(Religious Zionism) No Democracy (With Occupation + Settlements)

In a previous post, I posed a set of claims, the basic point being that the internal rift in Israel is not between Zionism and democracy, but rather between Zionism and religion. The argument is based on the claim that as a secular movement, Zionism depends upon democracy, and that the combination of rightwing religion and government is a social dissolvent. The proof is that the extraordinary power exercised by religious Zionism and the Judaism it represents today in the governing coalition is rotting out from within the very social structure of the State of Israel upon which the very existence of the state depends. A second set of claims addressed in this post follows logically from the first claim. The argument relates to the occupation and also to the illegal settlement project (or Yesha) in the occupied West Bank and ties back to religion and politics. ((As per Wikipedia, Yesha (Hebrew: יש”ע) is a Hebrew acronym for “Judea, SamariaGaza” (יהודה שומרון עזה‎, “Yehuda Shomron ‘Azza”) – a geographical area, roughly corresponding to the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined.”))

The facts about democracy and the State, on one hand, and the occupation, settlements, and religious Zionism, on the other hand, are crude and very basic and stark: –There is no democracy with occupation. The permanent state-legal apparatus that sustains in perpetuity the occupation of Palestinian territories in which Palestinian people enjoy no democratic rights is inherently anti-democratic.

–Under international law, all Jewish settlements in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank are illegal.

–The occupation depends upon the settlement project (Yesha), which is inherently violent and lawless.

–Religious Zionism dominates Yesha (the settlement project); just as the settlement project (Yesha) has radicalized and now dominates religious Zionism. Once upon a time, the old National Religious Part was a force of moderation in Israeli society. Today, the racist Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir represent politically both mainstream Jewish settlements and the radical-religious avantgarde of the settlement movement.

–The internal conflict today in Israel is between religion and state. The government of Israel is the ultimate sovereign over all territories under its control. But rightwing religion and religious settlements are the hard force that makes intractable the one-state reality in Israel and the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank. –The conflict between religion and state boils down to domination. The first settlements in the wake of the 1967 war were established by Labor governments. They were established to serve the state, fulfilling pragmatic state- and state-power functions. With the victory in 1977 of the Likud under Menachem Begin, settlements mushroomed all over the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The ideological hardcore represented by Gush Emunim was and remains religious. Today, the Israeli state and state-power serve the settlement project and, along with it, the ideological project of annexation and ethno-religious supremacy that now dominates religious Zionism.

–As a force of ethno-religious supremacy and creeping apartheid, the settlement project and the religious Zionism it represents run complete roughshod over Palestinian lives and lands. They run roughshod also over secular Israeli society, which religious Zionism seeks to annex and transform under its own image. Yesha runs roughshod also over and rots out state power in Israel.

–The violence and lawlessness at the heart of the settlement project in the Israeli Occupied Palestinian West Bank propel the anti-judicial and anti-democracy coup underway in the State of Israel.

In Israeli center-right discourse, one will invariably hear that it is possible to “manage” or “shrink” the occupation, i.e. the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people in the occupied West Bank. The argument does not consider that the settlement project undermines the very possibility in that the settlement project is itself inherently destabilizing and unmanageable. As an ideological and lawless force in society, the settlement project commits itself to its own religious law and political agenda, first and foremost, a hardened and religious form of ethno-supremacy. Backed up by senior members in the governing coalition, every outburst of settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the silence of the mainstream settlement community are meant to magnify the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, and the annexation of their lands.

The violence and mayhem represented by the settlement project is nothing new. The lawlessness and violence trace back to the emergence of Gush Emunim in the 1970s, the Jewish Underground in the 1980s, and the so-called Hill Top Youth of today. Supported by state power, the Israeli occupied West Bank has always been a place of lawlessness and violence, bubbling under the surface and erupting out into the open. In violation of international law, the settlement project has always depended upon transfer of Palestinian lands to Israeli controlled state-lands, land grabs of privately owned Palestinian lands (illegal even under Israeli law and sometimes blocked by the military and by the Supreme Court), soldier and settler violence, a relative lack of action on the part of Israeli legal bodies, including the Supreme Court in relation to so-called state-owned lands, and Israeli public indifference.

The religious-settler chickens have today come home to roost inside the State of Israel. In the wake of the Second Intifada, very few Israeli Jews cared about settlements and the occupation and Palestinian rights and creeping apartheid as long as the settlement project worked quietly across the Green Line (the armistice line that separates sovereign Israel from the occupied West Bank). But that status quo and the complicity that sustained it have undergone a sudden and clarifying transformation now that the government of Israel is formally under control by Kahanist parties representing extreme-racist iterations of religious Zionism that now dominate the national-religious sector in Israel and in the occupied Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank. As the occupation + settlements take deep root in the Knesset, government, and in important government ministries, the anti-democratic legislation undermining the autonomy of the courts is designed, in small and large part, to give complete freedom to forces supporting annexation and apartheid in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank while extending Jewish religious supremacy and privilege in Israeli civil society at the expense of values held dearly in secular society.

