Israel’s War Within: On the ruinous history of Religious Zionism (Bernard Avishai, February 24, 2004, , Harper’s)

For Israel, the normalization of Gush Emunim, and the larger Religious Zionist settler movement that spawned it, has been no less ruinous. Their record of obstructing peace is longer than that of Hamas, while their reliance on state coercion has become second nature, and, much like Hamas, their program for remaking the state along orthodox lines is ambitious. Disquiet derives, correspondingly, from the ways that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has recently attacked the judiciary (as well as the academy, the entrepreneurial economy, and the press)—ways calculated, in part, to satisfy his Religious Zionist allies, such as his finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, the minister of national security Itamar Ben-Gvir, and ultra-Orthodox leaders associated with their theocratic vision.

That grim demonstration against Kissinger, in other words, seems to have been the portent of a two-front culture war—for the land, but also for the state apparatus—which has yet to be decided. And it rages on in Israel today, albeit alongside the calls for unity that have accompanied the Gaza invasion.

It is being waged to determine what kind of state Israel will be. The most authentic Jewish state, Gush Emunim believed, would never entertain the return of biblical land; moreover it would privilege halacha (classical rabbinic law) and militarized tribalism over the norms of a secular Hebrew democracy. Their chant was a kind of battle cry for Greater Israel, seeming to suggest that Kissinger—a German-Jewish refugee who chose America and assimilation, and made the most of both—could not possibly fathom their toughness or messianic grandeur. Entertaining Jewish preeminence, the chant seemed, ironically, of a piece with an anti-Semitic slur.

Nor, on the surface, was Greater Israel consonant with the place I had encountered, first as a volunteer during the summer of 1967, and then as an immigrant in 1972. Standing on the other side of the culture war were descendants of the Zionist pioneers who had built the country and developed a secular Hebrew life that helped engender the coastal “Global Israel” of the Nineties. In contrast to them, Gush Emunim’s Greater Israel seemed grotesque, alien to many secular Israelis—who were often more highly educated and likely to be in the professional class, and who were building a kind of Hebrew republic in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Haifa, and the suburbs of Be’er Sheva. It was similarly a distortion of the liberal nuances I had taken for granted in the Jewish traditions of my native Montreal.

In early 2023, Global Israel finally pushed back, fighting to preserve the independence of the Supreme Court, rallying in the streets in the hundreds of thousands. Watching them demonstrate, journalists in the West have assumed that Netanyahu has been trying to disrupt the judicial order: to augment his power, say, or pander to his allies, or avoid prison. But this is a half-truth, and not the more interesting half. Netanyahu’s government was attacking the judiciary not because he wanted fundamental changes, but because he supposed the Supreme Court did—that the status quo works for his Greater Israel ideology. And he wasn’t wrong. Greater Israel coalitions have largely maintained power since Begin’s election in 1977, and one has to ask why: What institutional life, what political ethos, had been so congenial to them such that—in spite of the legacy of pioneering secular elites—annexation and orthodox Torah culture were generally valorized?

Indeed, Netanyahu and his allies have accused the high court of “judicial activism” in much the way Southern politicians did in the Sixties. They purported to invite a high-minded debate about the proper balance between branches of government, but in fact aimed to obstruct any disruptions of social norms that no liberal democratic republic should have tolerated in the first place. But without changes, the country will continue to incubate Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs like cultures in a laboratory; politicians who will not just forestall peace, but debase liberalism and Judaism both. And to understand what kind of changes are necessary, we must go back to the intellectual origins of the Zionist revolution itself.

A religion or a race?