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  • Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

A religious moment in Zionist history

The swearing-in of Israel's first religious prime minister marks the return of Religious Zionism as a transformative worldview anchored in the Jewish moral compass.

When the Zionist movement began to coalesce in the late 19th century, many traditional Jews dismissed it as a heretical aberration from rabbinic Judaism and sought to distance themselves from its burgeoning political structures. At the same time, secular European Jews at the forefront of modern Zionism viewed the religion as antiquated and its strict adherents too passive in the fight for the safety and security of the Jewish people. The chasm between these two polarized worldviews continued to grow.


The early religious Zionist founders sought to bridge the gap. By combining the importance of Torah and traditional Jewish life with the centrality of the Land of Israel and peoplehood, Religious Zionism became a powerful, unifying counterpoint. Although a minority, its representative bodies actively fought to uphold this vision within the political structures of the World Zionist Organization during the long battle to establish the state. Even when faced with the necessity to make painful compromises, the Religious Zionists remained determined that the Jewish moral compass serves as an anchor within the revolutionary drive to restore Jewish sovereignty in the ancestral homeland.

On May 14th, 1948, Religious Zionist leaders joined David Ben-Gurion in signing Israel’s historic Declaration of Independence. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the fledgling State’s first Minister of Religion, recited the sacred shehecheyanu blessing reserved for auspicious occasions at the conclusion of the ceremony. This was a symbolic act for the ages.


In the decades following the establishment of the State, the Religious Zionist community remained a relatively small sector of the population (today around 10%), but members of the movement and graduates of its educational institutions have served at the highest levels of Israel’s security forces, key hi-tech professionals, in the media and disproportionately across key leadership positions.


One prominent example is Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Head of Israel’s National Security, who led the first official delegations to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morrocco proudly wearing the knitted kippa associated with this community. This full integration into broader society is the ultimate reflection of the founders’ ideological aspirations.


The legacy of the early Religious Zionist leadership’s vision continued, with the various iterations of the national religious parties actively participating and supporting both majority left and right-wing governments over the last seven decades. In a reflection of the full integration of the community within mainstream society in the political arena, prominent Religious Zionists have represented political parties from across the right-left spectrum, breaking the pattern of sectorial factions representing the movement. However, just when some felt that the new party in Knesset had hijacked the term “Religious Zionism” with a more extreme and narrow approach to many issues, a prime minister has emerged from a less sectorial party hailing from the same camp, working with very different ideologies from across the spectrum and illustrating further the successful integration of this movement across society.


The core principles of traditional Religious Zionism are relevant for a new generation grappling with issues of the day. It is both rooted in tradition and open to diversity. It may have been given a bad name by certain political parties or individuals, but the movement is far greater than any one individual or a here-today, gone-tomorrow fad. It is a transformative worldview not subject to any one political party but enlivening many.


The fact that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett now leads one of the most diverse coalitions the country has ever seen returns Religious Zionism to its intended role as a bridge between disparate tribes that charts a new path and can offer a different way to look at the world around us.

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