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Editor’s Note: A condensed version of this story was published online in March 2023. Below is a slightly modified version of the full story as it appeared in print in our spring 2023 issue.
Consider this stance: The Religious Zionist bloc, which, in agreeing to be part of the new Israeli government last December has helped Benjamin Netanyahu cling to power as prime minister, is, along with the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, just a crew of Bible-thumping fundamentalists and hardcore racists in open rebellion against the modern world, wielding two of the most destructive forces known to man: religion and nationalism. There comes a time when secular liberals, peaceful and pluralist though we may be, must fight hard, and that time is now.
Does that make you feel better? It shouldn’t. Nearly everything I’ve just stated is self-defeating and wrong.
The remarkable recent successful efforts by the Religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox parties to gain inclusion in the government are, like all politics, not only about money and power but also about personalities, principles and passions. Today’s Religious Zionist party, like other illiberal movements around the world, has seized on the global failure of post-Cold War liberalism to answer many basic questions, not only of resources and power but also of purpose and meaning. Liberals around the world regularly and blithely assume that their worldview is transparent and is modernity’s only reasonable option, yet Religious Zionism has emerged out of the same historical cauldron that yielded modernity, the nation-state and, yes, liberalism as well.
Israel is now in the midst of the most profound domestic crisis in its history, and the place of the judiciary, constitutionalism, liberalism and religion are at its heart. The struggle being waged, not only in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but also throughout the country — with mass demonstrations, unprecedented numbers of military reservists saying they won’t serve an undemocratic state and those in the governing coalition arguing that they are all that stand between the will of the people and an arrogant, traitorous and globalist elite — demands close attention to all its moving parts, for what it tells us about deep currents in world politics today and tomorrow.
Religious Zionists have gained political traction by aggressive stances toward Mideast conflict, yes, but also by wrestling with questions of identity and belonging — which globalized liberalism regularly fails to provide answers to, such as: Who am I? How am I to choose between right and wrong? What do I really believe?
Israel’s moderate center and left have been adrift for years. As this essay goes to press, it is raising its voice with a volume and clarity we haven’t heard for decades. An optimist may wonder whether this will be the beginning of a new center-left that grapples with fundamental questions of national identity and belonging.
Israel is not the only country facing a powerful assault on its judicial and liberal democratic institutions. In fact, Israeli protesters have been shouting slogans like “This is not Hungary” and “This is not Poland” in their admonishment of local politicians. But as we look for patterns in the current chaos, we also have to pay close attention to local details. No two countries’ religious nationalisms, or liberalisms, are ever truly the same.
Personalities matter as well, of course; in this case, one remarkable figure, Netanyahu, is now Israel’s prime minister for the sixth time. As with all long-lasting Middle Eastern figures, Netanyahu is a genius of survival, propelling his political longevity forward with a mixture of strategic caution and tactical audacity: no big moves but anything to get through another day. Though he has had the opportunity to declare war several times, he rarely has. Both his defense and economic policies can be described as conservative and tactical. Brilliant and petty, despised and admired, Netanyahu sees himself as the sole person standing between Israel and its destruction, a lonely world-class statesman and thinker in a sea of job-seekers, Davos creatures, romantics and bureaucrats. He doesn’t believe anyone’s vision of Jewish redemption — whether it is rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem or an EU-style Middle East. He offers his disenchantment in service to a noble goal: Jewish survival in a world that will never be redeemed.
And you might ask Netanyahu, what of the Palestinians? Yes, Israel will rule over them, because that is how things work. Solutions? Final status? You must be joking. The twilight world of occupation with limited Palestinian autonomy is the final status. There are no solutions that will make everyone happy — and the Gulf States seem happy enough. A less-than-cheerful world picture is no surprise for Jews, having survived centuries of persecution, the Holocaust and multiple Israeli wars. Israelis currently hold the upper hand and want to keep it that way.
Netanyahu is, in many ways, a stuck man in a stuck country. His belief in himself and his mission justifies the alleged actions — bribery, corruption and fraud — for which he’s been indicted by the legal system he once championed and now abhors. Over the years, Netanyahu’s self-centeredness, paranoia and inability to see past his personal grievances have alienated and embittered almost everyone who has worked with him.
Now, desperate to stay out of jail and to secure his legacy, Netanyahu has turned to hard-right coalition partners whom he once kept at arm’s length and who never would have achieved this sort of power without him. The hard right-wing parties, Religious Zionists in particular, gained supporters because even moderate-right voters no longer trust Netanyahu to deliver on his promises.
The sheer passion of radical Religious Zionism, in other words, has been no small part of its appeal. The Israeli left has been adrift since the intifada of 2000 shattered its credibility on security. And the left, like so many liberals elsewhere, has turned inward to private life; its most vociferous public stances have been in support of private lives, of LGBTQ rights in particular.
Centrist Israel in recent decades has been, in general, a less intensely ideological society than it once was, and in the last election it was not exactly clear what the centrist parties were for.
Elsewhere, once hard-and-fast dichotomies between religious and secular worldviews have yielded to a broad Israeli Jewishness, midway between full religious observance and old-fashioned socialist secularism. This broad Israeli Jewishness isn’t American-style Reform or Conservative Judaism but its own kind of ethos: focused more on family, community and civic life than on the synagogue, deeply intertwined with Israeli and Hebrew culture, defining itself slowly as it navigates the secular and religious world.
Crucially, for many, especially on the moderate and non-/anti-Netanyahu right, religious observance in one’s personal life is one thing but in the public sphere another; religion and nation come together in Israeliness, giving each element an anchor it wouldn’t otherwise have.
Moreover, the Israeli right has, unlike the left, managed to maintain not only a numerically — but no less important, communally — meaningful base in the settlements. There, they live together within walking distance; they also attend synagogue and youth movements and observe Sabbath together, forming a communal web and sense of solidarity. That life is in contrast to the left, whose kibbutzim and labor federations and youth movements are all now shells of their former selves.
The Religious Zionist bloc’s two leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, genuinely differ from each other. One comes out of a deeply ideological, decidedly Ashkenazi (a catchall term for Jews of European origin as opposed to Sephardic Jews, a catchall term for Jews originating in MENA and Ottoman lands) camp that has spent decades on the hilltops of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) working out its ideas. The other — from a traditionalist but not Orthodox Sephardic urban milieu — of Shabbat afternoon soccer games and running street battles with police officers and Arabs. Crucial for both are interlocking sets of traumas — the first intifada, the Oslo Accords — which put Israelis and the Palestinians on a potential path for national coexistence — the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the second intifada — and finally, crucially, the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, during which Israel unilaterally dismantled settlements and evacuated Israeli forces, and its aftermath.
