist community. At the same time, it tends to interpret the other two components, the religious and the national, in a maximalist fashion.

Our reality does not allow parallel maximalism in each of the three identities. Rather, it requires balance, which means recognizing the need to sometimes moderate one value to attain success in others, or even just to deal with the pragmatic constraints of reality. In one simple sentence: If Religious Zionism wishes to fulfill its critical public mission, it must reposition itself in the center of the public map, and not at its right end.

Yair Sheleg is an author, journalist, researcher, and member of the editorial board of Makor Rishon, where a version of this essay was originally published.

Leave a Reply