Part 1: neither religious
In Israeli politics now, the most ideological party in the Knesset is the Religious Zionist Party (Tzioniut Datit). It has made common cause with the Jewish Power Party (Otzmah Yehudit) — it’s the brains behind Otzmah’s brawn. But more of that anon.
In the common speech of the average Israeli, and especially olim from the English-speaking countries (“Anglos” is the Israeli term), the term “religious” means Orthodox. For example, a person might be described as “not religious.” To an Israeli English speaker, especially those who are themselves Orthodox, the person being described is not observant and therefore not Orthodox and therefore not religious. This is true even when these Anglos are completely familiar with other forms of Jewish belief and practice sincerely observed by some of their neighbors in the Diaspora.
Native Israelis also make this distinction. If you are non-observant then you are not dati. That is, in modern Hebrew usage, “You are not Orthodox.”
This makes it almost impossible for native Israelis to understand how a non-Orthodox Jew, even one who is deeply spiritual and highly observant, possibly can be dati. Which is why Masorti/Conservative and Reform Judaism have made so little headway in Israel beyond the obvious lack of governmental support. From an Israeli’s perspective, why be a third or half dati when you can be authentically 100 percent dati?
That the “religious” category now includes a so-called Orthodoxy that expresses itself in racist, authoritarian, and self-serving behavior makes a mockery of the term. Yet we have a party called the Religious Zionist Party — Tzionut Datit — whose name includes the feminine form of dati.
Who leads this party? Bezalel Smotrich, who advocates segregation between Jewish and Arab women in obstetric wards and a government-sponsored eradication of an entire Arab village, Huwara, because a Palestinian killed two Jews and fled there.
When Judaism speaks of the infinite value of every human being, because we are created in the Image of God, how is Jewish religiosity reflected in the Jewish Power Party, an Orthodox party that has Itamar Ben-Gvir at its head? This is a man who was prohibited from serving in the Israeli army because of his extreme racism, spent time in jail for racial incitement, and hung a picture of Baruch Goldstein on his wall? Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslims in the burial place of our forefathers and foremothers, the Cave of Machpelah, in 1994?
What makes Smotrich religious when he sought to command Israeli police officers to use extreme force to end peaceful demonstrations by fellow Jews against the judicial reforms that will turn Israel into a Middle Eastern version of Orban’s Hungary? (The head of the Israeli police force refused to do this after a particularly violent police incident in Tel Aviv, caught on camera, of course.)
My conclusion: The Religious Zionists are not religious, and the Orthodoxy they espouse is an empty caricature of both Orthodoxy and religiosity of any sort.
Part 2: nor Zionist
While it may come as surprise to some Americans, Israel does not have a constitution. In its place, Israel has basic laws that are exceedingly difficult to change. Several of these basic laws define Israel legally as a Jewish and democratic state. That was necessary because the Israeli Declaration of Independence never specified what the political nature of the state should be, though it did define the state as a Jewish one. The Jewish part of “Jewish and democratic” has become a matter of debate as to its meaning, which has to do with the Religious Zionists being Zionists.
On the one hand, Israel’s Declaration of Independence appears to use the word “Jewish” to refer to demography; Jews are the majority in the Land of Israel and open to increase of that majority by aliyah. On the other hand, the Declaration speaks of Jewish values, especially those espoused by the prophets, but the values of the prophets, let alone those of rabbinic Judaism, are not of one piece.
Hence, which values are Jewish?
The Declaration defines what it means to be a Jewish state: “The State of Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Though the Declaration often is referred to in the formation of legislation and in judicial decisions, it is formally a statement of principles and has no true legal standing. That being the case, “Jewish” can refer to liberal Jewish values that are part of the Jewish tradition or to illiberal ideas that also are part of the Jewish tradition. If, however, you accept the frameworks of the laws that define Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, namely, the basic laws regarding Freedom of Occupation (i.e., your profession or work, not the situation that obtains in the West Bank) and Human Dignity and Liberty, it is clear that the concepts Jewish and democratic are expected to work in tandem. Also, these basic laws imply that it is the liberal aspects of biblical and rabbinic Judaism that define “Jewish” and “democratic.”
The Declaration of Independence and the basic laws declaring Israel a “Jewish and democratic state” were legislated by leftist and rightwing governments whose Zionist credentials were impeccable. Now, we have the Religious Zionist Party, whose ideology runs counter to the protections afforded by the basic laws concerning Human Dignity and Liberty that apply to every citizen of Israel, including its Arab population and LGBTQ people, both of whom Smotrich openly despises. (He has declared himself “a proud homophobe.”)
Was Ben-Gvir’s desire to treat the 500,000 Israeli protesters against the Likud-Religious Zionist-Shas-United Torah Judaism judicial reform proposals in accordance with the rules established in the Human Dignity and Liberty law? Was his unfulfilled wish of violent suppression of political dissent consonant with the Zionism of those who legislated that law? Is the support that Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s parties give to illegal settlements and violent settlers consonant with the settlement of the land characteristic of those Zionist pioneers who built kibbutzim and moshavim?
A few months ago, I wrote a piece declaring Zionism dead. I wrote it because if “Zionism” is defined by those who call themselves Religious Zionists, then true Zionism indeed is gone, or it has become a mere caricature of what real Zionism was.
With all the turmoil in Israel, how do we celebrate its 75th anniversary?
We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, and it is a pity that a party called the Religious Zionist Party is neither religious nor Zionist. A truly God-fearing, God-intoxicated Zionist party could do so much to burnish the reputation of Jewish religion in Israel. But alas, this will not be the outcome of the turmoil in Israel caused by these people who claim to be religious.
Despite all that turmoil, I celebrated Israel’s 75th Yom HaAtzma’ut and the Jewish and democratic State of Israel. I celebrated because there are half a million people there who said “No” and are still saying “No” to legislation that will neuter the Supreme Court, the one institution that can prevent Israel from becoming an autocratic and undemocratic entity and put a brake on a government that will make Israel a second Iran.
Please God, we will have more Independence Day celebrations for an Israel that frees itself from the internal danger of its zealots, the immorality of racism that has plagued the state from its beginnings, and an occupation that has been destroying Israel’s soul since 1967.
May the Israel with which we have a love affair soon become the Israel about which Isaiah prophesied — “a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Michael Chernick of Teaneck is professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.