Whence Orthodox Jewish Zionist Politics?

The Israeli election campaign has already begun.


In the run-up to that campaign, one of the most notable, and remarkable, political events in Israel in 2012 was actually a non-event. At a time when Israelis were struggling to figure out how to deal with any number of basic moral issues such as whether to attack Iran, what to do with African migrants arriving from the Sinai, how to cope with an economy dominated by a small group of the ultra-wealthy, how to cope with extortionate housing and food prices and the growing disparity in incomes—among other things—the once-powerful Mizrahi movement and its two political offshoots, the Ichud Leumi and Habayit Hayehudi parties, were almost totally silent.aehudi partiesH


In fact, the last time that these parties had made major headlines was in late 2010 when there were open clashes between the settlers and the government over a freeze in construction on the West Bank.


From its founding in 1902, the national Orthodox religious Mizrahi movement had always been something of an anomaly in Zionist politics. Most political parties are founded for one of two reasons. They can be established to promote an epiphany that has subsequently been turned into a full-blown political ideology; or they are set up to further an existing sectoral group’s self interest. In the Mizrahi political movement, there was a very different dynamic.


Each of the other early Zionist parties believed that it had invented the solution to “the Jewish problem” and had then set about building a whole ideology around their basic thesis (socialism, bourgeois liberalism, or national property rights). The Mizrahi movement, however, began as a loosely-attached group of activists that had no overall ideology or even a clear collective self-identity. What we today call “the Modern Orthodox” had been hit by a double-whammy a hundred years earlier by the creation of the Reform, and then the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) movements, and had not yet recovered or figured out where they should go philosophically. Their great “posek” (final religious arbiter) of the 19th century, Samson Raphael Hisrch, had rejected the very idea of a return to the Promised Land.


However, beginning with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever in the 1880s and continuing with rabbi Yitzchak Reines at the turn of the 19th century, these Jewish leaders did have two specific goals—to demonstrate that a Jew could be both “modern” and pious; and to save the Jews suffering under the autocratic regimes of eastern Europe (even if that meant resettling those Jews in Uganda).


Eventually, and unlike the Haredim, the Mizrahi movement’s founders came to believe that saving Jews required a nationalist solution.


However, that decision has since led to a series of what have proven to be irresolvable problems.


The first was whether the movement’s members would be merely in the modern world so that it could take advantage of the benefits of modernism, or become active participants in shaping the modern world, which often meant reshaping religious law to accommodate the changes that were taking place in the society around them. In other words, the movement’s leaders had to decide whether their party would be outward looking and universalist, as Ben Gurion had hoped, or whether it would be inward-looking and particularist like the Haredim.


However, even before it could even begin tackling such weighty issues, it faced two conundrums. In order to join the Zionist Movement the Mizrahi Movement had to accept the principles that underlie liberal democracies, including majority rule. In other words it had to accept the principle that the law of the land would be formulated by the citizens of the land through their elected representatives. Or, put another way, sovereignty, and thus the source of authority, should lie in the hands of the citizenry, not the rabbis. As well, laws and regulations must be open to change in order to adapt to the changing needs and lifestyle of the citizens.


The immediate problem that then arose was that orthodox religion of any kind believes that the ultimate source of authority is God, and thus, His laws cannot be changed. In other words, liberal democrats believe that the law must reflect life, while orthodox religion believes that life must be filtered through the law.


To make a very long story short, after a more than century-long struggle, the Mizrahi movement has found that it cannot live with the emotional and intellectual ambiguity that being orthodox in a constantly-changing, secular milieu entails.


Once the founding fathers of the party died or retired, most of the party members gave up the struggle to reconcile the paradoxes with which they had been living. Instead of doing battle with new and unfamiliar problems, they withdrew more into themselves, began living is increasingly enclaved areas, began talking only amongst themselves, and began to use the question of Jewish settlement in the territories captured in the Six-Day war as a means to escape from having to deal with weight moral and ethical issues. The movement then turned itself into a pure sectoralist party for a while, and now has become an empty, intellectual shell—just as Labor and a majority of the Revisionists have.


Unlike the leadership today, the Mizrahi movement’s founders were in a unique position to grapple with the kind of issues they faced. They had grown up in the intellectual maelstrom of fin de siècle Europe, and had been exposed to the whole range of political and social ideas roiling around. Most were highly educated in subjects such as law and philosophy. And, they were deeply religious.


