Religion: setting the agenda

Zionism’s political crisis

Tony Greenstein looks beyond the possible voting figures, as Israel awaits a second election

For the second time this year a general election is scheduled in Israel - for September 17. It takes place against the background of three pending fraud charges against prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been unable to form a government after the indecisive April elections.

Netanyahu was still hoping to be able to pass a bill granting the current premier immunity, but now the timetable is such that his chances of avoiding a trial are diminishing. A pre-indictment hearing is scheduled for the beginning of October, when he will have a final chance to persuade the attorney general that he should not be prosecuted. But is it likely that he will see an electoral swing in his favour come September?

Most people believed that after April another far-right government headed by Netanyahu was almost inevitable. The parties of the Zionist right and far right, together with the Orthodox religious parties, had a total of 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. But the secular far-right party of Yisrael Beteinu, led by former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, with five seats, refused to play ball and their refusal highlights what is the Achilles heel of the Zionist project.

Lieberman refused to agree changes to a bill that would enforce the military enlistment of students at Orthodox yehivahs (religious seminaries).1 Since the Israeli army is not in need of such recruits and in any case 50% of secular Jews manage to avoid the draft, the issue is in many ways a theoretical one, but it has become a litmus test of the kind of Jewish state Israel should be.

This is indeed the division that has always run through Zionism. The early founders of Zionism were, almost to a man and woman, atheists - basing the Jewish claim to Palestine on the god they denied! In other words, Zionism was to a large degree a secular political movement that used religious symbols and biblical claims as a form of legitimacy.

When Theodor Herzl wrote the founding pamphlet of the Zionist movement, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish state), he mentioned the possibility of Jewish settlement in Argentina as well as in Palestine. In what became known as the ‘Uganda controversy’, the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903 was split between those wanting to accept a temporary state in Uganda and those holding out for Palestine. Although a narrow majority actually endorsed Uganda, in practice the option was dead.

But, although Zionism was a largely secular movement, it heavily rested on religious Zionism. In 1949 the first Israeli Labor Party government of David Ben Gurion chose to form a coalition with religious groupings (which later went on to form the National Religious Party) rather than with the left Zionists of Mapam. Since the ILP held 46 seats and Mapam 19, they could have formed an overall majority without any non-labour Zionist parties, but this was the last thing Ben Gurion wanted. For Israel to be considered a Jewish state, it was necessary for all matters of personal status - in particular the definition of Jewishness - to rest in the hands of the Orthodox religious rabbinate.

That is why to this day there is no civil marriage in Israel. The rabbinate controls all official matters regarding birth, marriage and death. In an ethno-nationalist state based on Jewish supremacy it is crucial that there is a definition of the ‘Herrenvolk’ which is widely accepted. Only the rabbis could fulfil this function - even though, in their eyes, the majority of Jews in the United States are not considered fully Jewish. For example, this year when the Tree of Life synagogue in the USA was attacked by a neo-Nazi and 11 Jews were murdered, chief rabbi David Lau refused to call it a synagogue. Rather it was “a place with a profound Jewish flavour” - almost like an ice cream.2

However, the Zionist rulers of Israel were anxious not to alienate the leaders of the five million-strong US Jewish community - not least because they relied on them to put pressure on the US government, as well as for financial support and help. Therefore we have the situation where, if you want to enter and gain Israeli citizenship under the 1950 Law of Return, then you can do so whether or not you are a religious Jew.

As a result of the 1970 amendment to the Law of Return, not only a Jew not recognised by the Orthodox stream can enter Israel, but so can their non-Jewish spouse, partner and children. In essence the definition of who is a Jew under the Law of Return mirrors the definition of a Jew under the Nazis’ 1935 Nuremburg Law. It is a racial, not a religious, definition.


According to the Pew Research Report - Israel’s religiously divided society3 - 46% of Israeli Jews see themselves as Jewish first and 35% as Israeli first. This incidentally is the answer to those who say that Israeli Jews form a separate nation, because, according to Zionist ideology, Israel is a state of all Jews, not simply those who reside in Israel. It appears that Israeli Jews by a significant majority support this position. Furthermore 22% of Israeli Jews see being Jewish as a matter of religion, compared to 55% who see it as a matter of ancestry, with a further 23% citing both factors. What this suggests is that the Jewish settler population of Israel cannot agree on how it defines itself.

This is reflected in Israeli identity cards, in which both religion and nationality are categorised as Jewish. Indeed an individual can refuse to include Jewish as religion and simply opt for it as their nationality. What they cannot do is put down ‘Israeli’ as their nationality - there is no such category! In that sense Israel is unique - a state that does not have its own nationality.

This political schizophrenia lies at the heart of the dispute between Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu, which represents, for example, a large number of Russian Jews, who in the main are not religious, and the Orthodox Jewish parties.

It would, however, be a mistake to see Lieberman, as many among the left Zionists do, as some kind of surrogate leftist. Tamar Zanderberg of the left-Zionist Meretz has indicated that she would be willing to serve in a government with him.4 Lieberman supports the execution of Palestinian ‘terrorists’, has advocated the transfer of Arabs out of Israel and currently calls for them to swear an oath of loyalty. In any other society he would be seen as far-right, but because he is a secularist sections of the Zionist left believe they can do a deal with him.

In fact the forthcoming elections take place in the context of a crisis for the Zionist left. The Labor Party, which brought the Israeli state into being and formed the government for its first 30 years, last had a majority 20 years ago. In the last elections it declined from 19 seats to just six. Furthermore Meretz only gained representation because some 40,000 out of its 150,000 votes came from Israeli Arabs.

Amongst the Jewish population the Zionist left has all but disappeared. The kibbutzim are no longer held out to be a model of an alternative society and the trade union federation, Histadrut, is no longer the second major employer after the state itself in Israel. The current election takes place in the context of an existentialist crisis for Israeli Jews. The increasingly powerful Orthodox religious sector wants to see a legal system based on Halacha - Jewish law. This is promoted by the United Right party, which currently has five seats, and the two orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, with eight seats apiece.

According to the Pew Report, 29% of Israeli Jews favour a legal system based on the Torah, while 64% are opposed to this. However, there is no doubt that this is becoming a priority for the settler-led religious Zionist sector and will undoubtedly become a flashpoint in the future.

In the meantime the coming elections are likely to produce much the same outcome as last time, with a question mark over the ability of Meretz to survive unless it unites, as has been mooted, with the Israeli Labor Party.

  1. See, for example, www.jpost.com/International/Liberman-Haredi-draft-bill-must-pass-unchanged-560291.

  2. www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-s-chief-rabbi-refuses-to-call-pittsburgh-massacre-site-a-synagogue-1.6601043.

  3. www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society.

  4. www.trtworld.com/magazine/can-the-almost-paralysed-israeli-left-reinvent-itself--16796.