Promoted Content The Times of Israel - Promoted Content Sources Journal Fall 2023

“A Natural Act of Vengeance”: Settler Violence & Jewish Fundamentalism

Scholar of religion Tomer Persico shows how fundamentalist movements within today’s Religious Zionism threaten to undermine both the State of Israel and Judaism.

Dr. Tomer Persico is a Research Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is a social activist advocating for freedom of religion in Israel. Persico writes the most popular blog in Hebrew on these subjects and has published articles in the Washington Post and Haaretz (English) as well as numerous other Israeli newspapers and periodicals and formerly taught in the Department of Comparative Religion at Tel Aviv University.

The short video, filmed on a mobile device, focuses on a group of Jews praying against a backdrop of burning houses. We know there are at least ten because we hear them recite the Kaddish, and that is generally allowed
only in the presence of a minyan.

It is the night of February 26, 2023, and those present are a small number of the hundreds of young Jews who entered the Palestinian village of Hawara, set dozens of houses, businesses, and cars on fire, and attacked the villagers. According to residents, 75 buildings and 95 cars were burned that night. Dozens of Palestinians were injured.

The Jews who participated in the pogrom in Hawara did so in revenge for the murder of Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, two brothers who had been driving on Route 60, through the village, when they were slain by a Palestinian terrorist. These arsonists are members of a younger generation of settlers, part of a novel social and theological circle within Religious Zionism, the development of which can be traced over the last two decades. Though ideologically distinct, these settlers enjoy the support of another,
much more prominent Religious Zionist group that emerged over the same years and currently occupies the highest echelons of the Israeli government. Together, they form a large part of the ideational basis for present-day settler violence in the West Bank.

Click to continue reading Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas: Fall 2023 Edition In this essay, I will argue that sociological and ideological developments since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 have given rise to Religious Zionist circles maintaining fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish tradition and rejecting both the authority of the State of Israel and the notion that the state has messianic significance, which had been the signature claim of Religious Zionists since the 1970s. Focusing on the post-mamlakhti Hardal group and the anti-mamlakhti Hilltop Youth, I will show the connections between their political convictions and their religious ideas, and argue that the latter are as dangerous to Judaism as the former are to the state.

The Hardal and the Hilltop Youth represent the latest chapter in the story of Religious Zionism, which can be divided into three broad periods: Mizrachi, Kookist, and the present. The Mizrachi movement, under the leadership of Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Raines (1839-1915), dates to the very beginning of the Zionist movement. It was characterized by moderate Orthodoxy, a socialist economic world-view, and a dovish political approach.

The impact of Israel’s phenomenal victory in the Six Day War led to the rise of the Kookist theological framework as the central ethos of Religious Zionism. Kookism, named for Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s (1891-1982) nationalist and messianic interpretation of the thoughts of his father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), perceived the post-1967 settlement project in Judea and Samaria as the expression of the will of God, manifesting the process of redemption through the control of his Chosen People over the Promised Land. In this framework, the State of Israel became a holy vessel, and its expanding sovereignty over the land represented the adhesion of the divine reality with the earthly one, in a deterministic redemptive process from which there could be no return. This is known as the mamlakhti, or “statist” approach, asserting that the Israeli state, though secular in civic nature and populace, is the “seat of God” on earth and the main vehicle for realization of divine will, and indeed humanity’s redemption.

Kookism dramatically changed the map of Israel by inspiring the settling and all but formally annexing of Judea and Samaria. However, over time, as it solidified as a movement, its messianic momentum waned. Kookism also suffered a series of ideological and theological defeats with the withdrawal of the State of Israel from the Sinai Peninsula as part of the peace agreement with Egypt (1982), from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank with the Oslo Accords (1994-1995), from southern Lebanon (2000), and finally, from the Gaza Strip with the destruction of Gush Katif and the so-called “disengagement” in 2005.

This last event was a fatal blow for many Religious Zionists, for whom the democratic and liberal state of Israel had become suspect, if not outright worthless, as an instrument of redemption. Kook’s teachings ceased to be a viable ideological framework, and no other emerged to take its place. This marked the beginning of the third period of Religious Zionism, as the movement disintegrated and its members dispersed in different directions, including progressive liberalism (feminist and pro-LGBTQ rights), anti-liberal nationalist ultra-Orthodoxy (Hardal), libertarianism, Kahanism, settler vigilantism, and neo-Hasidism. Simultaneously, as the movement splintered, the integration of mainstream Religious Zionists into the Israeli general public increased, and as their interests and identities shifted, halakhah became less central to their lives in both social and theological terms.

This is the political and social context that gave rise to the two groups addressed here. In contrast to a Kookist approach, the post-mamlakhti Hardal (an acronym for National Religious Haredi, HaRedi Dati Leumi) approach does not give unequivocal support to the Israeli state and its secular apparatus, and, though not part of the Haredi public in sociological terms, adopts the stern observance and rejection of modernity associated with the Ultra-Orthodox. These Hardalim tend to reside in more hardline settlements such as Beit-El and Kedumim; are represented politically by Israel’s current Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich; and are distinct from an older, but still mamlakhti version of Hardal, led today by Rabbi Zvi Tau.