It is difficult for us today to value the extraordinary intellectual bravery of the Mizrahi movement’s founding members. Unlike the Haredim, they had chosen not to retreat into a restrictive, pre-industrial enclave. And unlike the secular socialists or the bourgeois Zionists, who had simply been able to modify two centuries of Christian, atheistic and agnostic Enlightenment political thought to suit their needs, the Orthodox Zionists had no body of established political ideas and ideals upon which they could draw.


From the outset, the religious Zionists were confronted with the need to find a way to meld their spiritual beliefs with the objective difficulties inherent in being a part of a ruling class. In effect, in addition to trying to achieve their two stated aims, they were also faced with the almost monumental task of reconciling their religious beliefs, which were largely based on precedents set during almost two thousand years of life in the Diaspora (where they had little or no say in the running of government), with the exigencies of modern, nation-state building.


True believers in the Messiah, the early religious Zionists of the turn of the 20th century struggled to find a way to reconcile their rationalist, earthly political activities with their spiritual yearnings for the coming of God’s messenger. No less importantly, they had to find a religious justification for working together with the rest of the avowedly secular Zionist movement that believed that man should and could accomplish the tasks that the greatest rabbis had believed had already been assigned by God to the tarrying Messiah.

The first stage in the Mizrahi movement’s attempt to resolve the paradox came when most of its members chose to adopt the teachings of the avowed mystic, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook.  Kook preached that Zionism was part of the process of redemption, not an end in itself. Once that process got underway, the Messiah would come and redeem not just the Jews, but all mankind. Kook taught that religious Jews could work with secular ones because all Jews had within them the potential for holiness—even if they did not recognize it. Therefore, even irreligious Jews could be working to serve God’s great plan for man’s redemption.


Even though Kook was a classical Jewish mystic in many ways, his teachings were those of a universalist who had been influenced by some of the great, non-Jewish European thinkers. His preachings enabled the Mizrahi movement’s members to reach a kind of cease-fire with the secularists so that both could work together to end the British Mandate.


Like the secularists, the religious nationalists emerged from the War of Independence in a euphoric state of mind. However, the very success of the Jews in waging the war, seemingly against all odds, compelled the religious Zionist leaders to once again confront the conundrum that they were still deep believers in the coming of the Messiah. However, the ultimate expression of Jewish religious messianism—the ingathering of the exiles to their ancient homeland—had been carried out by otherwise ordinary, largely secular, men and women.


The religious Zionists had little choice but to look on in shock and sometimes horror as secular unbelievers—the very people who had openly rejected traditional Judaism and had sought to find a social, national replacement for it—had made a reality of the religious Jews’ millennial messianic dreams.


Not only that, once the state was formed, these secularists had begun crafting laws themselves, without regard to and even in competition with Halacha (Jewish religious law).


Worse still, this man-made law was being given precedence over what the Orthodox believed was Divine Law; and those man-made statutes had been declared to be binding on the whole population within the country’s sovereign boundaries.


However, undoubtedly, the greatest difficulty the Orthodox religious Zionists faced was that the secularists were ignoring and even openly rejected the two thousand years of rabbinically-based ordinances which the Orthodox believed should form the foundation for all Jews’ beliefs and practices. This was far from the way to national redemption that Kook had preached.


The difficulties the religious Zionists had in confronting and accommodating themselves to what were, in effect, grievous acts of heresy were exacerbated by the fact that the Orthodox, who base their whole lives on following rabbinical precedents, could find no references in rabbinical or Biblical sources for how to live in and how to cope with the very idea of a secularly-governed, democratic, sovereign, modern, Jewish nation-state.


To Ben Gurion, the plight of the religious Zionists was a non-issue and of little concern. Like so many secular, rationalist humanists before and after him, he could not conceive of the importance individuals can place on religious spiritualism, mysticism and messianism. Moreover, at the time, religious Zionism was at its weakest point ever. Large numbers of young people who had been brought up in religious homes were abandoning a religious lifestyle for a secular one, especially after serving in the army.


As well, the chief rabbinate had become beset by divisions and fights for position and status and had thus become ever-less relevant to the bulk of the country’s population. Even religious Zionism’s flagship institution, Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, the yeshiva that had been founded by Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, was in danger of closing its doors for want of both funds and students.


Very quickly, however, the situation began to change. Throughout his career, Ben Gurion’s single-minded concern had been state-building. Any problem involving what he believed to be religious clap-trap should be dealt with quickly and then forgotten. That emphasis on short-term responses to what were existential religious questions, however, was to have long-term consequences. Probably the first important change in the situation came with his decision to sign the so-called “status quo agreement” that was supposed to formalize the relationship between religion and state.

