In recent years, we have seen the rise of right-wing religious nationalism in Israel. This trend is growing due to several factors: demographic trends in Israel; the crisis of the Israeli left; growing doubts over the legitimacy of ruling elites; the collapse of the Oslo peace process; the increasing solidification of the notion among Israelis that “there is no Palestinian partner for peace”; an erosion of the self-confidence of Israeli secularism; and the general violence raging throughout the Middle East, which is seen by many as reaffirming the right’s worldview.
In this sense, developments in the National-Religious sector are especially interesting. This sector’s leadership has in recent years focused on openly and aggressively seeking to provide moral and political leadership for the state and for Israeli society. The National-Religious sector adheres to a nationalistic version of Zionism with some prominent characteristics: it sees the return to Zion and the establishment of a Jewish state not necessarily in Herzlian terms (as an answer to the Jewish problem) as its goal, rather as the necessary fulfilment of National-Religious ideals. It believes that the State of Israel should reflect Jewish interests. The National-Religious sector seeks to reshape the normative intellectual and moral basis of authority on which the Israeli legal system rests. In this framework, they imbue a greater authority to values that draw from the religious world and Jewish legacy, rather than from the secular-liberal-cosmopolitan world.
The National-Religious sector seeks to implement this goal – its push for the moral and political leadership of the country – through the Jewish Home Party, prominent religious figures in the Likud Party, and through its attempt to garner influence in the ranks of the civil service, the press, and the military leadership where National-Religious officers are increasingly prominent.
The National-Religious worldview is expressed, first and foremost, in trying to settle and annex West Bank territories. With its current control of the justice and education ministries (Ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett respectively), it is advancing policies and legislation that emphasize Jewish identity and the interests of the state as the nation-state of the Jewish people. There are those who see these initiatives as anti-liberal and a threat to the principles of equality and civil rights. In the educational sphere, they are advancing curricula that emphasize Jewish identity and nationalism, and weaken the commitment to liberal and universal values. Although only a fifth of the entire population considers itself as “belonging” to the National-Religious camp, broad segments of the population identify wholly or in part with National-Religious policies on issues of politics, security, and education. What distinguishes religious Zionism is that it provides a complete ideological vision and intellectual anchor that posits a coherent alternative to the ideology of secular Zionism that has ruled the country since its founding.
Possible Implications for how the West Relates to Israel
- As the West itself is highly polarized, dynamics in Israel could lead to contradictory results. For liberal segments in the West, Israel could be seen to be moving away from the shared values it was once thought to have. However, this is not necessarily the case with conservative elements in the West, who stress nationalism over cosmopolitanism and are averse to the existing order.
- We can expect increasing criticism from liberal voices in the West over Israel’s perceived lack of commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a two-state solution; its attempts to push legislation seen as illiberal, and ever increasing demands to include religious content in the education system (there is a greater sympathy for such efforts among Republicans in the United States and right-wing elements in Europe).
- Among liberal groups in the United States, there may be growing perception that the principles that traditionally formed the foundation of the special relationship between Israel and America are eroding in Israel (equality under the law, personal freedoms, social justice, ethics, democracy, religious pluralism, human rights, and the fair treatment of minorities).