Article Library / 2016

2016 Annual Assessment

The two phenomena just discussed – the attempt on the part of Religious Zionists to become part of the moral, political, and cultural leadership of Israel, and the decline in religiosity among part of the Religious Zionist camp seem to be related. The reduction in religiosity allows part of the Religious Zionist community, and especially its political leadership, to project an image of Religious Zionists as stakeholders in the Israeli mainstream lifestyle, not a religiously outlandish sectarian community. The Religious Zionist leadership hopes this projection will ease their entrance into national leadership positions and their acceptance by the broader Israeli public. Thus, what we have here is a truly dialectical process. Decreased religiosity within the Religious Zionist community will facilitate Religious Zionist leadership at the national level in Israel, and in turn increase religionization of the Israeli public sphere.

A number of phenomena seem to exhibit these dialectical characteristics. The first is the journalistic phenomenon Motzash, which is sort of the style, arts, culture, and home supplement of Makor Rishon, one of Israel’s mor conservative newspapers. Motzash is a portmanteau of Motzei Shabbat, Saturday night. Originally, in a chatty, gossipy style, it covered fashion, fads, social trends, personalities, and politics in the Religious Zionist sector. This supplement, which first appeared about five years ago, signifies a recognition of the reality that if the Israeli state and society are to embody divine ideals, somehow these ideals will be intertwined with these mundane, materialistic objects and concerns.

In February 2016, Motzash announced a new departure: that it would expand its scope beyond the consumerist and cultural issues of the Religious Zionist sector, and cover Israeli culture and consumerism as a whole. It is worth quoting from the opening letter from the publisher announcing the change:

“In these past five years [since the founding of Motzash], the [Religious Zionist] public itself has engendered a revolution and has captured new heights. Its increasing influence in the all-Israeli public space is recognizable in every sphere: in politics, in the military, in the defense establishment, in the media, and in culture.

We transformed ourselves from followers into leaders. We matured.

Also, we at Motzash decided that it is time to become mature. To exit … our little shtetl. To construct another story upon our strong foundations, to ascend and widen our gaze to the left and to the right to the horizon…”27

This letter not only confirms the process elaborated in this chapter, it celebrates it. The “new” Motzash does not shy away from sensationalist topics such as prostitution. But it also devoted a recent special issue favorable to the changes in Israeli culture being led by Miri Regev.28 In other words, leading, even if it means to open a space for traditional-religious Mizrachi and Dati creations it also entails a greater openness to more worldly and non-religious phenomena.

A similar dialectic obtains vis-a-vis the military. While, as we have seen, many observers have noticed (and some have expressed concern about) the increasing influence of rabbis and their institutions on the Israeli military, the characteristics of the Mechinistim, the officers and elite soldiers who are graduates of the mechina, are a different story. Although filled with motivation and deep adherence to Religious Zionist ideology, they are also in many ways “regular guys,” who listen to the same music and watch the same sports and movies as the other soldiers. Thus, their leadership and influence are more easily accepted. Despite its ambition of educating the entire military into its ideology of integral nationalism, in certain ways the military rabbinate has also proved accommodating. The Chief Rabbi of the IDF has allowed, for instance, soldiers to participate in ceremonies and events that include women singing.

Developments in political ideology have followed a similar path. About 15 years ago, scholars at Bar-Ilan University (a university under Orthodox auspices) started to translate Religious Zionist political theology into more universalist political philosophical terms. On the basis of Aristotle, Machiavelli, the Roman political tradition and other thinkers and traditions, these scholars started to hold up “republican (collectivist or communitarian) democracy” and nationalism as autonomous political ideals. That is, they provided justifications for these ideals not on the basis of R. Kook’s theology and metaphysics, but on the basis of Western philosophical arguments. It would seem that they undertook this enterprise because they realized that in order to have an impact on Israeli public discourse they need to formulate their viewpoint and ideology in universalistic and Western terms, and because they themselves wished to be less sectarian and obscurantist and more part of the Israeli intellectual mainstream. Thus, the Department of Political Science and the Law School at Bar Ilan, together with think tanks and foundations29 continue to train cadres of young scholars with a nationalist and “republican” point of view couched in Western and secular – and not in theological or metaphysical – terms. Some of these young scholars played central roles in the reform and the revision of the national civics curriculum to reflect a more nationalist and republican outlook.30

The process detailed in this section, was clearly a central plank of the electoral strategy adopted by Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home Party. Bennett himself did not study in a yeshiva and seems to belong to the more religiously relaxed pole of the Religious Zionist community. His wife, Gilat, did not grow up Orthodox and she does not cover her hair nor always dress in standard Orthodox garb. In a recent favorable interview in Motzash, designed to make her more acceptable to the Jewish Home’s Orthodox constituents, she admitted that accommodating herself to the Orthodox way of life was still a process.31 As we have already pointed out, Jewish Home’s number-two party leader, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, is a secular Tel Aviv woman. Secular figures such as Ronen Shoval and Danny Dayan were encouraged to compete in the most recent primaries, and the party’s parliamentary delegation at first included Yinon Magal, a well know grass smoking Tel Aviv media person. This strategy seemed work in the 2013 elections; Jewish Home increased its representation by four mandates. In 2015, however, those mandates went over to the Likud. From our point of view, the results of both elections were very similar. Religious/right-wing voters want to vote for Religious Zionist integral nationalist politicians in a framework that is not narrowly sectarian or sectorial, but rather national and concerned with Israeli society as a whole.

The recent IDI survey we quoted earlier may confirm this. The survey showed that fully 22 percent of the Jewish Israeli population “belong” to the National Religious sector. Of these, 24 percent define themselves as “traditional-religious,” and another 12 percent identified as “traditional-not religious” or secular. In other words, fully 36 percent of those who identity as National Religious are not fully Orthodox and practice a religious life style that is less observant than what had been considered the core National Religious population.