Religious Zionism? I'm bucking the trend

Ezra Schwartz

I recently made aliyah, the fulfillment of a dream building inside me for a long time.

There is no doubt that Bnei Akiva has had a large influence on my life. I grew up going to Bnei Akiva Shabbat programs, I went to Camp Moshava and I eventually became a leader in the movement as a unit head in camp and as a bus leader on Mach Hach BaAretz. This is where I became ideologically motivated, learned about Zionism and gained a love for the people and the land of Israel.

I have personally always felt that Bnei Akiva has room for a wide range of ideologies and political opinions. As a youth movement I believe its purpose is to motivate and inspire the youth, and to empower them to stand up and live their ideals. I do not believe its purpose is to stifle the youth by imposing ideologies from the top-down, and in my Bnei Akiva experience I have always felt the freedom and power to formulate my own ideas.

Today, I identify as a proud boger of Bnei Akiva and member of the religious Zionist community. However, there are certain ideologies associated with religious Zionism and Bnei Akiva that I do not identify with. As someone who feels at home in these communities, I feel obligated to speak out and influence them as best I can.

What is religious Zionism?

The establishment of the State of Israel brought a radical change to the structure of the Jewish people. This historic return to Jewish sovereignty is the fulfillment of 2,000 years of Jewish longing. The idea that one day the Jewish people would return from all corners of the Earth to Israel was first formulated in the Bible over 3,000 years ago¹. We have experienced in our days what was described by the Prophet Zecharia as impossible, or ‘peleh’ in Hebrew. And what is this impossible event? “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem…  And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares…  it will seem impossible to the remnant of this people in those days…” (Zecharia 8:4-6)  The religious person who has seen these "impossible" events with his eyes recognizes the miracle in the modern State of Israel.

A religious person relates to the world through their religion, and hence seeks an outlook which recognizes that God runs the world, and will try to live their life by the laws and ideals of their religion. A Zionist is one who believes in the rebirth of the Jewish people through creating and living in a state of their own where they can be free to build their national future. To be a ‘religious Zionist’ means being devoted to building and supporting Israel, recognizing God’s hand in the miracle of the State of Israel and seeking to ensure that Israel builds its future in a way consistent with Judaism.

Today it seems that religious Zionism is equated with right-wing political Zionism. This can be seen by looking at the Bayit HaYehudi political party; this party is a religious Zionist party which is meant to represent religious Zionist interests. Ayelet Shaked is a self identifying secular woman from Tel Aviv but she has the second seat in the party because her right-wing Zionist policies match up so well with the ideals of this religious party. I would like to investigate these policies which seem to be the driving force of the religious Zionist masses and show that this equation is not valid.

The settlement enterprise

Firstly it seems the religious Zionist movement is concerned with the settlement project. Israel is about to celebrate fifty years since the victory of the Six Day War. Leading up to the war Israel feared the armies of three Arab countries led by Nasser who was boasting he would “throw the Jews in the sea”. In six short days Israel conquered the entire Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and most significantly the West Bank and East Jerusalem. With these lands under Israeli control came a desire to return to the heart of biblical Israel.  The ancient Israelites did not dwell on the coastal plain as most modern Israelis do, but rather in the mountains of Judea and Samaria. This led to the establishment of many settlements in the West Bank which now has nearly 400,000 Jewish inhabitants².

Although I have lived in the settlements and still visit frequently, as a religious person and as a Zionist I must be opposed to the current policies of Israel in the West Bank. The settlement project seeks to bring as many Jews as possible to the West Bank and settle in as much of the land and strategic areas as possible. Inherent in this movement is the concept that ‘this is our land’, not called West Bank, but Judea and Samaria, the heart of the Jewish homeland. It is this aspect which I see as problematic, our land, ours and not theirs. This ‘them’ is of course the Palestinian people, close to three million of whom live in the West Bank. Though these people live there and call it home, their claim to the land is considered by the settlement enterprise to be of less validity than ours.

In the story of Abraham we are told of a fight between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham. The text does not say what this dispute was about, but Rashi comments the following³:

AND THERE WAS A QUARREL - because Lot’s shepherds were wicked men and grazed their cattle in other people’s fields. Abram's shepherds rebuked them for this act of robbery, but they replied, “The land has been given to Abram, and since he has no son as heir, Lot will be his heir: consequently this is not robbery”. Scripture, however, states: “The Canaanite and the Perizzite abode then in the land”, so that Abram was not yet entitled to possession.

Even if the land of Israel is promised to the Jewish people, it does not permit us to ignore the existing non-Jewish communities in Israel and act as if their land was our own.

