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Israel’s Religious Zionists gained ground in the November election

What is Religious Zionism, and why is it getting more popular in Israel?

- December 16, 2022

Israel’s November 2022 election brought former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power, in alliance with the controversial Religious Zionist Party. As an electoral bloc of several smaller parties, the RZP has attracted criticism for its perceived undemocratic positions. RZP leaders like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, once dismissed as irrelevant extremists due to their roots in the far-right-wing Kahanist movement, will now occupy powerful positions within the government.

This suggests Israel has shifted away from Labor Zionism as a unifying ideology, and toward Religious Zionism. What is Religious Zionism — and why has it become so popular?

Israel is a nation where informal arrangements regulate law, religion-state relations and even borders. By using religion as a means of consolidating a national identity, Religious Zionists have broken free of this paradigm — and gained political influence by offering a vision for Israel’s future.

Religious Zionism rests on the notion of the “three flags” — the Torah of Israel, the land of Israel and the people of Israel. In each of these areas — law, land and people — Religious Zionism proposes to use religion to resolve ambiguities in Israeli law and institutions. Although religion has always played a role in Israeli politics, religious and secular figures alike have abided by the “status quo” agreement — one that the RZP wants to shake up.

The RZP isn’t just another example of ultra-orthodox participation in government, as seen in earlier regimes. To appease RZP leaders, Netanyahu has offered to expand the powers of their offices and reshuffle the chain of command for institutions including the Israeli police and the administration of the West Bank.

Religious Zionism seeks to annex the West Bank

Israel’s role in the occupied West Bank remains undefined. Netanyahu’s Likud party rejected the two-state solution, as have other center-right parties. Some left-wing parties have, in recent months, resumed calls for a two-state solution. But this support comes after years of silence.

This has left the West Bank in stasis. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bill that actually sank the previous governing coalition. Israeli regulations covering the West Bank require reactivation every five years; the coalition faltered when it faced defections over whether to extend the law.

The Religious Zionist movement, in contrast, offers a clear path forward: annexation. As part of coalition arrangements, RZP Chair Smotrich will receive authority to appoint military administrators of the West Bank. While this stops short of transferring West Bank administration from military to civil control — a move that would amount to de-facto annexation — the vaguely worded agreement appears to be a step in this direction.

Some Religious Zionists argue that the Palestinians living in the West Bank can be accommodated even if Israel goes through with annexation. The logic goes that strengthening religious institutions would allow non-Jewish communities to maintain religious autonomy. Although unlikely to appeal to Palestinians, this approach has convinced many Religious Zionists that the path toward annexation is easier than the path toward compromise.

RZP has also challenged the rule of law

Since 1996, Israel’s Supreme Court has claimed the right to judicial review to safeguard democracy. This “constitutional revolution” retroactively declared Israel’s Basic Laws as having constitutional status.

Religious organizations and others on the right opposed the move, arguing that a constitution would upend Israel’s long-standing religion-state arrangements. Right-wing parties often talk about passing a law to circumvent Supreme Court rulings, and revert to this nonconstitutional approach.

Going a step further, the Religious Zionist movement sees the ideal balance between religious and secular authority as one in which religious institutions have authority over civil matters, and secular institutions have authority over criminal and security matters. For this reason, Religious Zionist Party members call for strengthening courts of “Halakha,” or traditional Jewish law.

Although Likud does not share such ideological convictions regarding the role of the court, Netanyahu may have personal reasons for supporting the “override clause.” Allowing the Knesset to override the authority of the court may allow Netanyahu to cancel his ongoing corruption trial altogether.

Who is a Jew?

A third area of ambiguity in Israeli law lies in the classification of Jews and non-Jews. Here, the Religious Zionist template offers a clear criterion, defining Jews according to Jewish religious law.

Candidates for Religious Zionist parties have long argued for closing a “grandfather clause” that allows the descendants of Jews to immigrate to Israel provided they have one Jewish grandparent. As part of Netanyahu’s prospective coalition, the traditional religious and Religious Zionist leaders alike have started to lobby to cancel this clause. This, too, would be a major change in Israel.

Why explains the rise of Religious Zionism?

The parties that made up the RZP only hold 14 seats in the Knesset, but their influence is growing. As Religious Zionism gathers steam, other factions have begun to take on similar policy positions. The traditional Orthodox parties, who long refrained from upsetting the religious “status quo,” have joined with the RZP in demanding stronger Halakhic courts and an end to the “grandfather clause.”

The growth of Religious Zionism can be attributed to the frustration Israelis feel toward institutional instability. But where other ideologies have faltered in offering an alternative, Religious Zionism appears to be growing because it offers confidence in the path ahead. A popular song among the Religious Zionist crowd states that “the eternal people do not fear the long road” — a message that seems to resonate increasingly among Israelis who have grown skeptical of traditional politics.

Brendan Szendro is a faculty lecturer in political science at McGill University. His teaching and research focus on religion-state relations and the global economy.