One of the little known historical facts surrounding the rebirth of the Jewish community in Israel over the last 150 years is that the original Zionists (assuming Zionist means a Jew committed to living in and building up the land of Israel) were religious. Intellectual leaders like Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, the Netziv, and Rav Yehudah Alkalay dreamt of the Jews of the world reassembling in Israel decades before Theodore Herzl held his first press conference. Unfortunately, most of the other Jewish leaders of the day were not as visionary and their ideas went nowhere until secular Zionism took up the cause.
Religious Zionism later arose as a result of the progress secular Zionism made towards beginning the process of returning to Israel. Under the early leadership of Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, religious Jews began to embrace the idea that God's arranging of history and events then current in the world indicated that the time to return to Zion had arrived. Unfortunately, as is the case with many movements that seek to challenge the comfortable status quo, Mizrachi did not have a huge impact on the religious population of Europe. However, it was the religious movement that did see the waves of the future and the need to rebuild our Holy Land despite considerable opposition.
With the founding of the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption, Mizrachi should have become the dominant movement within Torah Judaism. The Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communites in Europe had been devastated by the Shoah. Their counterparts in North America, while vital in their own communities, were small and of little influence yet on the world stage. The ideas that Mizrachi stood for - the people of God in the land of God according to the Torah of God should have been enough to inspire people to join the philosophy and work towards building a state al pi halachah to help speed the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.
And then something happened. The Chareidi community recovered from the terrible blow it suffered far faster than anyone could have ever forseen. What's more, the Shoah had not dampened its passion for Torah and its own unique viewpoint of how the world works. The chiloni population of Israel also failed to be religiously inspired by the daily miracles that allowed the nascent State to survive. Thus any expected influx from the right and the left into the Mizrachi centre failed to materialize.
After the Six Day War, another factor was added to the mix - the return of Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza to Jewish control. Never content to be happy and always worried about what the nations of the world thought, many in the Jewish community helped contribute to the Arab fiction that these lands, these heartlands of the Jewish nation, were not really ours, that we were hostile occupiers. Yet it was the Mizrachi who went out in great numbers and repopulated the barren hills, bringing the sounds of Jewish life back to those central parts of Zion.
However, over the years Israeli society has, to put it mildly, polarized in its opinion of the status of these lands. Instead of seeing the "settlers" as the descendants of the original chalutzim who came decades early to an empty, forbidding land, they became demonized in certain circles as "obstacles to peace." Unfortunately, Mizrachi's response to this was to push the "settlement agenda" with even greater force, to the point where it became the defining feature of the movement. Forget all the Dati Leumi who are in the army, banks, offices, factories, and other places across Israel. Today the large knitted kippah is associated with fanaticism, hatred of Arabs and an unwillingness to allow Israel to make peace with its enemies.
During this time, the other segment of the religious world, the Chareidi community, has not sat still. Their numbers have grown, both through their exponential birthrate and their aggressive kiruv efforts. Whereas David Ben-Gurion envisioned them as a sleepy minority that would disappear into deepest, darkest Bene Beraq and disappear from history, they are now the majority of the Torah world and have announced through their actions that they consider themselves to be the only legitimate representatives of that world. While the Dati Leumi were fighting against the 'Aza retreat, the Chareidim were busy taking over the Rabbanut and any other national religious institutions they could grab. This lack of vigilance on the part of Mizrachi has led to the situation today - Jews who don't recognized the Jewish nature of the State but see it only as a source of funding control the religious lives of all the rest of the citizens.
Thus my interest in this article from Ynet discussing the recent Mizrachi conference in Israel. Prof. Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar Ilan University has finally publicly stated what many have been thinking for a long time:
In his address, Prof. Kaveh said that Religious Zionism has made some significant accomplishments in its 60 years of existence, but has also suffered some failures and disappointments in a few major areas. In his opinion, it is still “local, too reclusive and not influential enough,” which is contrary to the ever-growing thirst for Jewish studies on behalf of the non-religious crowd.
Both in Israel or the Golus, a Jew seeking to become religious has ever-expanding options for kiruv. Unfortunately, none of them are Mizrachi-based. Other than teenagers spending their post-high school year in a Mizrachi yeshivah, people who don't know to actively seek the community out will not find it. And this is a great tragedy. Instead of hordes of black-hatted boys busily running down the back alleys of Bene Beraq, imagine those smae boys learning, working and serving their country. Imagine the influence Mizrachi would have as a larger movement that once again dedicates itself to the remaking of Israel into a moral, Jewish state.
Why did the retreat from 'Aza happen so quietly? Because Mizrachi was so busy defending the settlements it forgot that its main job was to teach non-religious Israelis to love the land and their Jewishness. Had it been successful in that, Arik Sharon would never have been able to accomplish what he had.
Imagine Mizrachi competing for the newly-frum not by offering them cheap homes in Yehudah and Shomron but by showing them the spiritual and intellectually superiority of the movement. All this potential lies dormant but we cannot be silent. We must demand that our leaders return to the movement's roots for the sake of Klal Yisrael.