From that moment on, the religious parties, for the first time, were handed a safe haven in the form of a huge, taxpayer-financed religious bureaucracy that has since become one of the largest centers for state-funded patronage in the country. The newly-created positions in the Ministry of Religion and the Chief Rabbinate, and through them in the religious courts, the local religious councils, the slaughterhouses, the state-funded synagogues and the state-sponsored religious schools have enabled otherwise unemployable rabbis and religious functionaries, some of whom who are opposed to modernity and even the secular nation-state, to become tenured civil servants protected by the secularist, modernist Histadrut.


The first and ultimately the decisive battle within the Mizrahi Movement’s two original political parties, the bourgeois Mizrahi Party and the socialist Poalei Mizrahi party (which eventually united to form the National Religious Party) was over which group within the Movement would be the party’s source of authority—the rabbis or the laymen. Until the 1950s, the lay politicians had formulated policy, and had then had those policies vetted by the rabbis.


But that would soon change.


One major problem the Movement faced was that the advocacy-based, modern system of parliamentary governance demands that a party speak with a single voice. However, so long as they continued to allow many voices to speak, the Orthodox religious parties were never able to speak as one. That was because, in keeping with Jewish tradition, all the party’s ordained rabbis were considered to be equal in authority to all other rabbis—and they had different positions on a whole range of issues. And, as I mentioned, the laymen had always been considered more equal than the rabbis when it came to formulating responses to matters of public policy. It is worth noting that there were not even any reserved places for rabbis on these parties’ Central Committees.


For these reasons, between 1951 and 1961, the religious Zionist movement refused to hold internal elections, preferring to paper over internal differences through power-sharing between the various factions.


However, it is a general rule in politics that this form of super-stability cannot exist for long, and inevitably leads to an explosion, during which new, fully-independent parties are formed; or a revolution breaks out, after which one faction takes control.


A major problem the rabbis faced was that, because of their divisions and power-plays, they were all too often incapable of coming up with any joint, binding decisions that were of relevance to the pressing theological questions that had been raised by the creation of the state. As the Modern Orthodox Chief Chaplain of the army at the time, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, put it “The Rabbinate so far has not awakened to the fact that there is a Jewish state and that halakha must be brought up to date to make the state viable[1].”


A significant turning point was the passage of the State Education Law in 1953. For the first time, the religious Zionists were finally given a warrant and state funding to set up their own, separate school system. The religious Zionists then had to decide what would be the organizational structure and the content of the studies in these schools.


Up to that time, the ideal of modern religious Zionism had been encapsulated by the social ideals of Hapoel HaMizrahi, especially as expressed in the life being led on the religious kibbutzim, which combined physical labor, land settlement, an open dialogue with secularists, and an almost pure expression of democratic governance. For example, it is noteworthy that religious kibbutzim would only allow rabbis to become members if they were also willing to work as equals in the cowsheds; and isolation from the majority, secular population and the social problems the fledgling state was facing were considered anathema.


With the establishment of the national religious school system, though, a new power base emerged overnight. Within months, power, influence, and state funding began to shift to the rabbis who were chosen to become the school principals and the heads of the yeshivas. The national religious camp was about to move to a more Haredi-style form of internal governance. All that was missing was a recognized posek who could expound a dogma that would finally resolve the movement’s exhausting paradoxes.


For many of the newly-appointed educators, the War of Independence had been a traumatic event. As I have noted, religious soldiers who had encountered secularism for the first time during their army service, had abandoned formal religion by the thousands. In response, once the separate school network was set up, the religious educators sought to create an educational system that would act as an antidote to the seductions of secularism. This meant not only building a school system, but also strengthening the Bnei Akiva youth movement so that the students would also spend most of their free hours in a religious environment.


One of the first decisions the educators and the politicians made was to establish more gender-separated, religious boarding high schools, in which, as in the Haredi yeshivas, Torah study was idealized, the study of humanistic subjects was downgraded, and every moment of every student’s time could and would be controlled.


Three problems arose almost immediately, particularly after the wave of immigration from Asian and African countries had begun in earnest. First, although they proclaimed themselves to be a bridge between the secular and the Haredim, the Orthodox religious Zionists’ self-felt need to focus primarily on religious subjects led them to all but ignore the history and thought of the Enlightenment period when preparing school curricula. Thus, not only did the students in their school system not learn the intellectual tools that had developed during that crucial period, the graduates of the system ended up lacking a basic understanding of the ideas that were driving the thoughts of both their own, aging, European-educated lay leaders and the secular citizens around them.


