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Benjamin Netanyahu, Godfather of Israel’s Rising Jewish Fundamentalism

The results of next week’s Knesset election will tell us little, if anything, that we do not yet know about Israel. The underlying statistics are clear and have been for a long while.

A majority of Israelis, somewhere between 55 and 60 percent, depending on what poll you’re reading, want Benjamin Netanyahu to leave office.

They can agree on nothing else. Certainly not who should replace him as prime minister and which parties should sit in a non-Netanyahu government.

The election’s outcome will not be determined by any major factors, but by the late-minute decisions of a few thousand voters.

If Netanyahu somehow manages to construct a coalition, it will be because Meretz and Kachol Lavan failed to scrape together enough votes to cross the threshold.

If those two struggling parties somehow make it in to the next Knesset, Netanyahu won’t have his majority, and the next couple of months will be consumed by a three-way struggle between Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar over which one of them can form a government.

The likely winner of this mudfight will be Netanyahu, who will either manage to blackmail or buy defectors from the opposition to make up a majority, or will patiently run down the clock until the deadline for a fifth election, while he remains caretaker prime minister.

And even if somehow the three barons find a way to reach a tenuous power-sharing agreement and someone who isn’t Netanyahu finally makes it to the residence on Balfour Street, not that much will change.

Once we’ve got used to having a different prime minister, hopefully with a less polarizing and autocratic style of governance, we’ll have to recognize that Israel’s government is still dominated by the right-wing, and none of the fundamental issues effecting the country’s future, the conflict with the Palestinians and ruinous relationship between religion and state will be any closer to resolution.

Plus Netanyahu and his cohorts will still be around, ready to pounce on the slightest misstep by the new prime minister. No-one should assume that he will stop campaigning if he loses. And he will still be the best campaigner in the country.

Neither will a Netanyahu victory Tuesday night be the death of Israeli democracy, such as it is.

Yes, he will try as hard as he can to leverage his win to pass an immunity law protecting him from the criminal charges he faces, but that will be even more difficult. And even if he succeeds, and manages to have the charges against him suspended, it will be a blow against the rule of law and politicians’ accountability, but not the end of Israel’s judicial system.

All this is to say we should be wary of putting too much store by the implications of next week’s events. And now that’s settled, here is what we have learned from this election campaign.

The battle for the future of Judaism is finally out in the open and only one side is aware they’re fighting it.

When Benjamin Netanyahu engineered the “Religious Zionism” alliance between three parties, Betzalel Smotrich’s ultra-nationalist National Union, Itamar Ben Gvir’s neo-Kahanist Jewish Power and the “family values” nutters of Noam, most of the attention was naturally focused on the fact that the prime minister was personally boosting the racism and homophobia of the new list. But whether or not putting all these deplorables in the same basket will ensure they cross the threshold (they almost certainly will) and help Netanyahu win the election (quite possibly) isn’t the main implication of their unification.

Most Israelis who consider themselves religious Zionists of course won’t be voting for “Religious Zionism,” but enough Israelis will to establish this as the third party of Jewish fundamentalism. And it boast that it’s the first Jewish fundamentalist party that is not officially Haredi.

Zionism, in its political and historic sense, is Jewish nationalism – the belief that the Jews as a nation have the right to self-determination and a modern nation-state in their ancient homeland.

Zionism has religious roots, in the sense that the Bible provides the original justification for the Jews’ connection to their land, and religious custom was one of the main foundations of Jewish continuity over centuries of wandering and exile.

But Zionism is still essentially a secular manifesto. It is based on the self-agency of human beings, not on divine ordination.

Religious Jews can believe in Zionism, but Jewish fundamentalists cannot.

In a non Israeli-centric context, Jewish fundamentalists believe in living in totally separate communities, uncontaminated by ideas from the outside world and modernity, while non-fundamentalist Jews accept that Judaism evolves and is influenced by the culture and societies with which Jews come into contact.

Religious fundamentalism does not need a nation-state. It believes in ultimate truth and total devotion that not only transcend the state but oppose it, if the state is acting against those fundamentalist beliefs.

Jewish fundamentalism has, until recently, been synonymous only with ultra-Orthodoxy, and the Haredi belief that they represent a truer, “authentic” and “original” Judaism.

It is a Judaism that cannot and will not be changed by the state, even by a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. When there is a clash between the state’s laws and requirements, then the state must be forced to capitulate.

Over the past year, the state, which was fighting the pandemic and required citizens and communities to close down all public activities to prevent COVID-19 infection, repeatedly capitulated to the Jewish fundamentalists. The Haredi autonomy got its way and kept its institutions open.

If Netanyahu loses on Tuesday, it will do a large degree because most Israelis are angry at him for allowing this state of affairs. But even if that happens, fundamentalism will have won by extending its footprint over a wider swathe of Israeli society through the new Jewish fundamentalist party, “Religious Zionism.”

“Religious Zionism” has spread the ideology of setting back the clocks to an imagined past when all Jews were Orthodox, or as Bezalel Smotrich, with typical historic ignorance, put it in a speech two years ago: “Israel should be run according to the law of the Torah, as in the days of King David.”

Such ahistoric notions were once the preserve only of the Haredi community, while classic “religious Zionism” was always aware that the Jews, even when they remained steadfast in their tradition and observance, evolved and adapted with the times. The new party’s Jewish supremacism, misogyny and homophobia all derive from religious fundamentalism.

Until now the main concern of self-aware non-fundamentalist Israelis was that the Haredi-fundamentalists would one day become a majority through demography, thanks to their higher birth-rates.

The emergence of “Religious Zionism” – the party, not the community – is the first clear sign that fundamentalism is winning converts in formerly mainstream sectors of Israeli society as well.

Netanyahu, the party’s godfather, is of course totally secular in his personal life, and a staunch secular Jewish nationalist in his ideology. But he has enabled this development, which runs counter to his Jabotinskian heritage, and which had nothing to do with God but plenty to do with political expediency.

He is replaying his long-term role as facilitator of Haredi Jewish fundamentalism. Either action could end up saving his rule or ending it, but in the grand scheme of things, Netanyahu’s political survival isn’t that important.

The battle for the future of Judaism will continue after Netanyahu, whenever he leaves our public life. And while the fundamentalists are still a minority, they understand they are fighting this battle as an existential struggle, which is why they are gaining ground. The rest of us have yet to wake up.

Source: Anshel Pfeffer – HAARETZ