Jewish Power and Morals

In the last week, the nation state of the Jewish people came to an extraordinary political crossroads that should terrify and repel everyone who, like me, continues to believe in Zionism and Judaism.

As widely reported, in order to maximize the number of right-wing seats in the next Knesset (to be elected April 9), Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu made common cause with several smaller right-wing parties, including Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), ideological descendants of the abhorrent Meir Kahane, who was barred from the Knesset in 1988 for his racism and violent thuggery. Netanyahu promised this nationalist alignment not less than the Education Ministry in a future coalition, which should make everyone’s blood run cold.

Wide swaths of American Jewry have condemned this cynical maneuver, from the liberal religious movements to the mainstream Jewish community advocates. Even AIPAC strongly condemned Otzma Yehudit – hooray for that. Almost everything has been said – I need not pile on too much here. But I do invite our community members to think about a few things, partly about Israel, and even more deeply about Judaism:

The electoral stakes are not really that high. Maybe their vote sharing agreement would net one more right-wing seat, or maybe not. Perhaps Otzma’s leader Michael Ben-Ari makes the Knesset, or maybe not.

But the moral stakes could not possibly be higher for Zionism, especially of the religious variety. Anti-Zionists generally claim that Zionism is inevitably colonialist, racist, and bound to discriminate against and dehumanize Arabs. I reject this view entirely. But when the Prime Minister of Israel works to the bring the party of Kahane Tzadak [“Kahane was Right”], of Michael Ben-Ari and Barukh Marzel, into the Knesset, it is time for a profound heshbon hanefesh, personal accounting, in the Zionist house. Israel rose to the occasion in the 1980s and anathematized its racist fringe, barring them from the front door of public life. But the years of occupation and terrorism and the endless national conflict opened the window for Kahanism to crawl back in. Now Netanyahu says, essentially: since you’ve already crawled in the window, we can help each other here. Take my hand and walk with me through the front door.

I was glad to see the Conservative movement’s round condemnation of Otzma, and I understand the need to tread lightly around partisan politics in an international organization. But I would criticize the passive voice of our phrasing, and our tender-footed expressions: it is not only that Otzma should be driven off. The blame here lies with Bibi Netanyahu, whom we should criticize by name for inviting into leadership a party so closely associated with Jewish terrorism. He has shown himself unfit for his office.

At the deepest level, what is at stake is the meaning of religious Zionism. As an American Conservative rabbi, I am not part of the universe of Israeli religious Zionism. I’ve not attended its institutions and am not integrated into its society. Still, I am religious and am a Zionist, and I believe the future of our people is inextricably tied to Jewish society practicing Judaism in our ancestral homeland. So, if I may, I consider myself a fellow traveler, and certainly a concerned cousin. And this matter has me worried for Jewish religion, even more than for Israeli politics.

I don’t know what the aggressive nationalist religious Zionists really worship. As its name implies, I suspect that Otzma Yehudit worships power, not God. They believe they are fighting Amalek. I think they are becoming Amalek.

This week, reading obsessively about the Otzma Yehudit matter, I have seen some truly brave and inspiring reactions from religious Zionists, and some truly repulsive ones. Let me share with you comments from two important Torah teachers who live on the West Bank. Both of whom are far to my right, both politically and religiously, and neither of whom would consider me any sort of comrade. (Both of whom, by the way, grew up partly in the US.) One of whom has retained a deep moral center, and the other certainly reveals where he stands.

  1. Eliezer Waldman heads the Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba and served as a right-wing Knesset member in the 1980s, and now remains a leader in the Bayit Yehudi [“Jewish Home” party, heir to the once-noble National Religious Party]. Otzma Yehudit has a style of expression that “sounds racist,” he said, but “over the last several years they have moderated their style of expression.” In all events “we and Otzma Yehudit have the same goals.” That comment speaks for itself.

Up the road toward Jerusalem lives R. Moshe Lichtenstein at Yeshivat Har Etzion, one of the most influential Zionist yeshivot with a history of relative political liberalism, embodied by its founders R. Yehuda Amital and R. Aharon Lichtenstein (R. Moshe’s father).  R. Moshe wrote his students this week with a message that gives me hope for a religious Zionism that retains its moral compass. I’ll give him the last word:

The inclusion of Otzma Yehudit to the Jewish Home’s list is not a political issue, but a religious and moral one.  Anyone who participates, directly or indirectly, in the inclusion of a group of people that worships power, is indifferent to violence, honors murderers, and is full of hate towards many Jews and non-Jews bears responsibility for desecrating God’s name, which they will certainly cause by sitting in the Knesset as religious representatives.

Better to take a politically weak but moral and principled position than to seek political advantage by joining these people.  The Torah and the Land of Israel will not be saved by a politics that depends on morally bereft ideas – they will only be severely damaged by it.