(Critique of Violence) Judaism & Zionism

Israel has always been a laboratory for political theory and Jewish Studies; always also, and especially now, a laboratory for the study of Judaism in relation to the politics of extreme ethno-national religion and political violence. The elections of November 2022 shed uniquely bright light on this quandary now that Benjamin Netanyahu has engineered a coalition utterly dependent upon far-right ethno-national religious and Haredi parties, his only “natural allies,” who have been placed at the center of political power. Critics from the political and religious left, such as they are, will argue with good reason that Political Zionism and the State of Israel have poisoned Judaism. It is just as true, if not more so, that “Judaism” has poisoned Zionism and the State of Israel at the root.

Two theories map the relation between religion and society, in general, and between the relation between religion and violence in Israel, in particular.

On the one hand, the violence and racism saturating the anti-democratic-national-religious camp in Israel is a mirror of Israeli state structure itself and of Zionism as an ideological form of ethno-nationalism. This is to assume that religion is not an actant. Religion would rather be but a mere function of society, violent religion a function of a violent and militarized society, the superstructure of ethno-religion a function of an ethno-state-national structure. The violent and anti-civil forms of religious-national and Haredi religion in Israel are epiphenomenal to the material workings of state or sovereign power. This is theory suggests two possibilities, one critical, the other apologetic. Human emancipation comes first, which will free it from either religion writ large or from the false form of reactionary religion writ small. In either case, the problem in Israel is primarily political, not religious, Zionism, not Judaism.

On the other hand, religion, and the religion of Judaism, demands a cold critical, even caustic look as an anti-democratic and violent force in society. Beliefs are actants that ramify out into society in which they are embedded. Sociological surveys and studies show consistent correlations between modern religion and political conservatism, and between extreme religious orientations and political violence. Data also correlate secularism with liberal and progressive politics. Not religious values, but secular values are the ones that underpin equality across lines of racial and religious difference and without prejudice to sex-gender and sexual orientation. Religion is a reactive and reactionary force when conjoined to state power and let loose on its own in the public domain. Anti-pluralist and socially dysfunctional, at the core of religion are the rites and representations of the “negative cult.” According to this theory, the sacred is set in opposition apart from that which lies outside its own domain. The sacred includes in its structure the violence with which religious actors seek to dominate and co-opt society in conformity to its own image. Lest religion destroy society, the task of government would be to contain if not co-opt the social energy that is unique to religion.  

An active force in its own right and not a simple social reflex, rightwing nationalist-religion lends itself to the second theory. We see this in Israel where religion has been conjoined with a state power that does nothing to constrain it. The religious form of nationalism dominating the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank has always been a unique source of lawlessness and political violence in Israel. It was true then as it is now today. Going back to the early days of Gush Emunim, private Palestinian lands and properties were seized by non-state religious actors; or they were seized by the state for the ostensible purpose of creating military outposts, which were then transferred to civilian settlement. In some cases, the seizure of private Palestinian properties and lands was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court only to be accommodated by the government. The virulent appearance of religious ultra-racist Meir Kahane on the political scene in Israel in the 1980s was not in itself unique. There was the anti-Palestinian violence and racism of settler leader Moshe Levinger, a leading rabbi in Gush Emunim. There was the so-called Jewish Underground in 1984, organized from among the crème de la crème of the religious Zionist settlement movement. The members of the Jewish Underground were an organized band of religious terrorists; they set off car bombs, attempting to murder West Bank Palestinian mayors; they conducted an armed attacked against Palestinian students at an Islamic college in Hebron, killing three and wounding thirty-three; they sought to blow up a bus carrying Palestinian workers in East Jerusalem, and came close to blowing up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple  Mount. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a religious Jew from Kiryat Arba in 1994, murdered on the holiday of Purim twenty-nine and wounded one hundred and thirty five Muslim-Palestinian worshipers in a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron; His grave yard is a place of pilgrimage and, along with Kahane, he is revered to this day by members of the radical religiiys right, including members of the government. Religious Zionsits were among those against the Oslo Accords leading violent protests whipped up by Benjamin Netanyahu, inciting against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his effigy dressed up in a Nazi uniform. A legendary figure in the history of Israel, Rabin was murdered in 1995 by a religious Zionist student from Bar Ilan University; based on a halakhic principle (din rodef), the murder of Rabin was and was encouraged by radical West Bank rabbis. Religious Jews, the so-called Hilltop Youth, in 1998 followed the lead of then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon when he urged settler youth, “Everyone that’s there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.” Encouraged by inflammatory anti-Arab religious teaching by extremist West Bank rabbis, young religious Jews continue to engage in “price tag” attacks against Palestinian farmers, shepherds, and villagers, the arson attack in 2015 in the village of Duma, murdering in their sleep a Palestinian family, including an eighteen-month-old baby, Ali Dawabsheh. They were defended in court by Ben-Gvir who has provided counsel for other figures on the radical and racist religious right. Radical rabbis like Yitzchak Ginzburg publish racist screeds like Tipul Shoresh (Treading the Root), which calls for the Arabs to be expelled from Israel in order to purify the Land. Yitzhak Shapira write Torat Ha’melech (The Torah of the King) in 2009 that called for killing Palestinians, including children.