To their voters they are defenders of the people, not only from Arab violence but also from a tired, neurotic, dishonest, globalist elite (military high command included), whom they have been fighting since they were in their late teens on the roads to Gaza and in the alleyways of Jerusalem. For their voters last November, two overriding, related issues were governability (“meshilut”) and the judiciary.
First, governability. The starting point for any and all discussions of the stunning rise of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich is a mounting sense of lawlessness, manifest especially in the May 2021 riots in the mixed Arab-Jewish cities of Jaffa and Lod, which occurred simultaneously with Israel’s military operations in Gaza. But additionally, there is grave concern about the mounting terror attacks, the stunning internal violence among Israeli Arabs, the rise of all sorts of protection rackets, the chaotic relations between Bedouin and others in the Negev Desert in the southern part of the country, not to speak of carnage and road rage on the highways. In other words, Israel lacks security on the doorstep.
Second, the judiciary. Israel has no written constitution. Instead there are a series of (ungainly named) structural basic laws (e.g., “Basic Law: The Knesset/Parliament”) and, from the early years of the state, a robust culture of judicial review. In recent decades, many think the judicial reviews have gone into overdrive. In 1992, Israelis saw the passage of a basic law that incorporated human rights principles and put the concepts “Jewish” and “democratic” on an equal legal footing (whether “Jewish” means religious, national identity or a broad set of values, and whether “democratic” means populist or liberal, has been and continues to be a matter of debate). In Israel, as in the U.S., the judiciary came to see themselves as liberal flame-keepers in the face of an increasingly nationalist and conservative electorate, and Israel’s court waded deeper into political decisions and policymaking than its American counterpart. The judiciary also came to be seen, not without reason, as one of the last strongholds of the country’s long-dominant liberal elite.
Arguments over the judiciary (this or that particular ruling aside) are also about the very meaning of “a Jewish and democratic state,” leading in 2018 to a new basic law, pointedly establishing Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Far from settling the issue, the new law only sparked more debate, and the criminal charges against Netanyahu added fuel to the flames. Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox sector, now one third of the governing coalition, is for its part pushing hard to roll back the judiciary, which it perceives as an ideological opponent and an obstacle in its struggle for power.
Only some of the actual court rulings were about the occupation and the challenges facing Israel’s Arab citizens — though those wounds have never been far from the surface. Indeed, there are many reasons for Israel’s ongoing occupation — including security dilemmas, the hostility of Hamas, the corruption and dysfunction of the Palestinian Authority and the economic interests that the occupation serves — but the meaning of Jewish statehood is one of them, and a crucial and key player for decades, especially now, is Religious Zionism.
For more than a century, “Religious Zionism” has been the vague designation for a range of movements and figures. Many of the movements and figures in the past would scarcely recognize, let alone support, the political party that now bears its name. Like Zionism itself (and so many modern movements), Religious Zionism’s story over the decades has been a creative, desperate, moving and scary search for a compass in the exhilarating and terrifying modern world.
Self-described Zionists have included everyone from the pacifist philosopher Martin Buber to the ultranationalist firebrand Meir Kahane, each one united by the belief that Jewish survival (whether physical or cultural) depended on there being a new kind of Jewish collective in the historic land of Israel. What does Jewish survival mean, and what do we mean by “new”? That is where the arguments begin and endure, and they are still regularly fierce.
Although Jews had been longing for Zion for millennia, the Zionist movement began at the end of the 19th century, when it became increasingly clear that Jews still had no real place in European society, not even for those who were educated, secular and desiring to assimilate. Zionism arose out of the realization that pervasive antisemitism — from restrictions on occupations and education available to Jews, outright slaughter and ravage in Eastern European pogroms (organized massacres of helpless, targeted Jews), to enduring social contempt — was not simply a bug of European politics (for Theodore Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist and founder of political Zionism) or psychology (for Leon Pinsker, a Polish-Russian Jewish physician, who anticipated Herzl’s insights well before Herzl came up with them). It was a feature of modern life. What’s more, while Jews felt in their bones the desire both physically and culturally to endure, it was no longer clear for many, in the wake of modern philosophy and science, just what Jewish existence was for.
The Jews had a problem. In the words of leading intellectual and activist Ahad Ha-Am (aka Asher Ginsburg), the “Jewish problem” discussed throughout Europe was really two problems: “the problem of the Jews” and “the problem of Judaism.” Herzl’s argument to establish a Jewish state in historic Palestine, according to Ahad Ha-Am, was an unrealistic response to the first problem for many reasons, including the Palestinians (specifically non-Jewish Palestinians); but it offered no response to the more pressing, second problem: Jews needed a new basis for their identity lest they drown in nihilism and demoralization.
It was Eastern European Jewish misery that gave political Zionism its deepest moral justification and demographic heft. It was, moreover, the remarkably intense Eastern European Jewish struggle to rethink and reconstitute the tradition that gave rise to a different Zionism, as a project of cultural renaissance and, for others, a project of cultural and political revolution — not only against exile but also against Jewish tradition. And for not insubstantial numbers of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Zionism became a way of thinking through their own identities, because the empire’s peoples (which included a small area called Palestine) were increasingly defining themselves as either Turks or Arabs.
To be sure, Zionism was not the only program on offer to ameliorate Jewish troubles. It was one set of answers to the multiple crises of politics, culture and religion that wracked European Jewry through the 19th century. Others included liberalism, socialist revolution, Jewish Diaspora nationalism, assimilationism and, in its own way, Orthodoxy. They all mixed and matched — before long there were, to name a few, Socialist Zionism, Marxist Zionism, Liberal Zionism and of course Jewish anti-Zionisms of various kinds. The Reform Judaism of Western Europe and America, which embraced ethical universalism and eschewed nationalism, generally distanced itself from Zionism, as it did from all strong assertions of Jewish particularism. But what about Orthodoxy?
