Opinion Articles

From Isolation to Integration

In today’s Israel, so heavily under the influence of identity politics, is there still a need for a religious Zionist party, which, even as it extols the virtues of placing country above party and ideology—remains very much a sectoral phenomenon?

The ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs seek to disengage from Israeli society and maintain their separate identities (religious and national, separately). So it’s easy to understand why, from their perspective, a sectoral political entity is essential, and why most Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews vote overwhelmingly for “their” parties. But there is a crucial difference between these two groups and the religious Zionists. Religious Zionism does not want to isolate itself, but rather to integrate. This has been its banner from the very start. If so, why should there be a separate religious Zionist political party?

In the past, religious political parties existed to pursue two goals. The first was to enact religious legislation that would realize the halakhic (collective body of Jewish religious laws) vision of the Jewish state (in the first generation after independence) and preserve Jewish identity, in the religious sense, of the public space in Israel (in the second generation). The second goal was to consolidate a political force that could ensure the allocation of the resources needed to sustain and develop the sector’s institutions—a school system, youth movements, yeshivas, a women’s organization, and more. 

But the age of religious legislation in the classic sense has passed. Its drawbacks vastly outweigh its benefits. From a religious point of view, not only is there no value to coercion, it actually leads to alienation from religion. Thus we see that in the last decade there has been almost no support in the Knesset for introducing Halakha into Israeli law book. 

The continued failings of both the religious leadership (which has shied away from providing spiritual and halakhic responses to the challenge of national sovereignty) and the political leadership (which has never missed an opportunity to miss out on a chance for reasonable compromise arrangements) have left us with a large group of Israelis who hold Judaism dear, but who, because the religious politicians “own” the issue of Jewish identity in the public arena – have has lost sight of the importance of these issues on a cultural and national level. The continued branding of any activity focused on Jewish identity as, by definition, religious, that has been produced by religious politics, is a proven recipe for failure.

To this we can add the issue of budgets. On this front, the religious are no different than any other group. They have legitimate needs that justify drawing on state funding in order to preserve their collective identity; and the state must not sell these needs short. However, these needs will be met even if there were no party specifically designated as “religious” since reality is that the Knesset has many religious Zionist members, both in the coalition and in the opposition. The fear of budgetary discrimination is unfounded. 

Today, religious politics focus mainly on promoting settlement in the Tterritories (Judea and Samaria). But this is really a national project that does not require the existence of a separate religious political entity.

Integration is happening. Most religious Zionists maintain their distinct lifestyle, while not separating themselves from the rest of Israel. They choose to be IDF officers, judges, mayors, professors, artists, and journalists – partners in every aspect of Israeli life, as part and parcel of their religious Zionist identity. The time has come to realize the goal of integration not only at the individual—but also on the political level. 

Paradoxically, but quite obviously, over the years the existence of a religious party has exempted the rest of the Knesset from taking responsibility for the meaning and place of Jewish values in national life, and allowed them to avoid a serious discussion about the Jewish identity of the state. The tine has come to encourage the opposite trend, with religious Zionists taking their place in the senior echelons of all political parties in Israel. In this way, the religious Zionist revolution would take the next step to full maturity, and discover new horizons are opening before it.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Report