One ongoing topic of political and social discussion in Israel today is the changing character of leadership, or of the “elites.” This change is thought to occur in regard to both the governing elites and the leadership in other crucial spheres, such as the military and the media. To the extent that this change is occurring it is consequential because it will be bound up with changes in policy, and in behavior and substance. In this chapter we will focus upon one population sector involved in these processes – the Religious Zionist sector*. This sector, for the most part, carries its own approach to Zionism and Jewish nationalism, and, as we shall see, is eager to exercise moral and political influence and leadership.
As commonly defined, the Religious Zionist community constitutes about 10-12 percent of the population1, however, according to a recent survey, this community comprises about one fifth of the Jewish population.2
Despite its small size, the Religious Zionist community has an outsized impact on Israeli public life. It has spearheaded the movement to settle Judea and Samaria (that is, the occupied territories of the West Bank), and today its members make up a very sizable portion of the IDF’s officer corps (in combat units they make up over a third of the officers). Moreover, in the current government they control three ministries, two of which have an important impact on general Israeli public life – the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice. Just as important, for the first time in the history of the state, three of the most senior positions in the security and defense establishment – Head of the Mossad, Head of General Security Service (Shin Bet), and Chief of Police are held by people who were raised in the Religious Zionist community.
Religious Zionism arose and developed as an attempt to integrate Orthodox Judaism and modern nationalism. Within this framework, Religious Zionists view the flourishing of the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the control and settlement of the Land of Israel as essential parts of the religious way of life they are committed to.
The first development is the increased crystallization of the drive to have an impact upon, and even lead, the political, cultural, and moral life of Israel. Religious Zionism constitutes an alternative, integral formulation of Jewish nationalism, which is different from, and even opposed to, liberal formulations insofar as it tends to give priority to collective belonging and collective goals over individual goals, needs, and ambitions. Religious Zionist moral and political leadership would aim to strengthen the Jewish nationalist character of the State of Israel and its attachment to the Greater Land of Israel. Currently, the Religious Zionist community aims to exercise this leadership through its prominence in the military, through its control of the Education and Justice Ministries and the policies and legislation they initiate and implement, and through grass roots efforts at education and local communal leadership.
In addition to the attempt at leadership implemented through the Jewish Home Party and organizations fully identified with the Religious Zionist sector, the Religious Zionist public also attempts to exercise leadership through the ruling Likud Party.
A second development is that there has been a reduction in religiosity among part of the Religious Zionist public. While this development has only fully affected part of the community, it has had a good deal of public visibility and discussion. It is noteworthy because it partially reverses the trend that has characterized Religious Zionism for the past generation or so.
As Religious Zionism presents a public image that is less sectarian and stringently religious, its integral nationalist agenda and nationalist leadership can become more generally acceptable. This trend also finds expression in the attempt to appoint non-observant representatives of the Jewish Home Party to the Knesset and the Government.