The Judaism I was raised with valued not only strictly narrow Jewish values but universal values as well. Since conquering the West Bank in 1967 Israel has not annexed the West Bank declaring that it is fully Israeli territory under Israeli law. Since Oslo, Israel’s policy has been that this land or most of it will become part of a future Palestinian state. Currently neither seems to be true, the West Bank is not formally Israeli territory, but Israel continues to settle the land with its citizens and maintain military control.  In the current state of affairs Jews living in a yishuv in the West Bank are citizens of Israel and have full rights under Israeli law, they can vote and travel freely within all of Israel. Palestinians living in a village next door do not share these equal rights. They are not citizens of Israel, they vote for the Palestinian Authority, but this is not a national body with full autonomy and ultimately they are controlled by Israel’s government and policies. Palestinians do not have freedom to travel where they want. Within the West Bank their movements are restricted and they certainly can’t travel into Israel proper without getting a proper visa. Ultimately Palestinians’ lives are controlled by a country of which they are not citizens.

Some may call me naïve; surely the restrictions on the Palestinian people are because of security reasons and to prevent terrorist attacks. I do not doubt that there is truth in this, and I am grateful for the protection of the army which allows me to feel safe in my country. But how much of our presence in the West Bank is for security and how much is out of a desire to settle in Judea and Samaria? I do not accept the argument that we must be in the West Bank for security reasons. The majority of security experts⁴, including heads of the Shin Bet such as Yuval Diskin, feel that Israel will be safer if it withdraws from the West Bank to create a separation barrier and border between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. Often policy influences security considerations and not the other way around. If Israel were to be guaranteed peace and end of all conflict and hostilities with its Arab neighbors in exchange for a withdrawal from the West Bank, the security argument would longer be applicable. Nonetheless, many would still wish to see all of Judea and Samaria become exclusively Jewish land.

I am not against Jews living in the West Bank. I think it rightfully can be considered part of Israel and Jews have a right to live there. What I am against is the current situation in which residents are treated differently based on ethnicity. Israel must either decide that the West Bank is part of its sovereign state land or that it isn’t. If it is, then annex it and grant citizenship to its residents as it has done in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In principal this is a just and moral solution however it may lead to a demographic situation in which Jews are no longer the majority in Israel. Therefore I believe Israel must seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians which would lead to Israel withdrawing from the land⁵ and separating from the Palestinians. This will allow the Jewish people to continue building their country and give the Palestinians the opportunity to build their own society.

If Israel does annex the West Bank then I cannot accept a situation which does not grant the Palestinians equal rights as Israelis. I am vehemently opposed to an immoral ‘transfer’ in which the Palestinians would be forcibly removed or pressured to leave their homeland. During the long centuries of exile Jews desired an end to the anti-Semitism in their host countries which saw the Jews as foreigners who should either be treated as second-class citizens or removed from the country. Now that we have a country for ourselves can we possibly treat the Palestinians in a way which we ourselves felt was unjust? Shall we behave as our hosts in the exile behaved toward us? If God promised us the land does that mean we can act here in a manner which we would think to be forbidden to non-Jews to act to us? In the word of the Talmud: “Is it possible that there is anything at all which is permitted to a Jew, yet nonetheless is prohibited to a non-Jew?”⁶

As a religious person I cannot accept the oppression and inequality imposed on the Palestinians or on Arab citizens of Israel. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”⁷

As a Zionist I am against annexation which would alter Israel’s Jewish majority. Today Israel has a Jewish majority of 75% and a 20% Arab minority. If Israel were to annex the West Bank and offer all its residents citizenship, Jews would maintain only an approximately 57% to 40% majority over the Arabs⁸, and we haven’t even begun to discuss the Arabs of Gaza. In such a situation and with high Arab birth-rates the future of Israel as a Jewish state is uncertain. As a Zionist I believe the future of the Jewish people is tied to Israel and its ability to be a homeland for the Jews where we can fulfill our national aspirations.

I am open-minded and happy to engage in conversation and debate about the country I care so deeply about. However, let me stress that I have come to these conclusions as a direct result of my religious Zionist values and not in spite of them.

Messianic Zionism

The second trend I want to discuss is the connection between religious Zionism and Messianism. I believe that inherent in the policies favoured by many religious Zionists is the belief that these actions are part of the redemption and will hasten the coming of Messiah. It was obvious since the establishment of the state that we have entered a new era in Jewish history. The Jewish people are no longer homeless and scattered. Israel today is the country with the largest Jewish population in the world, home to some 45% of world Jewry. We have an army to protect us and are a growing and prosperous nation. However, the physical redemption of our times comes without the spiritual or revelation aspects that tradition has taught us will come with the ultimate redemption and the coming of Messiah.