Second, there were simply not enough trained teachers whom the school administrators could call upon to fill the newly-established positions that had been created as a result of the huge growth in the state religious school system; and there were not enough rabbis to man the synagogues in newly-built outlying settlements. The only large stocks of teachers and rabbis available were the products of the Haredi yeshivas. The need to employ these teachers then resulted in greater attention to religious practice, the study of religious texts and increased intolerance of deviancy among the graduates of these state religious schools.


The third problem would result in new forms of leakage. Having now greatly expanded their pre-state school system, the Mizrahi political leadership had to decide how religion should be taught. The Mizrahi movement perceived itself to be a bridge not only between the Haredim and the secular, but also between Ashkenazi and ethnic Mizrahi religious groups. For that reason, the religious Zionists had demanded and had received permission to have first rights to attract ethnic Mizrahi youngsters to their schools. However, the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim have always had a fundamentally different approach to preserving the tradition. Ashkenazi orthodoxy passes on its tradition through the study of texts, while Mizrahi and Sephardi societies put less emphasis on scholasticism and a greater emphasis on the use of family activities, social persuasion and verbal messaging as a means of preserving and passing on beliefs.


Once the boarding schools were established, and precisely because they were such a closed environment, they began to attract the best text-oriented teachers. Those teachers then attracted the students of the most established families—particularly the religious, established Ashkenazi bourgeois, who could afford the additional costs of such schooling. Very quickly, many of these boarding schools became elitist, Ashkenazi strongholds, while the regular, less-well-taught urban and rural schools became populated primarily by Mizrahi immigrants. This elitism would then lead to two phenomena.


Some of the best young scholars leaked out of the fold and chose to pursue their advanced studies in Haredi yeshivas.


And resentful lower class Mizrahim, who, in any case, viewed the Ashkenazi religious Zionist elite as the handmaidens of the hated labor movement, began to leak out first to the secular Revisionist camp, and later to Shas—once Shas became established as a Mizrahi alternative to both Agudat Yisrael and the NRP.


In other words, by that time, by the mid-1960s, the NRP had become more concerned with the level of religious practice and religious learning of its constituents than with the serious social problem that they had created. The party had taken first dibs on these immigrants, but they had not followed through and had failed to give these children the education they needed.


Leakage to the secular camp, however, was always perceived to be the greater threat. For that reason, an ever-growing emphasis was put on controlling adolescents’ free time—especially during the transition period between high school and the army. Unlike the Haredim, the religious Zionists could not reject compulsory military service, because to do so would have put them outside their self-perceived image of being part of the Zionist mainstream. This decision to opt for control, isolation and a narrowing of the areas open for public discussion, instead of equipping the youngsters with the rationalist intellectual tools needed to confront the challenges of secularism (as had been the case with their elders), was to have profound repercussions.


The first was that the yeshiva heads gained an almost monopolistic influence over Orthodox youngsters at the most crucial time in the adolescents’ lives. It not only isolated the students from interaction with their secular peers, it also distanced them from their homes, the realities their families were coping with, and, often, the religious moderation and tolerance their parents had adopted.


As often occurs in such an intellectually-incestuous environment, irrationality and a sense of elitism began to take hold. Worldly issues that were not directly related to the society of Torah learners were ignored. Concerns about how Jews could be both modern and innovative in thought and orthodox in religious practice began to fall by the wayside.


What was missing, though, was a common dogma which could unite the increasingly powerful rabbis.


It was at this point that a minor rabbi, working in a decrepit yeshiva, began to gain influence until his radical dogmas became conventional wisdom among most religious Zionists, and he would become the guru/posek for most of the religious Zionist movement.


Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) was the scion of the great religious leader of the early Zionist period, Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935). Today, most of the religious Zionists claim that they are followers of both the father and the son. However, by doing so, they conflate what are two very different approaches to Zionism. What the younger Kook did was to take a kernel of his father’s ideas and then build up an entire political theology that was almost the antithesis of his father’s beliefs.


Probably the greatest of the differences between the two was that the Latvian-born, elder Kook was a European-educated universalist, a Hegelian by predisposition, who placed an emphasis on Jews’ obligations to all mankind. He thus warned against the moral dangers of narrow nationalism.


