The Israeli party most opposed to the inclusion of an Arab party in the government coalition was the religious Zionist party. Its leadership vetoed former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to create a government as he tried to rely on support from an Arab party. The pressure exerted on the religious Zionist members of the Bennett government focused on the inclusion of this same Arab party, in this case, in the coalition, and in fact led to the fall of the government. Opposing a particular Arab party may be justified, but this general rejection of any Arab party simply because it is an Arab party reflects a problematic perspective when it comes to minority rights.
This position of the Religious Zionist Party is a radical departure from the original approach of Religious Zionism (the movement, not the party that took the name of the movement), regarding Jewish law (halakhah) and minority rights. In the early years of the State of Israel, the great rabbinical figures of the religious Zionist world all justified giving minorities – also Arabs – full rights, including the possibility of being elected to government positions.
Indeed, even before the establishment of the state, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook authorized the sale of land in Israel to Muslims, as an essential part of the “heter mechirah”, selling the land of Israel to a non -Jew during the sabbatical year. He thus allowed Jewish farmers to work the land despite the shemitah requirement that the land be fallow – a key trade-off for successful land resettlement.
Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi when Israel was created, wrote a lengthy article justifying granting full political rights to all minorities in the new state. Rabbi Uziel, in the comparable Sephardic role, agreed – and to the extent that he thought Rabbi Herzog’s lengthy written justification of minority rights was problematic; the very task implied that they were in doubt. At least six different halakhic justifications have been employed by different religious Zionist rabbis to explain why minorities should have full rights in Israel (see Minorities in the State of Israel: the halakhic point of view, by E. Haddad, 2010, Hebrew).
En 1985, la direction de l’un des groupes de jeunes sionistes religieux d’Israël, Bnei Akiva, a publié un livre («חביב אדם שנברא בצלם; לקט מקורות ומאמרים לברור היחס לנוכרי oisen leyète בארץ בארץ») pour aider les participants à understand non-Jewish rights in the non-Jewish Jewish state, and clarify potentially troubling statements in rabbinic literature that appear to denigrate non-Jews. The effort implies that there were those who confronted the Bnei Akiva youth (or were worried about the future) brandishing quotes from rabbinical literature to “prove” that non-Jews (in this case, surely Arabs) should not have full rights. Zionist religious leaders clearly disagreed and set out to teach the youth of the community to defend the state’s granting of all minority rights.
Bnei Akiva shouldn’t have worked so hard. Israel’s declaration of independence – a binding commitment, to be sure – describes Israel as the national home of the Jewish people and also portrays the state as democratic, granting full rights to minorities.
How far did the binding commitment of the Declaration of Independence go? Rabbi Yehuda Amital believed this created a halakhic obligation, similar to that which biblical Joshua had to the Givonim, a people who were welcome to live within the domain of the Israelites – essentially as members of the tribe ( with some salient differences when it came to details of marriage, priesthood, etc.).
Even the 1947 United Nations partition plan, aimed at creating two states for Jews and Arabs, also assumed that the result would be two democratic states.
But some key elements have alienated some Israelis, even some religious Zionists, from the data of democracy. It may have started with the interpretation of the remarkable military victory of the Six Day War as miraculous. In contrast to the UN’s role in the creation of Israel, which seemed to be the reasonable outcome of very humane geopolitical negotiations – despite the halachic significance that some rabbis attached to the UN’s decision at the time – the rout military of Israel’s enemies in such a dramatic way suggested divine intervention as the foundation of the Jewish state’s military superiority.
And this youth group training was just for the money. It was in the mid-1980s that new rabbinical voices began to emerge, with a different view of Israel’s geopolitical reality. These rabbis were students of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (son of Rabbi A. I Kook quoted above), a staunch opponent of the idea of Israel returning any land it had won during the Six Nations War. days. But adding this territory to Israel would more than double the percentage of Arabs in the local population. This “influx” would threaten the Jewish character of the Jewish state, if granted full democratic rights. Thus, the followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda began to question the extent and nature of the rights granted to the Arab minority – a rabbi, Elisha Aviner, tried to distinguish between individual rights and national rights, to mitigate potential challenges ahead.
The feeling of miraculous in 1967 also sparked a rise in messianic anticipation – a sense that the Jewish people stood on the brink of redemption in a more immediate way than the creation of the state itself had let them. to believe. With confidence in Israel’s military superiority and a sense of better things on the horizon, many members of the religious Zionist camp began to turn away from the outside world. Values and priorities have become centralized in the Jewish world. Democracy began to be seen as a Western value – that is, not necessarily a Jewish one. There is only one step between the rejection of the democratic principles and the suppression or the reduction of the civil rights of the minorities.
To be clear: not all Zionist rabbis and religious thinkers made this change, but it took root in the Zionist religious community. Perhaps the most dramatic confirmation of this is the endorsement some rabbis gave of Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 mass shooting of Arabs praying in Hebron. Arabs have been made into enemies and potential terrorists – inherently.
In 2010, a rabbinical degree prohibited selling or renting property to Arabs – a direct contradiction to Rabbi Abraham Kook’s position on the sale of land. His decision on the status of Muslims was simply ignored. And when Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein opposed the ban, his followers challenged his halachic stature because he accepted the possibility of trading territory for peace, rejecting his position on the issue alone due to disregard for his opinions in an unrelated area.
The Zionist religious community is not monolithic, and Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students and followers are an important component of it. A significant number of Religious Zionists sit in the Knesset in an array of parties outside of the Religious Zionist party, after all. But the party that bears the community’s name represents a different and potentially larger segment (numbers are unclear) of Israeli society. If the next elections were held today, polls indicate that the Religious Zionist Party would win 10 seats. And if the party was led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, it would win even more.
The obvious implications of the growing embrace of the religious Zionist party perspective are political. But the struggle to define the halakhic perspective of religious Zionism with regard to minority rights in Israel, and democracy in general, has a broader meaning. The religious Zionists who helped found the State of Israel were not isolationists, and their approach to minorities was a singular reflection of this. But in today’s milieu, the question of whether one can approach the modern world through the prism of Torah when this modern world is rejected in the name of Torah is of particular concern.
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Principal Mashgiach Ruchani (Spiritual Advisor) at Yeshiva University and a partial resident in Jerusalem.