Michael Freedman, Hebrew University and University of Haifa
Rebbe Chanina, the assistant High Priest, says: Pray for the welfare of the government. For without fear of it, people would swallow each other alive. (Avot, 3:2)
Religious Jews in Israel have wrestled with the question “What is Israel” since the founding of Zionism and the state. After 2000 years of stateless existence, most religious leaders voiced opposition to the proposed secular Zionist state, as the state differed greatly from the vision which was promised by the Prophets and Rabbis. Yet, proponents of the state argued that it was a refuge for Jews across the world which would provide safe haven after the Holocaust. These beliefs about the symbolic and religious status of the state had important social and political implications for the different religious Jewish communities in Israel (Migdal 1988). Historically, two main religious theologies emerged as a response to the Zionist state.
The first, the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), took a negative view of the state. It saw the secular Zionist state at best as a refuge for Jews, but attached no symbolic significance to the state. Others within this camp, such as the very insular Satmar community, have actively opposed the state since its founding, seeing the state as representing anti-religious forces. To this day, there are prominent religious leaders who oppose any participation with the state, including voting or accepting state money. Socially, since the state possessed little legitimacy, the Ultra-Orthodox largely created isolated communities and maintained a certain distance from the state and its institutions, including refraining from army service (Berman 2000; Liebman 1993).
The second group, Religious Zionism (Datiim), attributed great religious meaning to the state. Led by Rav Avraham Kook, this ideology saw hidden religious meaning in the state. Zionist Jews were carrying out the will of God in a hidden way, even if unknowingly. As well, mystical reasons were given for why the process needed to be carried out by anti-religious forces. According to this ideology, the state did not need to be perfect since it was just the first stage, albeit incomplete and flawed, to the ultimate redemption. In Religious Zionist synagogues, new prayers were adopted which equated the state of Israel with the beginning of the Messianic process. Moreover, after the 1967 war (seen as a miraculous victory), this community served as a vanguard for Israeli society, largely responsible for settlements and over-represented in the army’s combat units (N. Shelef 2010).
Trends in both Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist societies point to a fundamental change in how these groups view the state. Specifically, the sanctity of the state has been weakened, which has had important consequences for both religious groups. Ironically, this has allowed Ultra-Orthodox society to better integrate into the state, while distancing parts of the Religious Zionist community. In addition, Israel as a cleavage issue between the groups has diminished in importance, which has contributed to more political cooperation and the blurring of the boundaries between these two groups. Finally, there is less support for the classic two-state solution among these two communities, and more willingness to entertain alternative models such as a one-state governed by Halacha (state run according to Jewish principles).
For most of Israel’s history, Ultra-Orthodox groups have largely refrained from participation in the state. Socially, this included the setting up of isolated communities, largely homogenous neighborhoods within cities, and a refusal to participate in army service. Politically, Ultra-Orthodox political parties refused to join a government coalition for the first 30 years of Israeli politics after a falling out with Ben Gurion in 1948 over the issue of drafting females to the army.
As time passed, more pragmatic voices emerged within the Ultra-Orthodox leadership. One prominent view held that Israel could be viewed as a regular state where many Jews reside. Thus, the civil laws of the state of Israel should be respected, just like Jews respect the civil law in other countries where they reside (like the USA or France). In addition, more importance was placed on ensuring that the state institutions in Israel follow Jewish law (such as having hospitals run on Shabbat mode). As Nadav Shelef notes in this collection, many Ultra-Orthodox now even identify as Zionist.
These pragmatic beliefs towards Zionism had important political and social consequences for Ultra-Orthodox society. Politically, the boundaries separating the Ultra-Orthodox political parties began weakening in 1977, when a compromise was reached with Menachem Begin where in exchange for budgets to religious seminaries (Yeshivot), Ultra-Orthodox parties could be a part of the coalition. However, an important symbolic taboo was adopted where Ultra-Orthodox members refused to hold any official ministerial position; for this reason, Ultra-Orthodox political leaders, including Yaakov Litzman (the current health minister), would only agree to hold an assistant Minister position. Yet, this taboo was recently broken when the Supreme Court ruled that a Ministry required a full minister. In response, the Ultra-Orthodox leadership allowed Litzman to become a full minister, ending a nearly 40-year-old taboo on full participation in Israeli politics.
Another important trend is increasing Ultra-Orthodox participation in Israeli society. This includes small numbers who are serving in Ultra-Orthodox army battalions and larger amounts of youth who are attending universities and colleges. In addition, rising home prices have pushed young Ultra-Orthodox couples to migrate out of traditional residential centers to cities and neighborhoods where the Ultra-Orthodox mix with other social groups as a minority (Enos and Gidron 2016).
While seeing the state in less symbolic terms has allowed more integration for the Ultra-Orthodox community, it has had negative effects for the religious Zionist communities. Indeed, there is no longer unconditional support for the state from many members of the Religious Zionist community, which has reflected itself in several ways. These trends have become stronger after the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, which was seen as a betrayal by the state against the religious Zionist community and its historic mission or bringing redemption (N. G. Shelef and Shelef 2013).
First, there was the recent establishment of the Noam political party, which was set up after the April 2019 elections by religious Zionist activists. The party was established partly as a protest against having Ayelet Shaked (female and secular) head the ‘united’ religious Zionist political party. It also rose partly as a way to protest certain liberal trends in Israeli society, with a focus on LGBTQ rights. Fittingly, the campaign’s slogan was “we want a normal state” – where normal meant a state that behaved according to Jewish law. In many ways, this party symbolizes the end of an era where religious transgressions by the secular state were forgiven, since it was the beginning of redemption and secular actors were unknowingly bringing about the redemption.