Most traditional rabbis opposed Zionism, rightly sensing its revolutionary critique of historical Jewish politics and religious authority. There were exceptions, the most towering being a creative genius who took exception to the idea that religion and secular modernity were diametrically opposed to one another. This man was Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook, a jurist, philosopher, mystic, theologian, community leader and poet who moved from his native Lithuania to Palestine in 1904 to become rabbi of Jaffa and the agricultural colonies — in other words, of the new Jewish collective in Palestine.
Kook was both utterly traditional and utterly radical. In a daring synthesis of Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) teachings on redemption through time and Hegel’s historical dialectics, and to the astonishment of his rabbinic peers, he saw the Zionist and Jewish-Socialist activists’ principled rebellions as stirrings of a long-awaited messianic redemption for both Jews and the wider world. Rather than trying to fight philosophical modernism, as almost all his rabbinic colleagues did, Kook threw himself into it, at a time when all of humanity’s contradictions were rising to the surface.
Redemption to him was not a one-time event but a process at work over the centuries in the tortured yet steady growth of ethical concern and human self-awareness, which are manifest in art, society and culture. Kook was an acutely dialectical thinker — affirming both religion and secularity, ethics and nationalism, prophecy and law —and to him, all of these apparent opposites needed each other to complete God’s plan for human history. Kook’s traditional view of Israel as the vessel of the Divine Will coursing through the world came to resonate with Rousseau’s idea of the nation as the General Will in action and thus provided a religious grounding for republican democracy.
To Kook, then, Israel’s national renaissance was an event of world-historic proportions. The Socialist Zionist rebels were redemption’s avant-garde, and he would try to convince them that they were. Zionist nationalism, shaped by the teachings of the Torah, would be nonviolent. It would not be supremacist but inspirational. And in the land of Israel, it would make a seat for God’s very presence in the world.
Kook’s heady, combustible visions held together by the sheer originality and force of his ideas (expressed in remarkably poetic Hebrew), his charisma, piety and self-effacing celebration of principled disagreement.
For Kook, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (the British commitment to a Jewish “national home” within the ruins of the Ottoman Empire) was a confirmation that the Zionist return was ordained by God, the only result that could bring meaning to the unimaginable slaughter and suffering of the Great War. During his lifetime, Kook went on to become the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, and founded a Yeshiva (seminary) to educate rabbis suited for Zionism’s revolutions. His broadly ecumenical spirit sat uneasily with the hard politicking and institution building of the British Mandate years and fell tragically out of step with the increasingly violent temper of the times.
He died in 1935, never having to confront the Holocaust or the actual Jewish state that emerged from the 1947 partition and subsequent wars. Sorting that out was left to his disciples. Kook was an acutely dialectical thinker, for whom things were always in creative tension with their opposites. The enormousness of his aspirations made for an endless deferral that also deferred hard choices.
However, his students had to choose.
Kook’s wasn’t the only synthesizing vision made to confront new realities. Crucial state-building figures like David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, founders of Labor Zionism, were also deep in conversation with traditional Judaism even as they rebelled against it. They saw themselves as Judaism’s truest inheritors, their kibbutzim and moshavim would refound the collapsed Jewish communities of Europe, in social justice. And finally, Zionism’s literature and culture would recast the richness of Hebrew into the vibrancy of the modern world.
Labor Zionists, by draining the traditional religious terms of their transcendent reference (e.g., “redemption” meant land purchase through the Jewish National Fund, “kingdom” now meant republican government), were able to harness the rhetorical and spiritual power of religious language to their enterprise. In so doing, they were able to argue — often persuasively — that although these changes were in many ways breaking with Judaism, they were in other ways powerfully reinterpreting it and thus laying a claim to be both the tradition’s opponent, in the name of national liberation, and its rightful heir.
Having escaped the crucible and burdens of the diaspora and diasporic thinking, they would take their place alongside revolutionaries around the world. Indeed, it was their very idealism that so fired Kook’s imagination.
Their disciples also would, with time, begin to speak a “different language.” The inheritors of Zionism’s founding ideologies, over the decades, grew unable to understand one another — and the results are the conflicts we see today.
What do you do when history fulfills your deepest dreams and establishes something worse than your very worst nightmares at the same time?
The Holocaust united Jews around Zionism, all the while wiping out millions of the Jews that Zionism had intended to save. As soon as the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 divided then-Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, terrible violence broke out between the Arab League and Palestinian Jews. By the time the armistices of 1949 were signed, thousands of Arabs and Jews were dead, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were displaced, neither allowed to return to their homeland nor to be full citizens anywhere else.
Jerusalem was divided, and populations across the Middle East and North Africa took their pain and frustration out on the Jewish communities in their midst in ways that forced almost all of these Jews to leave for the tiny new Jewish state. On arrival they faced discrimination as well, often from Ashkenazi Jews who looked down on Sephardic Jews. Indeed, the Jews who fled the newfound hostility against them in their Middle Eastern and North African countries sought to establish a home in the newly found Israel, only to find themselves made to live in harsh conditions or conform to an Ashkenazi culture that did not resemble their own.
The Zionist vision that had meant to take decades to realize had been sped up, hastily constructed and compromised. To the ultra-Orthodox this came as no surprise, because “only God could bring redemption.” And so they made their deals with the country’s founder and first prime minister, Ben-Gurion, exchanging participation in society for an enclaved life of Torah study and prayer.
However, this new state, with all its limitations, was for many Religious Zionists the very redemption that had been dreamed of for generations. One of them was Kook’s son, Zvi Yehudah, a gifted and compassionate educator who eventually took the helm of the yeshiva his father had founded in Jerusalem. Students who had grown up in the Religious Zionists’ youth movement came to Jerusalem to study with Zvi Yehudah after graduating from religious Zionist high schools and growing up in its Bnei Akiva youth movement. While Zvi Yehudah carried on his father’s legacy in many ways, he differed in that he had to grapple with the Holocaust. He came to the conclusion that God had brought about the Holocaust in order to bring the Jews back to the Land of Israel. For him, the State of Israel was itself a first realization of the long-awaited messianic redemption.
Not all Religious Zionists were followers of Kook — either the father or the son. In 1948 (at the birth of the state), there were two different Religious Zionist parties — the centrist, middle-class Mizrachi (dating to 1902) and the socialist Mizrachi Workers Party. The two merged in 1956 to become the National Religious Party (NRP). The NRP’s leaders tended to be intellectuals, Orthodox but not dogmatic and, crucially, glad to be junior partners to the always ruling party of Ben-Gurion: MAPAI (“Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel”), or later, Labor. The NRP focused on religious and social matters and took a moderate tack on political and military issues. On the eve of the 1967 war, for example, the NRP opposed opening a front with Jordan even though this held the promise of gaining the West Bank and Jerusalem. Over time, the younger generation began to become restless with what they interpreted as the willful subservience and compromised principles of the older generation.