Reflecting religious-legal supremacy and social isolation, a tension has always marked the relation between religious Zionism vis-à-vis secular state authority and secular society. What is different today is the balance of political power. I quote in full Alexander Kaye from his book The Invention of Jewish Theocracy. According to Kaye, “from the early 1950s there developed an internal tension among religious Zionists between principle and pragmatism, resulting in a dual rhetoric. Externally, religious Zionists advocated a pluralist approach to law, an approach that allows for different legal systems with different sources of authority to coexist within the same political territory. This posture helped them to argue that rabbinical courts should be granted greater autonomy and that they should operate alongside, rather than be subordinate to, secular courts. This pluralist rhetoric, however, was a strategic move only. Among themselves, religious Zionists continued to adhere to the doctrine of legal centralism that had guided them up to that point. They remained committed in principle to the ideal that the entire state and its law should be governed by halakha.” (p.127; h/t Ittai Hershman(

Once upon a time, religious Zionism served the state. It represented a force of moderation that married religion to the national project as dominated by the secular state. Historically, however, religious Zionism was a marginal demographic and ideological force, posing no real threat to the national ethos of secular Jewish society in Israel. That was before 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and other Arab territories, and the establishment of illegal settlements. It was also before the population growth in the Haredi sector in Israeli society, which over the years, especially since the Second Intifada, has aligned more and more with the reactionary political right in Israel as led by Benjamin Netanyahu. The election of the Netanyahu/Religious Zionism/Jewish Power/Haredi government has changed the balance. Not a force of moderation, religious Zionism dominated by Religious Zionism/Jewish Power shows itself as a radical force in society, one that seeks to marry the secular state to all manner of religious ends. The state now serves the settlement project and other religious interests and values.

There is, however, a demographic weak point undergirding religious Zionism and the settlement project. Even as the Religious Zionism/Jewish Power parties secure political power for their own ends, religious Zionist communities in Israel and in illegal Jewish settlements in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank constitute a relatively small demography relative to the total Jewish and Arab Israeli populations in Israel and the Palestinian population under military rule in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank. Indeed, religious Zionism still depends upon secular society, upon government funding, upon an economy powered by hi-tech, and upon the army, even as it seeks to dominate Israeli civil society and Palestinian territories by roping them both together into the settlement project. This begs real questions. For the settlement project to succeed, Yesha needs to take root in Israeli Jewish society as a whole, to win “hearts and minds” inside the State of Israel and secular society. Arguably, religious Zionism and the settlement project was always unable to settle complete inside secular hearts and minds. It is increasingly failing to do, calling negative attention and ire towards itself especially now as it exposes Israeli society to its own harsh face and system of values.  

Bezalel Smotrich underscores the critical demographic weakness in his so-called “Decisive Plan” for extending Jewish sovereignty in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank. You can read it here. Smotrich knows that to be more than a religious Zionist pipedream, full-on annexation requires massive settlement of Jews in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, where Palestinians represent a massive and disenfranchised demographic majority. Settlement is, for that reason, the first and most important stage of the Decisive Plan.” In his own words, “This stage will be realized via a political-legal act of imposing sovereignty on all Judea and Samaria with concurrent acts of settlement.” Settlement means “the establishment of cities and towns, the laying down of infrastructure as is customary in ‘little’ Israel and [with] the encouragement of tens and hundreds of thousands of residents to come live in Judea and Samaria. In this way, we will be able to create a clear and irreversible reality on the ground” (emphasis added).  

The critical weak point of the annexation plan is that cannot be “realized” if it depends upon the most committed hardcore of ideologues, religious Jews primarily, if not exclusively. It is hard to imagine anyone else invested in the settlement project, if annexation depends upon establishing settlements deep in West Bank territories surrounded by Palestinian towns and villages. Where are the tens and the hundreds of thousands of Israeli or diaspora Jews prepared to move deep into the violent mayhem of this occupied territory? Where are the religious Zionists who live inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel? The precondition for settlement first requires brutal suppression, including expulsion of Palestinians who resist or in anywise reject untrammeled Jewish rule. No political rights, not for Palestinians, just for Jews, no democracy, apartheid, this is the future of Judaism in a non-democratic halakhic state. In the end, the settlement project is not self-sustaining. Settlements depend upon the support of the secular society now being provoked by extremist expressions of religious Zionist and Haredi politics, and increasingly repelled by settler violence against Palestinian villagers.  

The co-authors of a ninety-page report here by Molad – The Center for Restoration of Democracy argue that the illegal settlement project relies on massive state support and are not viable without them. Without the support of the state, the settlements would dry up. This is where religion and the failure to settle hearts and minds of the larger Israeli public comes into play. The authors of the report cite settler leaders going back decades.” From what was then the settler weekly Nekuda (144, October 1990), the report cites poet Arieh Stav, who was the editor of what was the rightwing journal Nativ. Of concern to him was “the rift” between religious settlers and other Israelis. Stav wrote already back then, “If you want to understand why Gush Emunim has failed to extend its reach beyond the boundaries of its narrow camp, and to find pathways to the heart of the general public – not to mention enforcing hegemony and a worldview on the majority – you will, sooner or later, conclude that the structural flaw separating Gush Emunim from the secular environment and threatening a dangerous convergence within the four walls of a spiritual ghetto is based, at heart, on the religious ethos of forming a social structure based on Jewish law (halakha)” (p. 37).

