Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Religious Zionist or just Right-Wing Zionist?

This is a tough post to write because everytime I venture into a post about politics I get slammed in the comments, and sometimes (always) I don't feel like dealing with it. But some things must be said.

A few prefaces:

1. A reader once accused me of only ever criticizing the political right-wing, and never the left. This isn't true -- I can pull up plenty of posts that suggest that the left-wing have some serious blinders on -- but the reader had a small point. You have to understand that I hang out in religious circles, and in Israel, "religious" and "politically right-wing" are almost interchangeable adjectives. So I care deeply about "the right," because these are my friends. And when I see people who are my community making errors in judgement, or making embarrassing mistakes in how they are trying to get their point across, or shooting themselves in the foot, it arouses a stronger emotional reaction in me, for the very reason that these are people I care about deeply, and I think that in general they have valuable and important things to say.

2. I'm about to make a broad point using Bnei Akiva (a religious-zionist youth movement) as an example. I have nothing against Bnei Akiva at all other than the limited criticism I'm about to make. I myself grew up in Bnei Akiva of North America and loved it. I went to a Bnei Akiva summer camp and loved it. My friends' kids are in Bnei Akiva and they love it. That having been said, I must also acknowledge almost complete ignorance of the internal workings of Bnei Akiva here in Israel. I don't know anything about how the organization is run, or who leads it, or what sorts of internal politics they are dealing with. I only know, from speaking with friends whose kids are in it, and from seeing the many banners that Bnei Akiva chapters hang in my neighborhood, that it is an active organization with a lot of excited kids involved, and that they do a great job of harnessing kids' energy and channeling it.

Now. Onward.

About a year ago, I went to several seminars and panel discussions about the pullout from Gaza. Two were sponsored by religious organizations, and one had a panel with members from across the political and religious spectrum.

At every one, members of the religious right-wing admitted that, looking back at the last 30 years, they realized they'd made two significant strategic errors. One (the one mentioned less but I'm mentioning it first) was that they had isolated themselves in all-religious communities (such as most of those in Gaza and many in the West Bank), which meant that increasingly, secular Israelis were living their lives without forming any friendships with religious people. It used to be that the secular and religious lived next door to each other and mingled. Not so much in the last 30 years. So by the time we got to discussions about the Gaza pullout, the secular Israelis were talking about settlers as "those people," strange people who had wacky ideas and who cares if they are happy or not?

Second and more importantly (both in terms of how much self-reflection was devoted to it, and also for my current post), the rabbis and right-wing leaders who spoke at these panels acknowledged that Religious Zionism had become a one-issue movement for many years. When one looked at Religious Zionist youth movements, at political discussions, at rallies, etc they were all about The Land, specifically Gaza, Yehuda, and Shomron. Settling The Land. Keeping the Land. Never Giving Up The Land.

And so, these rabbis and political leaders (intelligently) said, they had lost all relevance among the Israeli secular-left. If Religious Zionism is a political movement that promotes holding onto the "disputed territories," and that's it, then why should the secular-left pay attention? On what basis should they be interested in a Torah or a form of Zionism that has nothing to say about things that matter to everyone?

Why, these leaders wondered in retrospect, does our community not spend more energy discussing and making ourselves relevant for issues that affect the whole country on a wide basis? The Torah has things to say about education, about aid to the poor and the sick, about foreign policy, about public safety, about economics, about the environment, about treatment of the non-Jews who live in Israel, etc etc. The secular-left political movements were discussing these things and making decisions, and the religious-right had removed themselves from the table. The secular see Torah as an annoying book that makes people either not join the army, or care ONLY about self-defense and our right to The Land, because that's what the religious-right talked about at the public level.

Meanwhile discussions about the other issues went on, and the religious-right became irrelevant. It was the secular-left who made decisions about education and other issues, because the religious-right was too busy Claiming Our Right To The Land. (This is a generalization, but not my opinion - I'm reporting what the Religious Zionist rabbis and other leaders were saying a year ago.) And now, these leaders were looking ahead and realizing how much power they'd lost when they weren't paying attention . . . because whether we pull out from the West Bank or not, once some sort of permanent decision is made about the future of the West Bank, the religious-right will want to be at the discussion table about the economy, social welfare, etc, but it will be too late. (Again, I'm generalizing just as they did, and reporting what others said.)

OK, now it is a year later, and we have this post by one of my favorite bloggers, West Bank Mama, about the annual festival at her local Bnei Akiva chapter, where every year the kids whitewash the walls and then re-paint them, using motifs that represent their current concerns:

Last November most of the paintings were colored black or orange, and referred to the destruction of Gush Katif and the hope that we will return there. Some of the more philosophical groups wrote about hope and despair and faith - with quotations from various sources.

This year there was a different feel. The war in Lebanon and in Gaza took precedence. Some groups had collages of religous soldiers painted on the wall. Some used military "accessories" to showcase each kid's name in the group - one group used the "kumta" - the beret, each one with a different child's name. My son's group used dogtags. It certainly was a queasy sight seeing my ten year old's name, with a number that he just made up (at least he didn't put his teudat zehut number, that would have been too much).

Another group painted the following slogan in their space:

"Shalom zeh hazman bein milchama l'milchama" - "Peace is the time between one war and another."

Sobering, yes.

At the same time, though, I found this slogan to be somewhat encouraging. Not because I love war, G-d forbid. The idea of my sons fighting scares me to death.

I found it comforting, though, that although these kids are only teenagers, they understand what it takes to live here in Israel. These are normal, happy adolescents, who worry about pimples and popularity just like others their age the world over. But at the same time they know that living in their homeland takes sacrifice, and they are willing to make it.
Like West Bank Mama, I am impressed and glad that Israeli teenagers are so aware of, and involved in, politics. They care deeply about what this country does, and where it is going, and they spend time acting on their convictions. It is heartening and important and meaningful.

But despite the self-reflections last year of right-wing leaders, the indication of this particular Bnei Akiva chapter wall is that, once again, this particular Religious Zionist movement is a one-issue movement. It's all about security, about self-defense, about the land. (Again, this is based just on one post about a wall at one chapter, and I don't claim to understand the whole picture.)

These are teenagers, and they are obviously interested in social change and politics. And it's a Religious-Zionist youth movement. And these paintings reflect their most cherished values. Where are the paintings about chessed, about loving one's neighbor? About charity? About learning Torah? About keeping mitzvot? About improving one's middot? About being a light unto the nations? About taking care of the water and the animals and the soil and the trees of this great land?

Bnei Akiva kids put a banner up in my neighborhood during the Lebanon War stating their solidarity with the people of the North. I smiled every time I saw it. It made me happy that in a time of crisis, the whole country felt unified and that young people in Jerusalem were proudly proclaiming their solidarity with people they'd never met.

Now that the war is over, and the Gaza pullout is long past, I wish they'd put up banners about other things. About loving your neighbor as yourself, about helping the poor and other things that, after all, are Torah values. Perhaps the kids do discuss these things within their chapters. Certainly they have wonderful activities around the holidays, and they do learn Torah, but in terms of the public face of the organization . . . they don't seem to have learned anything from what happened two summers ago. The self-reflection of the rabbis I heard has not trickled down to the level of the kids' banners and the paintings on the chapter's walls.

It makes me sad that, in practice, Religious Zionism continues to be all about Zionism and hardly about religion at all.

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