Opinion: Engage Moderate Religious Zionists on Israeli Judicial Reform

Beneath the sound and fury of the conflict between contending sides for or against the “reform” of the justice system, Israeli politics and society may be undergoing a tectonic shift.

A potential is developing for a small, but crucial voting population to shift from the religious right to engagement and partnership with the center, politically and even culturally.

A commonplace understanding of Israeli politics is that it comprises two frozen blocs – a right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu and Center-Left bloc that opposes him. Among the Jewish population, the right-wing bloc is reportedly the larger of the two. Supposedly, voters move within blocs but not across them.

This situation may be changing as a result of a relatively new development in Israeli politics – the question of the fate of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). This issue, which has, for two generations, defined Israeli politics, is becoming less and less relevant. For better or worse, almost all parties – including the US – agree that a realistic peace process is not in the offing and that these territories will remain under Israeli control indefinitely.

This situation has presented the religious Zionist camp with a dilemma. How to react to the new situation? The more hardline camp, represented by the Religious Zionist bloc (Bezalel Smotrich, Simcha Rothman and Avi Maoz), understood it simply as a triumph of the religious Right. “We won,” they say and believe they should consolidate their victory, not only by increasing and deepening the settlement enterprise, but also by reshaping Israel domestically in a more majoritarian and illiberal fashion.

Naftali Bennet. Photo by Ehud Amiton/TPS

The other camp, which had been represented politically by Naftali Bennett and the rabbinical and ideological figures associated with him, such as the late Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, saw this as an opportunity to move Israel in a more nationalist direction. They aimed to do this in partnership with secular elements (such as Ayelet Shaked) and allow more room in the public tent for non-Orthodox streams and women.

Thus, the curriculum created under Bennett’s leadership for “Jewish-Israeli Culture” in the general educational system presented secular, national and cultural approaches to Judaism alongside Orthodox religious ones. In fact, Bennett supported the creation of a non-Orthodox worship space at the Western Wall, and the religious services minister from his party, Matan Kahana, worked to limit the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over both conversion and kashrut certification.

This stream reflected more liberal and dynamic interpretations of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook’s foundational religious Zionist philosophy, which seek a genuine synthesis between religion and modern secular culture. The “victory,” as it were, of the religious right regarding the Greater Land of Israel has opened up the possibility of religious moderation on other issues.

Thus, while the majority of Yamina voters were adamantly against Bennett joining the “Government of Change” with Yair Lapid, an important minority, including intellectuals associated with the historical leadership of the ultranationalist Gush Emunim movement, supported the move.

Much of that support was based on the Bennett-Lapid government’s promise to end the relentless cycle of elections, and carry out vital government tasks such as the approval of a budget. But there was also something else, especially in the more intellectual and ideological circles – a chance to engage and partner with secular and even left-wing voices.

Perhaps out of such engagement, something new could emerge that would go beyond the familiar dichotomy of left-right, pro, and anti-Bibi that Israeli society and politics is stuck in. Such a synthesis, some thought, would manage to combine the moral idealism of the left, with its emphasis on human rights and support of oppressed minorities, with the religious and nationalist commitments of the religious right.

Of course, it didn’t work. The Palestinians and the Bedouin did not cooperate, and partnership with Mansour Abbas’ Islamist party, and the left-wing Meretz party during a time of heightened security tension was a non-starter. After a year, the government fell and Yamina disintegrated.

Israelis take part in an anti-government protest outside Jerusalem’s Supreme Court against the government’s judicial reforms. Jerusalem. Photo by Shalev Shalom/TPS

Nevertheless, there is a Religious Zionist community, perhaps worth four or five Knesset seats, that is interested in some sort of synthesis between Orthodox religion and secular modernity. Observers have pointed out the prevalence of men with Kippot and women with covered hair at the recent anti-government demonstrations. There has even been talk of holding demonstrations in the religious Zionist Gush Etzion settlements.

This community does not want to live in an illiberal state that doesn’t respect human and women’s rights and has gaping openings for corruption. Yet it wants to balance these concerns with religious and national considerations. It does not simply endorse the unmitigated liberalism of Meretz or the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

If those who are against the “reform” of the legal system really want to move the needle, they should try and engage with this community. The moderate Religious Zionists who voted for Yamina are a community in play. Some of them had voted for Smotrich and the Religious Zionist list out of a lack of an alternative, but they are not happy about it, especially now.

Many recent op-eds and columns in Makor Rishon, the Israeli newspaper associated with religious Zionism, have called for reining in the “reform” and engaging with the opposition. Both the secular liberal left and the Religious Zionist dissenters should seize this opportunity and engage.

There may be a chance for a breakthrough, however modest, that shouldn’t be missed. If even a small number of seats moves from the illiberal right and finds common ground with the liberal camp, it could change the entire Israeli political picture.

First published by The Jerusalem Post.