While religion is a function that binds the social group together, it is sectarianism that defines the active and violent political force of religion in society. Here worth noting is the controversial distinction made by Hannah Arendt between “power” and “violence.” As understood in this schematization, power “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” It always “belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” But, if the purpose of power is power itself, violence, in contrast, is merely instrumental. According to Arendt, violence as such and in its pure form is the action of a sub-group. Representing the One against the All, violence and rule by violence is bound up with the waning of power (On Violence, pp.44-56, 86-7). In line with this theory, state power and the use of violence to maintain and project state power in Israel reflects the action of the larger group acting in concert. In the West Bank, violence by the armed forces is an instrument of state power, whereas the settler violence in the West Bank unique to religious Zionism is a sectarian mutation that eats away at state power.

If it was only a wild weed, radical and violent religious settler-nationalism in the West Bank would have been ripped up a long time ago by secular state institutions and by the mainstream Jewish settlement leadership and religious Zionist community. That has not happened because religious settler violence is embedded in the DNA of the settlement project. It is tolerated by the state and largely ignored by the general public. The most violent of the religious radicals are themselves led by leading public figures and West Bank rabbis. The most radical and violent religious-party leaders in the coalition elected in November 2022 are themselves from settlements like Kedumim, Kiryat Arbah, and the Jewish settlement in Hebron that are dominated by religious radicals. Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leaders of the Religious Zionism Party and the Jewish Power party, both have criminal records related to charges involving incitement to racism and terrorism. They are the radical fringe who won support, not simply from the radical fringe, but from the majority of so-called ordinary, mainstream religious voters who want to prove that Jews, not Arabs, are the “landlords” in the Land of Israel. Religious Zionism and Jewish Power are the only political homes of religious Zionism and national-religious voters with Knesset representation today.

Normally, religion constitutes a symbolic superstructure and form of social organization that legitimate state power and economic relations. Not normal is the inversion of that ratio in Israel. In the ideology of religious Zionism, the secular Zionist project and the secular State of Israel were always but mere instruments that legitimate Judaism. And not just in religious Zionism. The inversion began with the status quo forged between religion and state by Ben-Gurion after the establishment of the state. Instead of religion serving the public good as organized by the state, the monopoly given to orthodox Judaism and exemptions and privileges proffered to Haredi Judaism are today embedded in the social structure of the country. In due course, secular state actors were the ones who legitimated, surreptitiously or not, and in violation of international law, even radical Jewish settlements in the early days of the occupation. First under Labor governments and more or less limited, this legitimation accelerated with the rise of the Likud under Begin in 1977. What was not predicted in 1948, 1967, and 1977 was the way religious nationalism would radicalize in tandem with Haredi Judaism, while dislodging secular Zionism as an ideological force at the center of state power.