By contrast, and contrary to what had long been Zionist dogma, even within the religious camp, the younger Kook was a fervent, nationalist isolationist. He asserted that the Jews were a nation whom God had set apart; and that the pursuit of “normality,” as Ben Gurion had directed, was illusory. In other words, while his foreign-influenced father had stressed values he had learned in Europe and as a full-fledged member of the ruling Zionist establishment, the younger Kook’s teachings were the product of an extreme xenophobic reaction of a native-raised, if not native-born son, who had sequestered himself in a closed yeshiva environment, and who understood little about and cared little about modern Western secular thought or practice.


Both men were mystic messianists. However, while the father had believed that holiness was a potential latent in the Jewish people, his son took the holiness of the Jews to be an operative fact.


This may seem to be an abstruse difference in positions by the two men, but it had enormous practical consequences. The younger Kook argued that since the Jewish people was holy, it was duty-bound to pursue redemption and to take part in the process of redemption in every way possible. Since the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was part of the process of redemption, Jews were duty bound to take an active role in settling all of the Biblical Land of Israel if the process was to proceed at the fastest pace possible. In effect, he took Labor’s 1930s secular political dogma that held that settling the land was the path to national redemption, and made it into a halacha.


His combined emphasis on increased piety through a rigid adherence to religious practice, settlement activism and land worship though, enabled him to do the seemingly impossible—to combine into a seemingly seamless whole religious messianism and the romantic secular nationalism of the Revisionists and many of those in the Labor Movement.


The end product, a dogma that can only be described as an elitist, isolationist, super-Zionism, or even hyper-Zionism, would become the Mizrahi movement’s official resolution of the paradoxes it had faced since its founding.


Among other things, the younger Kook’s message also finessed the issue of whether the law should reflect life or act as a filter for life. To him, man-made law only had validity if it served a purpose in the process of redemption. If it appeared to delay redemption, it had no value. In other words, Kook’s dogmas appeared, literally, to have been made in heaven because they appeared to be an escape from the need to resolve the central issues that Modern Zionist Orthodoxy had had to confront from its inception. Redemption through settlement would provide the solution to how to deal with all these problems—and so all the other social, economic, religious and political issues the country faced could simply be ignored.


The Kookists, though, remained a distinct minority in the religious Zionist camp for a long time. When the younger Kook’s followers rose up in rebellion against their elders in the National Religious party in 1963-64 during the party’s internal elections, their revolt was put down. They had not yet attracted a critical mass of followers.


1964-65, however, saw a turning point in the evolution of national religious doctrine and practice. In that year, the aging Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, in a total reversal of established religious Zionist policy, declared that, henceforth, all the policy decisions of the National Religious party would have to be vetted first by the rabbis. By that, he apparently assumed that it was he himself who would automatically become the great posek. In effect, his declaration amounted to an announcement that the NRP had undergone a coup. Democracy had ended. And he had taken charge.


But that was not to be. Unterman had failed to take into account the shift in power to the yeshiva heads.


Among the first to realize the true significance of and to accept Unterman’s argument—and to expand on it—was Rabbi Avraham Shapira[2], who, however, just happened to be a devoted follower of the younger Kook. To Shapira and his students at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, Unterman’s proposition was basically correct. Their only qualm was that it was Kook who should become the ultimate arbiter.


Two decades earlier, such an open challenge to the existing authorities would merely have been papered over. However, by this time, Kook’s followers had already spread through the school system and were able to influence their pupils, who, in turn were able to influence their parents.


Shapira, who would later become both Chief Rabbi and head of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva upon Kook’s death, went even further than Unterman had. He argued that halakha was not just relevant to, but should form the basis of all policy decisions. For that reason, rabbinical rulings on public policy should have the same status as those on religious matters; and those public policy rulings should be binding on all religiously observant Jews.


In other words, the lay leadership should be demoted to the status of being rabbis’ functionaries, as had been the case with the Haredim. No less importantly, henceforth, almost all the NRP’s political initiatives would originate from amongst the graduates of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, and the core activists would be drawn from the students of the teachers that followed the Kookist line. This claim to rabbinical supremacy in policy-making then set the stage for the creation of the Hardali movement, which, in effect is Haredi-style nationalism.

By the mid-1970s, the Kookists, led by the NRP’s youth faction, had pulled off a coup and had taken control of the party. While, initially, a few figureheads of the old guard, such as Yosef Burg were allowed to remain on the party list, by 1981, a majority of those elected to the Knesset were fervent Kookists.


By then, another phenomenon that had begun to take root in the late 1960s, had begun to sprout. In 1965, the Orthodox religious Zionist rabbis, led by Kook’s followers, had begun to extend their influence by moving a part of their enclave into the bastion of Israeli mainstreamism and of the state’s self-identity—the army. It was that decision that would provide the organizational framework for the dramatic changes that would soon take place in both the NRPs system of internal governance and in its approach to Israeli society as a whole.