For Israelis at that time, many of them survivors of the Holocaust, the weeks leading up to the 1967 war were soaked in dread. Bomb shelters were fortified, new cemeteries were dug, and many literally feared a second Holocaust. Little could they imagine that a few stunning weeks later, the Old City of Jerusalem would be in Israeli hands, as would the Sinai, the Golan Heights and the biblical heartlands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Now — what to do with them?
Almost all of the first settlements in the territories were established by elements of the Labor government, stemming from the old Zionist connection between settlement and security, even as some leaders voiced their reservations. A group of mostly secular writers and intellectuals began to support settlements in ideological terms, not as part of a religious vision but to restore revolutionary vitality to what they saw as an increasingly self-satisfied bourgeois state. Aside from a few places, Religious Zionists were not as involved — that is, until 1973.
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was nearly as apocalyptic as the 1967 conflict was miraculous, leaving the nation deep in mourning, desperate to find a way forward. For the younger generation of Religious Zionists, who served in combat units and suffered many losses, it was time to stake their claim to national leadership. As Labor’s previously unchallenged national leadership plunged into a long, steady decline, young Religious Zionists saw an opportunity to carry on Kook’s vision, blending biblical prophecy, rabbinic spirituality and the best of modern culture as realized by the State of Israel. It was the necessary revolution that would redeem the Jews, Judaism and — as a light to the nations, they thought — the human race. So these new Religious Zionists, their families in tow, took to the hilltops to establish the first settlements. They called themselves the Bloc of the Faithful (“Gush Emunim”).
But it was not without difficulty. The first attempt to establish a settlement in the city of Sebastia in Samaria in 1975 — supported, in person, by Zvi Yehudah, as well as reserve Gen. Ariel Sharon, both of whom urged defiance — ended in a crucial standoff with the government. Ultimately, the decision fell to Labor’s defense minister at that time, Shimon Peres, who, along with his advisers, was torn between the push of the aspiring settlers and the pull of diplomatic caution. Eventually he told the settlers to relocate, showcasing an ambivalent attitude that would go on to prevail in governments, left and right, for decades, right up to today.
In those years the young Religious Zionist activists also took to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) as the new, younger guard within the NRP mounted a growing challenge to the older, more moderate leaders. Leadership had changed in Labor, too. The newer generation, exemplified by Prime Minister Rabin, was deeply pragmatic, less ideological and far more concerned with the nuts and bolts of state security. (As Moshe Dayan, who as defense minister led the country to victory in the 1967 war, took a postwar survey of the Old City, which now belonged to Israel for the first time, he asked, “What do we need this whole Vatican for?”)
Labor had seen themselves, with reason, as elites working as public servants, and that is how the new Religious Zionists saw themselves, as well.
The Religious Zionists continued their rise to power with the historic 1977 election as prime minister of Menachem Begin, leader of Revisionist Zionism, which had for decades been Labor’s steadfast, liberal nationalist, tough-minded opponent and had never won control of the government. Begin was civic-minded, a deep supporter of the judiciary and the rule of law and, although he was not Orthodox, he was a traditionalist who also spoke in the classical terms of Jewish peoplehood, respectful of religion and tradition. He was the first prime minister to make a point of visiting the Wailing Wall after his election.
Begin built his coalition out of the groups that Labor had long marginalized: his own Revisionists, of course, and the more activism-oriented Religious Zionists and disenfranchised Sephardic Jews. The ultra-Orthodox, whose divorce of religion from nationalism had made them ready coalition partners with Labor, were welcomed by Begin on generous new terms. By removing the ceiling on the number of religious students entitled to claim a yeshiva exemption from army service in exchange for lifelong study, Begin began the steady rewriting of Israel’s social contract, which is still barreling ahead today.
Begin also grasped that the West Bank, in addition to its historical and security significance, provided an outlet for Israel’s housing needs. For him, settlements were not only ideological projects but also appealing bedroom communities within easy commuting distance from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As their infrastructure grew, settlements became genuinely nice places to live, intentional communities abounding in communal life, mutual aid and volunteerism — and the rounds of regular sentry duty, terror attacks and retaliations contributed to their seeing themselves as continuing the older version of Zionism, the idealistic collective in a changing, urbanizing Israel.
It was in those heady years of the 1970s that I spent two years studying in a yeshiva in the West Bank, at Gush Etzion in the hills between Bethlehem and Hebron. The Palestinians were, to our minds, like the landscape, with a touch of menace. The rabbis at the head of our yeshiva were moderates, who in principle believed in negotiations. Still, how could we have been so very blind? Yes, the sheer violence of the PLO made it easy to be blind (to resist or overlook all Palestinians because of their radical leaders). But legitimate Palestinian resistance was also happening irrespective of the PLO. Regardless, our vision of redemption from within the chaos of modernity was blinding us like the sun, its brilliance blocking out the real landscape of legitimate need. When the Palestinians living in the hills finally emerged into view with the First Intifada in late 1987, they were seen not as reasonable neighbors but as a threat, and a long-delayed, painful reckoning finally began.
Over the years, things got even more complicated. Begin signed the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978, which eventually undid Israeli settlement in the Sinai in 1982. He did so to remove Egypt from the military equation — and in hopes of holding on to the West Bank. But he set the precedent that the “land for peace” paradigm of U.N. Resolution 242, which had ended the 1967 war by calling for land to be ceded in exchange for peace, might actually happen.
In 1982, Sharon, then the Israeli minister of defense, led Begin by the nose into Lebanon, under the guise of destroying the PLO, with the grandiose intention of remaking Lebanese politics on favorable Israeli terms. The result was a great bloodletting, including Israeli soldiers ordered to stand by at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where from 2,000 to 3,500 civilians were massacred by some of Israel’s Maronite (a Christian ethno-religious group) allies. On recognizing the immensity of Sharon’s deception and his own blunder, Begin fell into a deep depression and eventually stepped down.
Outside the government a new movement, Peace Now, arose. Like Gush Emunim, Peace Now was a movement of intellectuals who hoped to revive older Zionist traditions. That same year, Zvi Yehudah, Kook’s only son and successor, died at the age of 90.
