One of my criticisms of the National Religious is that the preoccupation with the pioneers living in Yehudah, Shomron (and 'Aza) has distrated the community from its original purpose and turned it into a fringe movement in both the Torah and secular Israeli societies.
Two articles in the recent press therefore caught my attention. The first, in Ynet, notes:
Speaking at one of the conference's panels, Schneller, a religions Jew, slammed the religious and political leadership of the national-religious public, saying "I grow up in an environment which perceived the rabbi as the 'whole'. The leaders of Religious Zionism have taken this whole and pulled it apart, supporting only one of its parts.
"The fight for the Land of Israel is important, but hailing it as the sole theme makes Religious Zionism a cult. I know many of you will resent this definition, but this wasn't the way taught by the Religious Zionism I grew up on."
Schneller went on to criticize the Religious Zionism rabbis' involvement in politics, saying that every decision religious politicians want to make must be clear by the rabbis first. "We've become nothing but a small group of kippah wearers," he said.
Now, I'll avoid the easy hits, such as noting that Schneller is a member of Kadima, a party opposed to pretty much all Jewish and Zionist values, as exemplified by its leadership. I'll do that because, to be honest, his point is sound and correct.
Look at what's happened to the political part of the National Religious Movement, the Mafdal (National Religious Party)? For decades it was able to capture well over a dozen seats in each election and participated in almost every single government in the history of the State. Now it has become a minor party, and then only with the help of the seats from the National Union that it made an alliance with before the last election! If the number of seats a party gets is reflective of the numbers and power of a particular community in Israel, then times are very tough for the National Religious. Very tough indeed.
What's the difference between a main party and a fringe party in Israel? The answer is quite simple. Main parties have complete platforms with opinions on everything from defence to finance to foreign relations to agriculture. Fringe parties exist for the sake of one, or at the most two, issues. Think of Shinui, Gil and the old Democratic Movement for Change. The Mafdal has become a one-issue party in the purest sense of the term, and that issue is Yehudah and Shomron.
The problem with fringe parties, however, is that one requires supporters who are fanatical about that issue. Those elderly who are mad as hell at how low their pensions are will vote for Gil. But those elderly who are also concerned with the so-called peace process, economic growth and the environment won't because Gil can't answer their concerns.
So it seems to be with the National Religious movement and the Mafdal. If one has concerns about the Jewish approach to the environment, agriculture or economic growth, does this group have any answers?
Now, at the end of the article Shneller does accidentally make an interesting point:
Religious Zionism cannot stay closed up within itself. If it does it will suffocate," he concluded.
I'm sure he meant this as a criticism but in one sentence he accidentally suggested one key way to save the movement, albeit one no faithful Mizrachi would ever endorse. Staying closed up in a suffocating environment concisely describes the Chareidi approach to religion and interaction with broader society. Like them or not, it's been wildly successful for their community. Can one so casually dismiss it as an option?
But for Mizrachi, this is not an choice because it would remove the raison d'etre of the movement. Remember that Mizrachi was founded to create a religious alternative to Secular Zionism. Just as the Secular Zionists dreamt of creating a socialist state where Jews could live in freedom in a completely non-Jewish manner, Religious Zionists dreamt of a state where Jews would live as Jews but also in a full, national sense. Just as Secular Zionists had plans for every facet of society they would create, so should the Religious Zionists have had. But with the obession over Yehudah and Shomron, this has been lost.
It's also worth remembering, as Caroline Glick does, that Religious Zionism's implosion is not happening in a vacuum. As the movement stumbles towards the cliff, as it were, there are those who are happy to push it over the edge. Regarding the retreat from 'Aza, she notes:
This was the pretext of Israel’s withdrawal. But it wasn’t the subtext. The subtext of the withdrawal – telegraphed to both Israelis and the international community – was that the withdrawal would cause the demise of Religious Zionism at the hands of the leftist progeny of Labor Zionists. That is, the operation wasn’t about peace with the Arabs. It was about cultural supremacy within Israel.
Now, I don't completely agree with her on the subtext part. From my reading, I still firmly believe the entire retrate was based on Ariel Sharon's desire to distract the country and the media from his and his son's corruption accusations. To do this he was prepared to destroy the lives of 8000 loyal Israelis who had done so much to build up the land he had once fought for. Another thing to recall is that Sharon was no Labour Zionist. He was a Herutnik and Revisionist who, until the retreat, was a favourite whipping boy of the Labour Zionists because of his opposing beliefs.
But with the retreat came an extra bonus:
Religious Zionist leaders were in a horrible bind. If they responded to the demands of their own people and fought fire with fire, they knew – given the Left’s control of the media – they would be demonized for years to come. And they knew that if the Left succeeded in destroying their reputation among rank and file Israelis, they would be powerless to defend Judea and Samaria.
So in the end, Religious Zionist leaders disappointed their followers, making do with mass protests in the countdown to the expulsions and then allowed the IDF to carry out the expulsions largely unchallenged. While they failed to save Gaza’s Jews from internal exile, they at least succeeded in preventing the demise of Religious Zionism as a political and social force in Israel.
All this happened because of the distraction which has gripped the movement since Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza were liberated in 1967. The entire movement pinned its beliefs and hopes to an indivisible state in the belief that it was never again be partitioned. And when this core belief was shattered, much of the power of the movement was along with it. For the Secular Zionists, this was a great prize as they have always seen the Religious Zionists in much the same way Christians and Muslims see Judaism in general - an annoyance that won't go away and constantly reminds them that their own philosophies are baseless and incorrect. After all, Secular Zionism firmly believes that only secular beliefs can build and run a state. A philosophy that says that religious Jews could do it just as well is anathema to them.
Religious Zionists are a finger in the eye of the Labor Zionists for their stubborn devotion to Judaism and their relative indifference to whether Israel is accepted by the anti-Semites of the world. And Labor Zionists are not alone in their angry rejection of Religious Zionism’s message. They are joined by the non-Zionist religious establishment.
The non-Zionist religious establishment feels threatened by Religious Zionism’s attempts to reinvest Judaism with its nationalist mission for the Jewish nation. And, unfortunately, the non-Zionist religious establishment is joining forces with the Labor Zionist establishment to attack Religious Zionism.
This all now goes over to the recent scandal regarding Rav Chayim Druckman and the conversion courts. Remember that just as the Secular Zionists see any Religious Zionists success as a refutation of their core beliefs, so too do the Chareidim see them as a threat to their ongoing efforts to monopolize control over what constitutes authentic Jewish observance.
The Chareidim would, for instance, have you believe that the only fulfilling life for a Jew is one spent in kollel. The National Religious, on the other hand, show up that fiction by participating in every part of society wihout compromising their observance. The Chareidim would like everyone to think they, and only they, can pasken halachah but the National Religious have the ongoing temerity to think that their rabbonim can as well.
So an unholy alliance has been forged, between those who would strip the State of any trace of Judaism and those who would strip it of any trace of Secularism, with the goal of removing the one element that could successfully merge both the secular and the religious and thereby create a truly Jewish state.
The only way for the National Religious to survive this assault is to realize that and fight both groups on their own terms. On the secular side, Mizrachi must begin a public relations campaign to show the public that it has policies, Torah-base policies, on something other that Yehudah and Shomron. What is its position on the economy? On the environment? On child support? On the peace process?
And on the religious side, it must rally around its leadership, retake the Rabbanut or create a credible alternative and reassert its religious strength.
If it does this, the movement has a future. If it fails to, then it will inevitably split and disappear into the two opposing camps.