March 18, 2019

Religious Zionism and the Specter of Racism

“Words from a broken, loving and hopeful heart:

The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression, including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world, is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serious time.

Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes — not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire.” Rather, out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.

And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings — even when engaged in a state of warfare — are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.

“Frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham.”

Last week’s appalling decision by HaBayit HaYehudi  (Jewish Home), the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi’s essay in The Times of Israel summarized it best. The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies within and outside the state, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents, of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.

And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham.

It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many American Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed, absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.

There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך — not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David–Judea Congregation.