The elder Kook’s legacy was capacious and electric, not least because of his commitment to Judaism but also because of his openness to other world religions and cultures, along with his celebration of a rule-breaking, idealistic revolution. His literary corpus is vast and complicated, holding centuries’ worth of texts between its lines, and rich in sensuous beauty.
His legacy matters deeply to many because he alone among the major rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century seemed to have cracked the code of modern times, creating a new framework and language. Through them, one could discern and then act on the otherwise inscrutable ways of God in the mind-bending and terrifying confusions of the modern world. Who then, would inherit the codebook? The importance of implementing Kook’s teachings (in the minds of Religious Zionists) was nothing less than the key to Jewish life in the modern world.
Different schools of thought emerged. Zvi Yehudah’s emerged as dominant — broadly synthetic in its approach to general culture, strongly nationalist and committed to settlements, seeing the Land of Israel as a central value to be secured at all costs.
My teacher and master, Rav Yehudah Amital, had discovered Kook’s writings as a boy in Hungary and smuggled them into the Nazi labor camp where he was enslaved. As a recent immigrant, he fought in the 1948 war for Israeli independence, emerged as an important educator and in 1968, became founding dean of the flagship West Bank yeshiva in Gush Etzion. He was also an important theologian for Gush Emunim. He had mounting doubts, however, and after the massacres of the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, he broke ties with most of his colleagues. “Three kinds of false messianism are afoot in the Land of Israel today,” he declared, “Peace Now, Ariel Sharon and Gush Emunim.” Each, he said, used an idea — good intentions, force and faith, respectively — to find a simple answer to a remarkably complex moral and political reality that no one idea could provide.
In the late 1980s, he established a religiously based peace party, which foundered on its own good intentions and its calculated reasonableness in the rough tides of Israeli politics.
Some of the students and successors of Zvi Yehudah continued his broadly integrative approach (between secular Jews and ultra-religious Jews), including, though in far more limited ways, his engagement with the general culture.
In response there emerged a different, harder-edged stream, self-described Ultra-Orthodox Zionist Nationalists, known by the acronym Hardal (Haredi-Leumi). It was led by Rabbi Zvi Tau, a brilliant disciple of Zvi Yehuda, a Holocaust survivor whose postwar studies in philosophy and literature led him to see in them, for Judaism, no less than a mortal danger.
He adopted ultra-Orthodoxy’s enclave mentality regarding Western culture and society, but not its profound theological suspicion of the Zionists’ state, and continued Zvi Yehudah’s vision of Israeli sovereignty as God’s embodiment on earth. Eschewing the mainstream Religious Zionist yeshivas in which students alternated between periods of military service and study, he encouraged his disciples either to go the way of the ultra-Orthodox or to first study intensely and then fully commit to military service and aim high for the officers’ corps.
Religious Zionism experienced a full-blown crisis when it was forced to encounter a messianism of a different kind: the “New Middle East” proclaimed by Foreign Minister Peres, chief architect of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
Meant to secure lasting peace, the Oslo Accords laid bare the differences between the wary, security-minded Prime Minister Rabin (for whom Oslo was an unpalatable but necessary step to secure Israel’s long-term existence as a Jewish democracy) and the technocratic Europhile Peres (who believed Oslo would bring the Middle East into the benevolent sweep of post-Cold War globalization). Oslo had caught Washington, and for that matter Rabin, by surprise, but the Religious Zionists even more. Long seeing themselves as Zionism’s idealistic pioneers, they were now depicted as obstacles to peace.
And this is where Rabin and his generation of Labor Zionists’ cultural poverty proved their undoing. Even though he did not dismiss the settlers’ security concerns — and, in many ways, was just as skeptical of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as they were — Rabin, a shy man by nature, spoke to almost no settlers, didn’t visit them and, while having warm exchanges in private, regularly derided them in public. The Palestinian violence accompanying Arafat’s ascendancy to power did nothing to assuage their fears.
I was in Israel in the summer of 1995, at a time when settlers were taking to the streets, protesting expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank in a series of chaotic demonstrations. Few Religious Zionist activists knew how to express their opposition in a constructive manner, but the words of a young rabbi stay with me till today. Addressing a synagogue, he spoke of the biblical rite of Yom Kippur, in which a goat is sacrificed to the demons of the desert by the high priest. “Why?” the rabbi asked the audience, before making the point that when we sacrifice something to the demons, the sacrifice needs to be made by someone who understands just what he is sacrificing, and to whom.
The import was clear — one might indeed have to sacrifice the Land of Israel to the devil, but that had to be done not by secular Europhiles but by sober-minded folk who understood the gravity of what they were, even if justifiably, giving away. That deeper analysis of what Oslo meant at the tectonic levels of Jewish history was hardly to be found in those days, on either side.
Still, it wasn’t a settler who, on Nov. 4, 1995, at the end of a pro-Oslo rally in Tel Aviv, pulled the trigger on Rabin and killed him. The assassin, Yigal Amir, came from the margins of Religious Zionism. He didn’t espouse messianic ideology, and before and after the murder he argued solely in terms of the massive danger that the Oslo Accord agreements posed to Jewish life. He hadn’t been educated in the communities of youth groups that, inspired by Zvi Yehudah, inculcated in students a reverence for the Jewish state.
After Rabin’s death, the Religious Zionists were widely blamed. On the Left, Rabin’s own guarded stance toward the peace process was tossed to the winds, and Oslo’s opponents were left discredited. A new slogan arose: “In his death he commanded us to pursue peace.” Whether the ever-cautious Rabin would have wanted anyone to see him as a martyr on behalf of his archrival Peres’ “New Middle East” no longer mattered.
The Intifada of 2000 destroyed the Oslo process and obliterated the political standing of Israel’s peace camp and the left. Nevertheless, several years later, when Sharon, now prime minister, announced Israel’s unilateral, unconditional withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the Religious Zionist leadership decided to pursue a different tactic. Their demonstrations would be peaceful, their rhetoric tame and inclusive. Yet the state drew on its toolkit for dealing with Palestinians — mass arrests, preventive detentions (including of minors) and more. And, like Rabin, Sharon wouldn’t talk to the settlers as the state razed their communities to the ground.
