Religious Zionism and the Struggle for Israel’s Soul

The far right’s foothold in the new government has been in the making for a while

Religious Zionism and the Struggle for Israel’s Soul
A protester in Tel Aviv holds a placard with a photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on January 8, 2023. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: In the shadow of a series of weekly mass demonstrations in Israel against right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to curb the powers of the country’s Supreme Court, matters came to a head over the weekend when the premier fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant after the latter took the side of the protesters and urged negotiations with Netanyahu’s political opposition. Among the most prominent of those calling for Gallant’s dismissal was National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of the Religious Zionist bloc critical to Netanyahu’s narrow governing majority. Subsequently, Netanyahu said he would pause in his power grab against the judiciary. Below is an excerpt from our spring print edition from an essay that offers a more exhaustive look at the history of the Religious Zionist movement and how it has grown in power to affect current politics in Israel.

Consider this stance: The Religious Zionist bloc, which, in agreeing to be part of the new Israeli government has helped Benjamin Netanyahu cling to power as prime minister, is, along with the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, 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 Netanyahu’s 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 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.

Israel’s moderate center and left have been adrift for years. They are now raising their voices 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.

Personalities matter as well, of course; in this case, one remarkable figure, Netanyahu, is 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.

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 has 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.

Making up part of that coalition are the Religious Zionist bloc’s two leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who 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 and the Second Intifada. Finally, they must deal with 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, two overriding, related issues are 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”) 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 will continue to be a matter of debate, beyond the scope of this essay). 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 sparked only 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 pushing hard to roll back the judiciary, which it perceives as an ideological opponent and an obstacle in its struggle for power.

Some in the newer generation of Religious Zionists, raised entirely during the troubled settlement movement in the West Bank, have taken 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 activist who had once closed down a highway 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 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 a long-cherished dream among an early Religious Zionist party — the National Religious Party (NRP) — 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 the West Bank 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. 

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 anyone 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, 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, 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 (Jews from the Middle East and Central Asia), 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 borne 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 during the First Intifada of the late ’80s and early ’90s, though derived not from Shas but from the teachings of American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the far-right Jewish Defense League who emerged from the heady, radicalized New York of the 1960s and brought its furies to Zion.

A central element of Kahane’s theology was revenge — the Holocaust has so bent the horizons of morals and theology that only Jewish revenge can restore God’s place in the world.

Ben-Gvir never met Kahane, who was killed in New York by an Egyptian-born American who was later implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. 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, Ben-Gvir found himself amid the ranks of Kahane’s followers. 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 that “the same way we got to this ornament, we can get to Rabin.”

He became head of the youth wing of Kach (Kahane’s political party) 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 a 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 another one-person party. 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.

At the same time, Ben-Gvir has shown 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 a few months ago 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 campaign last November, 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.”

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 an unprecedented role as a defense official responsible for the civil administration in the territories. 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. 

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. 

Last January I had dinner with an old friend, a veteran Israeli general and deeply 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, and that is what he must now deliver. The problems are real, to be sure. Crime in the Palestinian community is real, organized or not, shootings and protection rackets abound, and it seems some Palestinian citizens of Israel (Israeli Arabs) may even have voted for Ben-Gvir. Whether he is willing to listen to criminologists and consider workable ideas, such as community-based policing, remains to be seen. 

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. 

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. 

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