“Hilltop Youth” is a generic name used to describe decentralized communities of teenagers and young adults living in the Occupied Territories of Judea and Samaria. They generally reject the political and religious establishments, incorporate Hasidic teachings and practices, and strive to live according to their own standards of authenticity. The fact that they dwell mainly in outposts considered illegal even by the State of Israel underscores their unruly and liminal ethos. They do not recognize the Knesset’s authority, thus transforming the Religious Zionism of their parents into a fundamentalist post-Zionism. Zvi Sukkot, a current member of Knesset, originated from within these groups, but because of his entry into politics, he is ipso facto considered by the group to have conceded to and/or been coerced into the state apparatus.

These two circles present a new type of Jewish religiosity: nationalistic, extremist, yet not state-oriented and at times anti-Zionist. With varying levels of halakhic strictness, their members base their relationship to the Land of Israel on a literal and exclusivist interpretation of the Bible, and reject the liberal order, its values and republican mechanisms. Their shared ultimate goal is the elimination of Israel as a democratic state with a secular and liberal public sphere, and the establishment in its place of a halakhic theocracy. Their growth out of Religious Zionism hints at the identity crisis this public has been experiencing since the disintegration of the Kookist theological framework, and they represent a significant challenge to the bourgeois majority of the public.

Credit: Kurt Hoffman

The anti-mamlakhti Hardal and the Hilltop Youth maintain distinctly fundamentalist religiosities, by which I mean frameworks of belief and social strategies typical of religious groups seeking to preserve their identity in the face of modernity. Fundamentalism is characterized in part by the constraining of a religious tradition into a limited and rigid framework of principles, propositions that are considered the “fundamentals” of the faith, or its one “authentic” essence. This requires uncompromising submission to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, which themselves are interpreted selectively and literally, and a refusal to tolerate other layers or elements that would allow any interpretive flexibility. Fundamentalism also entails a consolidated view of history, according to which what was once, is now, and always will be, meaning that everyday reality today is fundamentally the same as it was thousands of years ago. This position allows followers to import and transplant the past into the present, and to accept ancient values and social norms verbatim from the Holy Scriptures. Fundamentalist groups with both messianic and universal pretensions also attempt to shape the social and political world beyond their borders, according to the same theological foundations and search for authenticity.

The fundamentalism of the non-mamlakhti Hardal and the Hilltop Youth is the most extreme view that has emerged in the wake of the demise of Kookism as Religious Zionism’s ideological framework. These groups teach and promote an antagonism towards the values of the modern West; a longing for a mythical past while looking forward to a redemptive future that will restore it; a clear hierarchy between men and women, as well as between Jews and non-Jews; a desire to turn the State of Israel into a theocracy; the pursuit of religious authenticity; and a glorification of revenge, though their precise positions on the last two are distinct, as I’ll discuss below.

In both its statist and non-statist versions, the Hardal does not amount to more than 15% of religious Zionists—around 1% of all Jews in Israel—but it is viewed sympathetically by many, including secular, traditional, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Its advantage over the rest of Religious Zionism is its religious certainty, the clear answers it gives to the question of Jewish identity, and its uncompromising confidence in its vision. In the scattered landscape of Religious Zionism, such fundamentalists stand out not only for their right-wing and reactionary politics, but for their theological decisiveness.

Significantly, these fundamentalist conceptions of Judaism leave little to no room for other Jewish identities. Indeed, even while being no less selective than other groups in their interpretation of the scriptures, the Hardal and Hilltop Youth presume themselves to hold the final, exclusive, and definitive understanding of Judaism, viewing other Jewish groups as erroneous and temporary mishaps, if not deliberately heretical saboteurs. They continually strive to affirm and actualize their worldview in Israel, and in the case of the Hardal, are aided by generous government budgets allowing them to influence the secular school system curricula, and to make inroads into secular towns and neighborhoods by settling within them.

For example, the Midbara K’Eden yeshiva in Mitzpe Ramon tried to cancel the town’s Pride Parade in June 2022, following the words of the yeshiva’s head rabbi, Tzvi Kostiner, that LGBTQ people should “go home” and be “fought,” as they are “evil, evil, evil, evil and more evil.”[2] Kostiner also told the police that he would have “no control” over the yeshiva’s students were the parade to pass close to it,[3] thus using the threat of violence to push the police towards forbidding the event. Pointedly, the yeshiva was founded in 2008 with the explicit intention of influencing its secular surroundings. (Ultimately, the parade did take place, with increased police protection, after changing its route.)

More than posing a threat, violent at times, to the lives and ways of life of other Jews in Israel, these fundamentalist Jewish groups twist the Jewish tradition into an abominable chimera, mixing biblical literalism, ethno-nationalism, and theological obsessions similar to those of American evangelical Christians, morphing Judaism into a toxic creed that is unrecognizable and unapproachable by the vast majority of living Jews. All this, as noted, is sometimes done with the calculated aid of governmental budgets. To better understand these groups, I will now analyze their respective activities and theologies…

Click to continue reading Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas: Fall 2023 Edition


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