By not talking to either the Palestinians or the settlers, Sharon created a situation where, once security fell apart, many Religious-Zionist settlers felt the state had utterly turned against them. When Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the Religious Zionists’ most dire predictions about losing Israeli security (when the government dismantled all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and evacuated Israeli soldiers from there) had all come true.
Not long after the Gaza disengagement, I was visiting relatives in the major West Bank settlement of Ofra. They were discussing with friends where they would move in pre-’67 Israel should the government disengage from the West Bank too. A couple of years later, I raised the subject again. This time, they said to me, “Look at how Hamas is shooting from Gaza since the disengagement. We’re not going anywhere.”
Some in this newer generation of Religious Zionists, raised entirely during the settler movement, took away a bitter lesson: The state and its institutions didn’t care about them or even want to listen to their ideas. And so, those who cared about the settlers’ future decided that the state would have to be taken over, year by year and bit by bit. One of them was a 25-year-old radical planning to block highways to protest Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, leaving him in administrative detention. His name is Bezalel Smotrich.
A rabbi’s son, Smotrich grew up in Beit-El, a religious settlement in the West Bank. Unlike most young Religious Zionists, he spent many years in a yeshiva, and, well past combat age, did only partial military service as an assistant adjutant. He studied law one day a week, not at an elite university but at Kiryat Ono Academic College, one of the small colleges that arose to meet the needs of students who are ineligible for or uninterested in the country’s public universities.
Israeli society was getting used to a new kind of Religious Zionist — Naftali Bennett — elite commando officer, successful hi-tech entrepreneur, politically right, socially moderate, halakhically observant, but far from religiously intense. For many he seemed to validate the long-cherished NRP dream of full integration into Israeli society. Smotrich and others on the hard right viewed him and his ilk with scarcely disguised contempt.
Smotrich entered public life as the founder of the “Regavim” movement (“Clods of Earth”), which seeks to counter what it sees as anarchic Bedouin land grabs in the Negev Desert. Smotrich became a member of the Knesset in 2015, in one of the factions into which the old NRP was splintering, beginning a political career in which he formally called for the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority in 2017, advocated for Israel to annex Judea and Samaria, and sought that Palestinians be given status as residents but not citizens unless they swore full allegiance to Israel. In a brief tenure as transportation minister, he proved himself an adept and capable administrator.
The internal lines within hard-right Religious Zionism emerged during the 2021 post-election negotiations. It was a close shave and the balance was held by the moderate Islamist party of Mansour Abbas, who was being courted openly by the moderates Yair Lapid and Bennett and under the table by Netanyahu. The question was, in order to stop the emerging anti-Netanyahu coalition government led by Bennett, which would be more sinful: sitting in a coalition with an Islamist or, as Tau argued, with Jewish liberals, feminists and LGBTQ communities, who to his mind pose the more existential threat to a properly Jewish state? Smotrich said that sitting with a Palestinian who was tied, however moderately, to the Muslim Brotherhood would itself be the greater betrayal. Allowing feminists and liberals to take power, as bitter as it was, was the lesser evil. “Right-wing reliance on [Mansour] Abbas would be a crime that might bring a few more years in office for Netanyahu, but immediately afterwards rule would pass to a left [Israeli]-Arab partnership for many years, and bring catastrophe,” he said.
During the most recent campaign of 2022, Smotrich was caught on tape calling Netanyahu “a liar, son of a liar.” But Netanyahu needed to return to power so badly that he was willing to forgive Smotrich, who now controls the Finance Ministry as well as an ill-defined ministerial portfolio within the Defense Ministry, with responsibility for the civil administration of the West Bank.
Smotrich is a product of latter-day Kookianism, in which the elder Kook’s worldview has been shorn of its embrace of complexity and universal human sympathy. An ideologue through and through, Smotrich thinks that he has a full understanding of the deeper currents of world history, Jewish history and the innermost processes of Israeli societal structures — to such an extent that he can, with accuracy, pinpoint people’s ideological errors and correct them to align with a proper understanding of society and the state. Unlike Religious Zionists of the past, including Zvi Yehudah, Smotrich and his followers see themselves not as bridging figures between the state and society but as its true, deserving leaders: an intellectual, avant-garde, like the Labor Zionist revolutionaries of old, but with God on their side.
And that is just one of the differences between him and his co-leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Born in Jerusalem to second-generation immigrants from Iraq and Kurdistan, Ben-Gvir grew up in the middle-class Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion. Like many Mizrahim, his family was neither Orthodox nor secular but lived a life best described as traditional: respect for Jewish religion, a deep sense of peoplehood, religious observance less rigorous but deeply felt and faithful and (crucially) not spelled out in ideological terms.
The vehicle of Mizrahi politics in Israel’s recent decades has been the Shas Party, which rose under the magisterial spiritual leadership of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the cunning genius of his political lieutenant Aryeh Deri, now the party’s head and close confidante of Netanyahu. Sephardic traditionalism had long avoided the hard-and-fast ideological categories of the religious and secular arising out of the European experience. But starting in the 1980s, after decades of humiliation at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment, Shas finally adopted the European paradigm, turning its broad traditionalism into a marching ideology.
Ben-Gvir’s own religious-ideological awakening at age 12, though, during the First Intifada, derived not from Shas but from the teachings of American-born rabbi Meir Kahane, who emerged from the heady, radicalized New York of the 1960s and brought its furies to Zion.
A brilliant orator with a powerful analytic mind, Kahane channeled the post-Holocaust guilt, identity confusion, fear and rage of American Jewry, as well as Cold War dread and paranoia, liberalism’s impotence in the face of the racial violence of America’s collapsing inner cities, and the sheer Dionysiac rebellion against respectability of the 1960s into a fierce new Jewish activism.
After years posing, alarmingly well, as a non-Jew on behalf of the FBI and as an activist in support of the Vietnam War — a chapter that included an affair with a non-Jewish woman who eventually committed suicide — Kahane found his rabbinic voice and following on two fronts: the urban struggle with Black crime and the struggle to save Soviet Jewry. Both came from a beating heart. Kahane, in fairness, grieved for Jews in trouble and especially those, like grandmothers in Brooklyn and lonely activists behind the Iron Curtain, hidden from the view of increasingly powerful and mainstream American Jewish organizations allied to the (we now know, doomed) moderate wing of the Democratic Party.