In particular, the decision completed the process of establishing what has amounted to a second religious state within the state, alongside the one already formed by the Haredim. By creating an army within the army, the rabbis began the process that has turned Israel into a full-fledged, de facto federated state.


The rabbis’ decision to insert themselves into the military, and to retain their graduates’ dependency on them even after the students had graduated from high school, was the culmination of what had, again, been a long process.

Because this process has had such an enormous impact on Israeli life, it is a story that is worth relating in considerable depth. Amongst other things, the narrative includes the establishment of the settlements in the occupied territories, the attempt to dismantle the few sets of political and legal checks and balances Israel has, and the ultimate reaction to these actions by the Israeli secular and religious rationalists.


The basic story of how and why the rabbis and the young, grassroots mystic/romantics succeeded in turning the army into a base of operations is quite simple. In the late 1950s, the national religious rabbis had set up a program called the mechina (preparation), under which students from the religious Zionist high schools had begun spending a full year in Torah studies at yeshivot prior to their undertaking their compulsory army service. At the time, there were very few religious military officers, in part, because the religious conscripts feared that full-time military service might lead them to contravene religious laws, such as those that forbid work on the Sabbath. The rabbis of the time felt that their charges needed a period of spiritual strengthening before these youngsters faced the challenges (some believed the battering) of secularism. That mechina year, however, failed to staunch the leakage by many of these youngsters into secular society.


As a result, in 1964, the Orthodox religious Zionists decided to persuade the army to establish a new, separate, framework for religious men—modeled to some extent on the well-established Nahal program—that extended the mechina program beyond recognition. At the time, the Nahal program was considered to be the idealized form of Zionist expression for young people. The original Nahal program had been designed to combine military service with 1930s-style “pioneering” work—which usually meant establishing new border settlements or working to strengthen weak ones that had already been established. The conscripts served a regular term as soldiers, plus an additional year as farmers. The religious kibbutzim had a similar program, under which the recruits served a full term as soldiers and also studied at a yeshiva in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim for several years.


Under the new program, labeled “Yeshivot Hesder,” Orthodox men were to combine military service, not with agricultural labor, but with religious learning. In other words, for the first time, and contrary to all of Labour’s dogmas, Torah learning was given official sanction as a Zionist equivalent to physical labor. Moreover, unlike the Nahal recruits and those from the religious kibbutzim, they would serve less time as soldiers in the field.


Beginning with one yeshiva and 30 students, the program has grown to include 51 yeshivas and more than 10,000 students—roughly 40 percent of all national religious conscripts. Significantly, most of the Hesder yeshiva heads have been graduates of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav—or have been followers of Zvi Yehuda Kook.

Once the Hesder program had become well-established, the process of enclaving the religious nationalist youngsters up to the age of 23 or more had been more or less completed. As well, the system ensured that all of them would be indoctrinated with the younger Kook’s doctrines. Under the 5-year program, the conscripts first spend a mechina year in the cloistered environment of a yeshiva “strengthening” their beliefs. They then appear at the recruiting centers as a group and are processed and undergo basic training in their own company-sized formations. Their actual army service lasts only 16 months, as compared with the three years spent by other recruits.


Initially, the army was pleased with the results. The conscripts begin basic training with a high degree of group camaraderie and unit cohesion, because the platoons are made up of like-minded individuals who have already established ties of comradeship in the yeshiva—a significant plus in military terms. Moreover, the “buddy” system of learning in yeshivot encourages mutual support and understanding between youngsters suddenly facing enormous pressures. For the most part, these soldiers have turned out to be highly-motivated, brave and disciplined.


However, weaknesses in the system soon began to appear; and the fallout from those weaknesses has affected both the army and the society at large. Because of their restricted timetables, the Hesder recruits can only be assigned to certain units. Since these conscripts serve only 16 months, and 10 months of that must be taken up with basic and advanced training, the soldiers only put in 6 months of actual front-line service. This means that they often cannot be integrated into regular formations that need extra time to train and coordinate their field operations.


Another negative is that the Israeli military is now using an increasing quantity of highly-sophisticated, high-tech equipment, which requires longer and more-practiced field exercises if full use is to be made of the materièl. Interruption in that training for yeshiva studies means that lessons are often easily forgotten. Moreover, soldiers’ physical fitness and battle-readiness are also affected because Torah study is essentially a sedentary activity[3].