What Kaye, in his book on the idea of Jewish theocracy, underscores is the principle and practice of halakhic-religious supremacy. Against the secular states and courts, religious-legal supremacy has always been at the root of religious Zionism. What Smotrich underscores is that to annex the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank and cement in place the one-state reality, religious Zionism first has to annex the state of Israel to Yesha: the occupied Palestinian West Bank and to the settlement project. The annexation of the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank into the State of Israel depends upon the annexation of the State of Israel into the State of Judea and Samaria. This double-annexation can only happen under the mantle of the anti-judicial and anti-democracy coup, the primary drivers of which are religious society and the extreme and violent political parties representing that society.

About hearts and minds, religious Zionists invariably resent the fact that Israeli society abandoned them during the 2005 withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The Supreme Court did not intervene on their behalf and the public did not rally to their cause. This is because these were settlements established and maintained under military law outside the Green Line; they were predominantly religious; and were evacuated by a rightwing government led by Ariel Sharon. In contrast, polls consistently indicated that only a small minority today, overwhelmingly religious, supports the anti-democratic judicial overhaul. When a mainstream voice in the religious Zionist community calls for slowing down the anti-judicial coup, it is not out of respect for democracy. As per this statement here by Hagi Segal at Makor Rishon, / the sentiment drips with hatred for the Supreme Court and other secular elites. As the political leadership presses full court, the worry among more farsighted leaders in the religious Zionist community is that the frog in the pot of boiling water, namely secular society, is now severely agitated.

Without a political home, what are moderate religious Zionists to do today? Against the hyphen that was the essence of religious Zionism, courageous liberal and leftwing Israeli orthodox Jews seek to disaggregate their Zionism, a political commitment, from Judaism, a religious or spiritual one. From the Anglo-Israeli Jewish world, these words here, reflecting centrist Zionism and liberal orthodoxy, from Yossi Klein Halevi   touch upon the foundations: democracy, apartheid, orthodox religion, religious Zionism, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, settlements and settler violence, Arab civil rights in Israel. Halevi’s op-ed shows in real time how the radical religious and rightwing government is pushing the Israeli center towards the center-left camp.

Explaining these thoughts from 3:00 AM, Halevi writes, “When Smotrich chose ‘Religious Zionism’ as the name for his extremist party, I was outraged: He had hijacked one of the most noble movements in Zionism for his racist agenda. And yet, given the overwhelming silence within the religious Zionist community toward Smotrich (and toward Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Jewish Power party), I realized that this wasn’t a hostile takeover after all…Religious Zionists need to internalize the difference between a people and a modern state. In Israel’s case, of course, the two overlap. But they are not identical. Zionism not only took responsibility for renewing and re-empowering the Jewish people, but it also created a new people: the Israelis. The Jewish state functions simultaneously on two levels, as the center point for a transnational people, and as the state of all who were born here.”

From the Anglo-Israeli religious and political center, Halevi’s words underscore the basic point made by the left in Israel for decades now. There is no democracy with occupation and settlements; because the settlement project, which is at the heart of the occupation and which sustains it, is inherently anti-democratic. Shown clearly in this harsh little apocalypse that is contemporary Israel under rightwing-religious rule (a genuine state of emergency as viewed by most Israelis) is that, ideologically, religious Zionism and rightwing Judaism in Israel, as presently configured are constitutionally unable to recognize the authority of secular society and governing institutions + wedded to the lawlessness and violent occupation that is the heart of the settlement project + ideologically unable to recognize democratic principles of equality and autonomy regardless of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

The meta questions raised by the current anti-democratic nightmare are foundational. Who is a citizen in the State of Israel? What is Judaism and who will represent it in Israel? What is Zionism and who will represent it? Is Judaism nationalist and rightwing and racist? Is Zionism rightwing and religious and racist? How entrenched or how fragile is the political power and social force of rightwing populism, rightwing religious Zionism, the racist Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties in Israel? How entrenched or how fragile is democracy in Israel? These are the open and most pressing questions today as revealed with such clarity today in the State of Israel under rightwing-religious rule.

[image: in the name of the self-styled majority, an online poster calling for large rightwing religious pro-regime coup protest in Tel Aviv shows a black and yellow Kahanist fist smashing “Srulik” a famous symbol of the old secular Israel: Enough of the Tyranny of the Minority: The Majority Goes Out to the Street]

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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1 Response to (Religious Zionism) No Democracy (With Occupation + Settlements)

  1. dmf says:

    thanks for these historical/sociological sketches, what is the promise of Messianism if not a Jewish theocracy?

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