New York City was where the great Jewish-Black liberal alliance was formed — it was there in 1909 that Black and Jewish activists first came together to found what would become the NAACP — and it was there that it fell apart. There were multiple reasons: a rising Black middle class seeking to take its place, as other New York minorities had before them, in city government just as reformers had swept away the patronage and political networks that had made those other groups’ rises possible. Blacks, frustrated with limited opportunities, criticized an overburdened educational system largely staffed and run by second- and third-generation immigrant Jews. Generations of racist urban policy had ruined the neighborhoods where poorer and lower-middle-class Blacks and Jews lived side by side, all as the shaky finances of New York City were buckling.
I grew up in the urban New York of the 1960s and ’70s, watching liberalism’s mounting inability to convince working and lower-middle-class white ethnics that the crime they were experiencing in their daily lives would be solved by government programs and at times was the price of social justice and progress. Kahane, older than me by 30 years, was watching too.
Kahane organized the Jewish Defense League, a place where young Jews, many of them children of Holocaust survivors, could learn self-defense (as the slogan went “every Jew a .22”), go out on patrol and do vigilante justice.
Kahane’s JDL wasn’t just a street gang. Adapting the militant Betar Jabotinskyite ideology he had learned at his father’s knee, he imposed discipline, aesthetics and national-racial consciousness, allying them to traditional religious ideas in ways that Jabotinsky never had.
Crucially, while Kahane absorbed some of the race war atmosphere of America in those years, he, unlike other whites, admired his Black opponents for their racial pride, unapologetic self-assertion, connection to the common people and breezy contempt for Martin Luther King Jr. and what they saw as his meaningless liberal pieties.
With time, Kahane moved on another front — Soviet Jewry.
Kahane was not the only person agitating on behalf of Soviet Jews, but he was there, with direct action (like organizing a student sit-in in, yes, Moscow), especially in the struggle’s early stages. As time went on, his moves became increasingly violent, with bombings and shootings, and the movement’s other activists left him behind, moving on to remarkable success. The secret to the movement’s success was its ability over time to unite, like almost nothing before or since, passions on behalf of universal human rights, mass demonstrations, Jewish peoplehood and mutual commitment alongside deft diplomatic lobbying and the best angels of America’s national interests and foreign policies. A union like that had no place for Meir Kahane.
In 1971 Kahane moved to Israel, transferring the street brawls of Brooklyn to the casbahs of Hebron, and founded a political party, Kach (Thus!). In the course of a decade, he lost three bids for the Knesset and had been arrested by the Israeli authorities upward of 60 times.
(In 1977, Kahane received an endorsement from none other than Zvi Yehudah Kook, a sign of just how far the son had moved from his father’s universalistic teachings). In 1984, the Central Elections Committee banned Kahane’s party for inciting racism; the Israeli Supreme Court shared the sentiment but said the committee didn’t have the statutory authority to issue the ban. A year later, a Knesset majority amended the election laws to prohibit parties explicitly or implicitly racist, but by then Kahane had finally won an election and was sitting among them, haranguing them as traitors to the Jewish people and Judaism. Eventually he was expelled from the Knesset.
On a visit to the U.S. in November 1990, Kahane was gunned down in Manhattan by an Egyptian American (who was acquitted of the assassination and, after a later conviction for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, admitted to having killed Kahane). One couldn’t help thinking that going down in a hail of bullets was something Kahane might have wanted or at the very least would have understood.
Kahane founded a yeshiva to propagate his teachings, which drew on his extensive knowledge of Jewish texts and rhetorical acuity. Kahane’s teachings are full of rage at the Jews’ enemies but no less at Jewish leaders who have stupidly internalized gentile wishes for polite, feeble Jews — and lost the meaning of Torah, which demands (not in America, but in Israel) theocracy, including Nuremberg-like laws against sexual mixing of Jews and Gentiles, and whose divine origin is the only thing that can keep Jewish national identity from being as contemptibly racist as the antisemites say it is.
A central element of Kahane’s theology is revenge — the Holocaust has so bent the horizons of morals and theology that only Jewish revenge can restore God’s place in the world. For the Kooks, father and son, Israel’s redemption, properly understood, is God’s blessing to humanity. For Kahane, it is His dark vengeance on a callous world.
Ben-Gvir never met Kahane, but coming of age in the furies of the intifada and the convulsions of Oslo, and seeking a deep religious identity other than the new Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy of Shas or the, by now, sectoral ranks of Religious Zionism, he found himself amid the ranks of Kahane’s followers. (Think of an African-American teen awakening to the writings of Malcolm X.) At 16, in 1992, a year before Oslo, he joined Kach. He first came to public attention in 1995 through the theatricality that has marked his public life; brandishing for the cameras a hood ornament he claims he had taken from Rabin’s car, he said “the same way we got to this ornament, we can get to Rabin.”
He became head of Kach’s youth wing and, after high school, studied in Kahane’s yeshiva. His youthful radicalism was so extreme that the Israel Defense Forces chose not to induct him into the army.
Over the years, Ben-Gvir became a regular target of Israeli police surveillance, and by early 2009, he had been indicted more than 45 times. Eventually, he went to law school and, after repeated appeals and an acquittal for an outstanding indictment, was admitted to the bar. He regularly represented Jewish activists from the farthest right of the spectrum, who assaulted mosques along with Israeli soldiers, hoping to inflame what to them are the unbridgeable tensions between being both a Jewish and democratic state.
As an attorney, Ben-Gvir proved himself an able advocate and talented showman and slowly made his way toward the political establishment, first as a parliamentary aide to a hard-right Knesset member and then as a candidate for the Kahanist party. Following a series of factional splits in the party, Ben-Gvir was elected to the Knesset in 2021 and subsequently merged his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party with Smotrich and a one-person party called “Noam,” devoted entirely to Tau’s anti-LGBTQ agenda. They ran again in 2022 and met with astonishing success.
In the Knesset, Ben-Gvir kept up his showmanship, moving his office to the deeply contested East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the site of years of protests over the government’s plans to evict Palestinian families who had lived there for generations to make way for Israeli settlements. To his mind, the prerequisite to coexistence with the Palestinians is their not harboring any national aspirations at all.
During the last election, Ben-Gvir showed some signs of moderation. Unlike the severe Smotrich, Ben-Gvir is affable, at times even charming, and seems genuinely to like people, even those in other camps, and to want to be liked by them. Former colleagues of his on the ultra-right tell me they think he has “gone establishment” and soft. When last fall he spoke, as he usually does, at an annual memorial service for Kahane and told the crowd that on a number of issues he has come to think Kahane was wrong, he was booed.