In all armies, conscripts are usually isolated on their bases from all other outside influences, at least until they are socialized into the world of rigid military hierarchies, and until the recruits from different backgrounds are forged into a single, trusting fighting unit. That is true in Israel as well—except for Hesder units, where the Kookist yeshiva rabbis establish close ties of dependency with the recruits prior to their service and are given almost unimpeded access to recruits even after basic training begins. Moreover, the yeshivot are free to send the recruits leaflets, many of which, while written as Talmudic and Biblical discourses, are often heavily laden with partisan political messages as well.


The challenge that these 19 or 20 year olds then face is that they become caught in the unenviable position of having to serve three masters—or, more accurately, to accept three different and often warring sources of authority. The orthodox recruit is expected to obey his commanding officers, carry out the orders of the government (which may veto purely military-based proposals for diplomatic or domestic political reasons), and to defer to rabbis who have become increasingly politically active. As Stuart Cohen has pointed out “Compelled to divide his energies and loyalties between two very ‘greedy’ institutions [the military and the yeshiva], the conscript runs the risk of failure at his inability to satisfy the highest demands of either[4].”


No less importantly, he eventually has to choose who will be his ultimate source of authority.


The kinds of tensions created by a divided source of authority escalated geometrically when the government decided in 2005 to evacuate Gaza, leading many of the senior rabbis, led by former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, to call on the soldiers to disobey orders. In other words, he declared that the rabbis should be the ultimate source of authority in the state. In practice, the individual soldiers were then caught having to obey and to serve not just three bosses, but also to confront the massive power of three state-supported hierarchical institutions that had come into open conflict.


On a more general level, the rabbi’s call to disobedience also demolished two major principles that had once been bedrock beliefs in the Mizrahi movement. The first was that while a soldier should have freedom of expression in the area of religious ritual while serving in the military, (such as keeping Shabbat), unless there was an operational necessity not to, that freedom to choose did not extent to disobeying orders that may have contravened political beliefs that were the product of those religious beliefs. In other words, directives issued to the army by a legitimate government should be carried out unless they are prima facie immoral.


If Halacha required political change it should be done incrementally and through the system.


Second, and even more worrisome, according to Shapira, in essence, henceforth, while Orthodox religious Zionism accepted the idea of a democratic state in word and in theory, it could take an adversarial stand with regard to the institutions that that state had established. In other words, religious Jews could accept the idea of a state in principle, but they were also free to undermine the activities of the institutions that the legitimate government had established to carry out its policies.


And now we have seen that position taken further by some rabbis who claim that soldiers must accept the authority of rabbis who are not even part of the military framework. In other words, they are demolishing what little Israelis have of a national social contract—that everyone must serve in the military and follow the same chain of command.


Understanding the damage that had been done both to the army and to society at large, the former Head of Manpower at the General Staff, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, himself a graduate of the Hesder program and a resident of a settlement in the West Bank, launched a campaign in 2007 to try eliminate the segregated religious-only paratrooper and armored corps units. However, the power that the rabbis were able to wield by this point was so great that Stern failed.


The issues that had caused Stern to try to launch his reform, however, did not go away. In fact, they became ever more salient. The story of the Kfir Brigade is a case in point. The brigade was formed in 2005 when six independent infantry battalions that had specialized in urban warfare, counterinsurgency and policing the occupied territories were combined to create a single unit.


From the outset, the brigade was unusual in many ways. Unlike the other infantry brigades, it has six battalions (including one for Haredi yeshiva drop-outs), instead of the usual four. Unlike the other infantry brigades, it spends almost its entire time in West Bank and is rarely rotated out for service on the Lebanese border, the Golan Heights, or the boundary with Gaza. And, not unsurprisingly, a disproportionate number of the members of this largely-volunteer unit have come from amongst the settlers on the West Bank and/or the Hesder yeshivas.


The unit is particularly inviting place for the Hesder students because these soldiers can serve close to home, the length of training they require is limited, and they can easily be inserted into the many battalions for relatively short periods without the overall effectiveness of the brigade being affected.


However, within a relatively short time, the inherent weaknesses of a military unit made up primarily of like-minded soldiers began to appear. In August 2007, soldiers from the Duhifat battalion were ordered to go to Hebron to provide perimeter security for the police, who were planning to evacuate settlers from a home that settlers had taken over illegally. Twelve of the soldiers refused to climb aboard the bus.