When the State was established, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog composed the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel which refers to the state as reishit tzmichat geulateinu, the first flowering of our redemption. This view is held by many religious Jews who see the State of Israel as a step towards the ultimate redemption.

The question is what the implications of this belief are. There is no doubt that we have witnessed the in-gathering of exiles and the return of the Jews to their land, fulfillment of ancient prophecies concerning the redemption. But does this mean that the ultimate redemption is quick to follow, that soon God’s kingdom will be established on Earth and the temple will be rebuilt? As religious Jews we believe that the Messiah may come every day. But can we rely on this Messianic belief, assume that Messiah will come tomorrow and act based on that? How can we presume to know God’s intention? One who mixes messianism and politics goes down a dangerous road. Political decisions should be based on all possible scenarios. Crafting policy based on events that may or may not occur is absurd and dangerous even for the religious person.

A few years ago I was at a Friday night event for university students with guest Rabbi Eli Sadan, Rosh Yeshiva and head of the influential religious Mechina Eli. During his talk Rabbi Sadan spoke about how God was fulfilling his promises to the Jewish people, and explained that Israel was fully safe and guaranteed to succeed because we had begun the path toward redemption, a path which could not be retraced. After he finished I asked him whether he was falling into the same trap as the ‘false prophets’ quoted by Jeremiah⁹ who claimed that God would not dare destroy His holy temple. He viewed the state as being so holy that he wasn’t able to see that anything could possibly go wrong. Rabbi Sadan’s response terrified me, he quoted the Gemara saying that we have been promised that the temple will not be destroyed a third time. What implications can we infer from this? Is the temple already built? Can we really act as though our actions don’t matter because God will protect His people and His land?

It is presumptuous for a Jew to think he knows God’s plans. We cannot even begin to understand how God runs His world. With an event like the return of the Jews to their land and the creation of a Jewish State we must surely thank God, it is our duty religiously to recognize God’s hand and thank Him for the goodness He bestows on us. But this does not mean that I assume that if God has given this good it is because He has started a path which cannot be retraced. I can see God’s hand in the creation of the state and in the miracle of redemption of the six-day war. However, I don’t suppose that this means that the rest of the redemptive phases are immediate to follow. I cannot act without thinking of the consequences because the ultimate redemption is around the corner.

For centuries, Jews have sung Ani Maamin, “I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messiah, and even though he may delay, nonetheless I will await him with every day.” This prayer allowed the Jews to maintain hope even in the darkest days of their exile that even though their redemption seemed distant it could come at any moment. Today I believe this prayer needs to be internalized in another way, it seems that people today believe that the Messiah is inevitably around the corner. Today we must realize that even though the coming of Messiah seems close, it could very well be distant. It took 2,000 years for us to see the physical redemption and return to our land in our days. What if the ultimate redemption is still 2,000 years away? I will await him every day, but I will not act irresponsibly because I presume he is coming tomorrow.

As a community religious Zionists have much influence and a duty to strengthen Israel and its Jewish values. I will continue to stand up for my religious Zionist beliefs to build and influence Israel. Finally, as we pray and strive for the ultimate redemption we must remember the words of Isaiah: צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה, “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:27)


¹ Deuteronomy 30


³ Genesis 13:7 // Ehud Barak claims that an absolute majority of security experts in the IDF, Shin Bet and Police are in agreement that separating from the Palestinians is the secure option. He notes that ‘security’ means much more than where the border is and control of certain hilltops. “Security is not only a dominating observation point and positions to emplace weapons. Security is a totality. It is the sum of military, civilian and diplomatic capabilities, and it is also national morale.”

⁵ Some settlement blocs would obviously be annexed to Israel as has been the framework during negotiations. I do not intend to discuss here what would happen to the other Jewish settlers, the feasibility of Jews living in a Palestinian state or their resettlement. Nor is this article the framework for the discussion of whether the Palestinians are a ‘partner for peace’, a discussion on Hamas or Palestinian terrorism. I believe my arguments are valid without going into these topics but may address them on a later date.

Talmud Mesechet Chulin 33a

 Exodus 22:20

Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD are these [buildings].” No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt—then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time. See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail. Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “We are safe”?—[Safe] to do all these abhorrent things! (Jeremiah 7:3-10) [emphasis my own]


Ezra Schwartz is in Shevet Dvir, is a former Rosh Eidah, and will be Rosh Bus for Mach Hach BaAretz this summer. He made aliyah in April.