During the most recent election (November 2022), I stepped into Jerusalem’s open air market to buy some fruit, and there was Ben-Gvir, cameras and security people in tow, trying to explain to a supporter why he was in favor of Covid vaccines. I got close to him, he put his arm around me, and I asked him what he thought of religious leftists. Kahane would have said, “They’re heretical, deluded fifth columnists who need to be on a plane to Damascus.” Ben-Gvir smiled at me and said, “They’re my brothers.”
At the time of publication, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have been in power for more than half a year and the results have been astonishing.
Smotrich is now finance minister — with an avowed preference for hard-line, free-market ideology, except for settlements and ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, which to him are the essence of the national interest. He has also been given unprecedented roles as a defense official responsible for the civil administration in the territories and as the approver of new settlement activity. Even good-faith observers acknowledge that the administration is a mess badly in need of capable tending, as Israel’s decadeslong ambivalence about the territories has led to what even left-leaning observers say is chaos in land-use planning and housing.
But this deliberate blurring of civil-military functions within a single office while handing these powers to the person who decides on all state budgets is breathtaking. It is also characteristic of Smotrich, who has spent years studying the levers of government and carefully considering how to take them over one at a time.
Smotrich’s close ally, Simcha Rothman, is chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and, along with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, spearheading the program of undoing judicial review and, to many, including this writer, the very rule of law, which has brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the street for nearly 30 weeks in a row.
Though far more excitable than Smotrich, Rothman, too, has been thinking. His doctrine is a metastasizing of the populist idea of the will of the people. To him, the will of the people and the various compromises entailed in a governing coalition’s internal agreements are one and the same. Outside the coalition and its decisions, there is no democratic legitimacy. In Rothman’s view, which may indeed become law, the farthest ends of judicial restraint, Rousseauist will of the people and the Religious Zionist identification of the will of the Jewish people with the will of God come to a terrifying juncture.
Here, as elsewhere, we see one of Kook’s legacies, one he shared with many early Zionists — he simply couldn’t imagine Jews misusing power on a vast, collective scale. The price of this failure of imagination, noble as it was, is steep.
Nor could he have imagined disciples turning his shimmering universal visions into Leninist-style dogmatisms about how history must and will proceed.
Last January I had dinner with an old friend, a veteran Israeli general and committed Religious Zionist who has deep respect for his nonreligious colleagues, for shared state and societal institutions and for international law. He told me he had recently been discussing something with Smotrich. “And do you know what he said to me?” my friend asked.
I replied, “He said to you: ‘You just don’t understand.’”
“That’s right,” my friend said. “He told me, ‘You just don’t understand.’”
Ben-Gvir asked for and received the portfolio for the Ministry of Internal Security, now rechristened as the Ministry of National Security. Early on, there were discussions of expanding responsibilities, which would have been reasonable to talk about if we were speaking of any other minister but him.
He ran as a law-and-order candidate. The problems are real, to be sure. Crime in the Palestinian community is real, organized or not, shootings and protection rackets abound, and some Palestinian citizens of Israel (Israeli Arabs) voted for Ben-Gvir, taking him at his law-and-order word. They have been, to put it mildly, deeply disappointed. Crime has surged and lawlessness is pervasive.
For now, his most visible action has been his open conflict with the police forces he controls — endlessly second-guessing them on tactics, denouncing officers who fail to heed his dictates, urging severe retaliations against whole Palestinian communities against his officers’ better judgments, and generally trying to politicize the police force beyond all recognition.
Taken together, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich represent a new kind of religious populism, utterly fusing “democracy” with the will of their electorates. They are the tribunes of a new, rising subculture, with no humility toward the old elites. Indeed, the fact that neither of them did conventional military service seems not to diminish their confidence in their own judgments but to deepen it. Unlike their center-left opponents, they convincingly couch their ideas in terms and language reminiscent of Jewish history. Most of all, unlike so many on Israel’s battered center-left, they know their own minds.
The English writer Samuel Johnson famously once said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Liberalism, as a resistance to fanaticism and inevitable violence, support for freedom of speech, assembly and religion, and a transparent legal system to reinforce the basic trust and fairness, is being boiled down to its bare essentials. While they may be the necessary conditions for a decent society, it turns out they are not sufficient. Liberalism provides the humanity, the openness to discussion and dialogue and change that can keep core principles from rotting into excuses for violence. But those principles need something bigger than liberalism’s renunciations and civilities. People need a sense of belonging to something that can’t be bought or sold, of anchorage to something larger than themselves that is also shared with others, so as not to be lost in the inevitable decay and confusion of this world. They need something sacred, or they are lost. Decent politics secures their lives and well-being as they – we – spend our lives living in the shadow of questions to which, we know, there never can be one final answer, even if there is an eternal demand for mercy and justice.
That something has taken different forms over human history — people, place, God, all of them together or in parts. And they derive from the human condition.
We are born into families, clans, a language and a place; we eventually grow to live with others unlike ourselves, but even our most liberal, inclusive societies need to have some shared idea of the good if we are to survive at all. Zionism arose, as Ahad Ha-Am said, as an answer to the problem of the Jews and the problem of Judaism. For some decades it put together answers — radical and wracked with conflict — but enough to sustain a society and democracy through complex challenges. It has, in recent decades, been running aground, and many of its troubles are of its own making. In the protests of recent months, literally hundreds of thousands of Israelis who thought they had left ideological struggle behind are discovering just how deeply they care about core liberal values and how central those values are to their sense of themselves as Jews and Israelis.
There is a return neither to the old Socialist ideology of yesterday nor to the evasion of responsibility for the common life of Jews and Arabs, Israeli and Palestinian, now and in the future. More work will need to be done, of politics and organizing, but also of the mind.
Religious Zionism’s stunning rise was facilitated by the Israeli center-left’s long ideological collapse. Netanyahu’s assault on not only the center-left but on civil society and the rule of law has been swifter and more sweeping than anyone could have imagined. The existential questions are now on the table, as the center-left fights for its very life.
When the Zionist genius worked, however, it was with a remarkable mix of pragmatism and vision — which, yes, was a moral vision as well. If the center-left doesn’t recapture both the pragmatism and the vision, it will vanish — and not only in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.