Judaism is at the root of the problem in Israel. All the powerful ethno-religious strains in Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah, and Hasidism are there: hostility to gentiles, the subordination of women, the contempt for non-observant Jews. These are the excremental flavors boiling over and seeping into the metal pot of the state structure. Since the early days of the occupation, they have been stewing in that cauldron for half a century.

We know that, historically, the religion of the rabbis was never this active. Always a minor political force, rabbinic power was always contained by gentile sovereign rule and by the power of Jewish lay leadership, as well. While religious values saturated Jewish society, they did so in loose ways not really ruled, at least not consistently, by rabbis. Rabbinic authority was more or less restricted to the study hall, synagogue, and the domestic sphere. We know also that there is zero basis in the history of religion or in the history of Judaism for modern things like value-pluralism, equality before the law, human rights, the establishment of the citizen as free and sovereign in a democratic state. Indigenous to religion are less abstract and human values like compassion, derech eretz, charity, kindness, humility, justice, modesty, human dignity, tikkun olam –which all stand outside the political as such.

I am not trying to argue that Judaism is the “cause” of violence in the West Bank or in the history of Zionism so much as to say that religion cements and hardens in place political violence. Religion is more unbending in the medium-term than secular nationalism. Based on the idea of the holy, religion is a force of disruptive or divine violence that aggravates and makes more radical the ordinary state creating and state maintaining violence of state power.

The cultural logic leading up to that hardening in the modern Jewish history and the history of Zionism follows a crude dialectic: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Traditional forms of Judaism and Jewishness would be the thesis at the core of Jewish belonging at the beginning of the modern period. Modern secular Zionism is the antithesis. It responds to unprecedented historical crises that shook Jewish modernity. Political Zionism comes from the outside in as an opposition force meant to free Jewish life from the heavy burden of tradition and Jewish religion. As a historical movement, religious Zionism is the synthesis creating a new thing in the history of Judaism. But the synthesis has done nothing to resolve and sublimate ideological conflict so much as to make it worse. Predicted by Arendt against Hegelian dialectic, violence begets more violence. Generated by violent conflict, Religious-Zionism-Jewish-Power is a violent mutant.

Once upon a time secular state actors in Israel thought they could control religion and religious Zionism. There was confidence that religious Zionism represented and advanced state interests, that Religious Zionism subordinated religion to the state it sacralized, and that it would restrict its claims to a few basic things relating to the public and private sphere which it would more or less leave alone. With more seats in the Knesset, today Religious-Zionism-Jewish-Power and Haredi political parties are subordinating the State of Israel to Judaism. Never before in the history of the state has a ruling coalition depended for its existence solely on religious parties. One wonders about the lifespan of this misbegotten creature as the religious element enters into the harsh world of political reality that would under normal circumstances not leave religion unconstrained and out of the box.

Since the Enlightenment, liberal theorists have always maintained that religion needs to be constrained by overarching civil-constitutional social contracts. But in Israel today there are no roughly agreed upon contracts between religion and state, between Haredi Jews and society, between Arab and Jews in Israel, and no democratic rights for West Bank Palestinians in either a 1 or 2 state federated compact under recognized regional and international rubrics. There is zero prospect that Jewish religion in Israel can contribute to democratic solutions to the ideological fissures that are the essence of pluralism. Judaism cast in the form of Jewish Power and Religious Zionism holds out nothing but conflict and violence.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to (Critique of Violence) Judaism & Zionism

  1. dmf says:

    appreciate these posts, not sure how helpful tho to talk in general about Religion, seems the particulars here of an identity tied to a people and a place and really to the rule of that place as The Good is a vital part of the equation. Similar things getting underway here in Iowa but with Christian Nationalists taking over courts, shunning the press, dismantling public schools, etc.

    • zjb says:

      i’m more and more convinced that the category is necessary lest one slip into apologetical thinking

      • dmf says:

        or could erase the inherent tensions of some illiberal/supremacist pre-democratic theopolitics being implemented in our times. In a most practical way including the phenomena Eric Alterman addresses in his new book about liberal American Jews going one way and illiberal Israeli Jews going another.

      • zjb says:


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