Second, there has been a steady rise in anti-state and revenge ‘price tag’ acts of vandalism and violence against Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. At the most extreme is increasing support for groups such as the Hilltop Youth, who believe that there should be a religious state – the state of Judea – which is separate from the state of Israel (Friedman 2017). This is exemplified by the case of Meir Ettinger, a leader of the Hilltop Youth who was arrested in August 2015 for his support for religious terror and the eventual replacement of the secular state with a religious state. Others among this group support a single state where Arabs would be given local rights, but not full citizenship. Gershon Shafir also describes in this collection how anti-Arab sentiment is increasingly taking hold in the Religious-Zionist community.
Third, dissatisfaction with the state has also motivated increased participation in the state, with the eventual goal of religious take-over. This more statist camp within religious Zionism is no longer satisfied with being relegated to the sidelines – while watching the secular rule – but wants to run the state of Israel in greater accordance with religious principles. Thus, religious individuals are increasingly taking on leadership roles in politics and the army.
Politically, this phenomenon is best exemplified by the political movement set up by Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked (New Right/Yamina). Recognizing that the old religious Zionist movement is unlikely to attract votes outside of the religious sector, this leadership has tried to make itself more attractive by becoming a broader right-wing movement. Interestingly, this approach has gained some Rabbinic support, and the religious leadership even (reluctantly) agreed to have Ayelet Shaked lead the party list, even though she is both secular and female.
Socially, there has been growing religious influence on the army as more combat soldiers and officers are likely to be religious. There has also been an increase in the number of pre-military religious schools, which has given power to the leaders of these institutes. There is concern among some that this is a dangerous development as the army could become more loyal to the Rabbis than the political leadership (Levy 2014). Also, there is concern that the army is losing its role as a melting pot for Israeli society as there are more heated religious-secular disputes. This includes disputes over the refusal of orders by some religious soldiers to evacuate settlements and disagreements over whether female soldiers should be allowed to serve in combat roles.
Implications for Israel
Changes in the symbolic value of the state of Israel by religious leaders have three other important political implications for Israeli society.
First, some political disputes may be easier to resolve if symbolic political issues become less symbolic in nature. This is based on the literature that people and leaders are less likely to agree to compromises on symbolic political issues such as abortion or gun rights (Ryan 2017). For instance, some religious leaders have implied that it is possible to remove some religious-based legislation as the ‘state would still be Jewish, even if there is public transportation on the Sabbath’.
Another theoretical possibly is that there could potentially be less religious opposition to trading territory for peace. One religious objection to land for peace agreements has traditionally been that giving away territory would delay redemption. However, the 2005 disengagement from Gaza forced religious thinkers to admit that redemption may not be a linear process. In other words, redemption may be more Hegelian in nature where a redemptive state is only reached after some initial setbacks.
Second, attributing less symbolic value to the state has made many rethink the current status quo. This has spiraled into more political fights over symbolic religious-state issues and driven a wedge into the right-wing camp. This has made political coalitions less stable, which has led to three elections.
For instance, the right-wing camp is split over the Trump plan, especially among religious settlers. While some see annexation as an opportunity to bring settlements into the state of Israel, others are worried that the plan may lead to a Palestinian state. This division, and the fact that the religious Zionist party Yamina is currently in the political opposition also highlights how religious Zionists are no longer willing to reflexively support a political plan brought by right-wing leaders in Israel.
Finally , there is a risk that there will be less support for democracy, especially in religious circles. Democracy was accepted reluctantly by many religious leaders, especially since some democratic principles were seen as clashing with Jewish law. Less legitimacy for the secular state could translate into more support for an alternative, such as support for a Halachic state.
Indeed, there has been a rise in religious literature and more discussion regarding what an ideal Jewish state should look like. For instance, Shitrit and Jones discuss in this collection how the sovereignty movement (part of Women in Green) envisions full sovereignty over the land of Israel. Other religious leaders have voiced support for a one-state solution where non-Jews would be given les rights. Others have proposed giving religious leaders more of a formal political role (like a theocracy), and expanding the powers of the Israeli Rabbinate.
Jewish religious views regarding the sanctity of the state have thus changed in politically significant ways over the last several decades. This has had important implications for the integration of the Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities in Israel. In addition, public support for the religious status quo, which was rooted in the Israel’s founding, has diminished among the religious (and secular) public. As well, many within the religious community are pushing for larger role in shaping the future for the state of Israel. Overall then, these changes in how the state is viewed present both opportunities and challenges for the state of Israel.
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 See (Philpott 2007, 2009) for a broader discussion of the role of political theology for religious groups.
 This memo largely focuses on the religious Ashkenazi groups in Israel, whose responses to the state were very polarized. In contrast, Sephardic religious leaders were less split over the issue of Israel, with a more consistent participation in the state.
 For example, the most recent elections saw an unprecedent act where several religious Zionist leaders publicly supported voting for Ultra-Orthodox parties. See (Sharon 2019b).
 See (Harkov 2018).
 It is possible that something similar is happening in Palestinian society in Israel. For example, the Joint List (not including Balad) recommended to the President that the Blue and While party should build a government coalition, breaking a long-held symbolic political taboo that the Arab parties maintain a certain distance from politics. At the same time, process of real equality are likely to take much longer, as noted by Lustick in this collection. Moreover, Dana and Erekat question in the collection whether equality in Israel between Jews and Palestinians in Israel is even possible.
 See (Ahronheim 2019).
 See (Regev 2019).
 See (Shlezinger 2019).
 See (Sommer Kaplan 2019).
 See (Schuppe 2015).
 See (Levinson 2015).
 See (Sokol 2019).
 See (Sharon 2019a).
 See (Goodman 2015).
 See (Freedman 2019).
 See (Kershner 2020).