In October 2009, a group of soldiers from the Shimshon battalion, who were being sworn in, pulled out a banner during the ceremony, which read “Shimshon does not evacuate Homesh,” (a reference to a settlement that had been evacuated in 2005). A month later, several soldiers from the Nachshon battalion raised a banner on their base reading: “Nachshon does not expel” [settlers]. All the soldiers involved in these acts of insubordination had come from Hesder yeshivot.


The Hesder Yeshivot Administration condemned the insubordination, but these incidents highlighted a growing split among the Modern Orthodox rabbis over the basic issue of who should have final authority over the soldiers—the General Staff acting under instructions from the democratically-elected government, or the yeshiva rabbis who are also paid by the state. In other words, the situation had degenerated into a straight power play for control of the hearts and minds of the conscript soldiers.


For example, the head of the Hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, supported the soldier-protestors. “Defending citizens, not evacuating Jewish settlements, is the IDF’ job,” Levanon asserted. In a burst of self-contradictory irony to which he seemed oblivious, he added that “Using the IDF to expel Jews is a blatant politicization of the IDF and it must be stopped.”[5]…As though his position was not politically-based.


Although there were calls to close down the yeshivas in which the disobedient soldiers had studied, and Stern publicly warned of the danger of turning the IDF into “an army of militias[6],” only the Har Braha yeshiva was eventually punished, but no punishments were meted out to the other rabbis or the yeshivas that supported the insubordination.”


It is important to remember that by the time of Stern’s defeat, the Orthodox religious Zionists had already lost control over the Chief Rabbinate and many of the religious councils to the Haredim. It had also lost a major source of employment for its functionaries as much of the kashrut supervision had also fallen into the hands of the ultra-Orthodox. As well, for all intents and purposes, it had given up on outreach to the secular public. In other words, it had lost both much of its raison d’être and its institutional base.


For example, once they seized control over the religious courts (which must approve all Jewish marriages), the Haredim had imposed compulsory marriage counseling for all young couples wishing to marry. As part of that counseling, each couple is given a brochure that, among other things, compares women to “clay” and urges the husband to “shape and mold her as he pleases.” The Orthodox religious Zionists may have realized the impact that such recommendations would have on secular Jews’ perceptions of religion, but they issued nary a peep of protest.


The single-minded belief in settlement as the antidote to the existential intellectual problems they had to face had led the Orthodox rabbis down a dead-end street. And they had no Plan B.


In the end, the Orthodox religious Zionist rabbis have been demeaned by the Haredim and the secular public alike. Probably the greatest body blow came when the conversions to Judaism by one of the movement’s senior leaders, Rabbi Haim Druckman, were declared invalid by a Haredi religious court judge.


The movement that had sought to position itself within the Zionist mainstream as a bridge between the secular and Haredi worlds and had made a brave effort to find a moral and intellectual base in modernism, now found itself positioned off to the side, enclaved, divided and largely irrelevant to the rest of the Israeli public.


Probably the best example was the furor created by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the head of the hesder yeshiva in Har Bracha. He supported insubordination on the part soldiers if this meant evacuating settlers—even from illegal settlements. The Hesder rabbis, feeling that their power as a bloc was being threatened, condemned political demonstrations while soldiers were in uniform, but they failed to address the central issues—the same ones that had confounded the Orthodox Zionist movement since its inception: Who should be the country’s source of authority?—the rabbis, or the government as the elected representative of the citizenry; and should the law of the land be based on the will of the majority or the rabbis’ increasingly narrow interpretation of halacha.


It was at that moment that the Mizrahi movement, as it had been originally conceived, finally gave out its last breath. Interestingly, nobody that I saw posted an obituary in the media. Maybe, that was because by this time, the Kookist advocates had taught everyone that the issues Mizrahi’s founding fathers had worked so hard to resolve, simply weren’t worth all the effort they had put in.


If that is the case, we have been witnessing what is truly a national tragedy; and all Israelis are  the poorer for the outcome.



[1] Jerusalem Post Weekly, Overseas Edition, March 20, 1964, p. 2

[2] This Avraham Shapira should not be confused with the former leader of Agudat Yisrael’s Knesset faction of the same name.

[3] Stuart A. Cohen, “The Hesder Yishivot in Israel: A church-state military arrangement,” Journal of Church and State, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter  1993

[4] Ibid

[5] Matthew Wagner, “Rabbis grapple with IDF insubordination,” Jerusalem Post, November 18, 2009

[6] Elazar Stern, “Silence of the rabbis,” ynetnews.com, November 17, 2009

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