Yuval Harari’s dark musings for Tisha B’Av

The internationally renowned Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has published this pensive and brooding analysis in Haaretz: “Can Judaism Survive a Messianic Dictatorship in Israel?” with the subhead, “What will happen to Judaism if Israeli democracy is destroyed by supremacist zealots.” In time for Tisha B’Av, the mournful summertime commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in ancient Jerusalem, he asks, “Can Judaism survive the destruction of the Third Temple – the prosperous Israeli democracy – this time by the Jews themselves?”

Prof. Harari acknowledges that many religious Zionists do not share the despotic and bigoted worldview of Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and their ilk. Harari has seen religious Zionists at pro-democracy demonstrations, but he focuses upon the degeneration of religious Zionism as a movement, from a modernist and constructive force into something very different, with its majority embrace of the militant settlers. Here’s a small selection from his article:

. . . . For generations, religious Zionism produced leaders, thinkers, scholars, scientists, military officers and thousands of other dedicated and selfless people who made important contributions to the State of Israel and even to the whole world. But religious Zionism also pushed itself into a difficult historical corner, by taking upon itself the leadership role first in the settlement project and now also in the antidemocratic power-grab shaking Israel to its foundations.

. . . . On the one hand, they claimed that religious Zionism was superior to secular Zionism, because secular Jews had abandoned the Torah and halakha (religious law), and had adopted a materialistic and immoral worldview. On the other hand, they claimed that religious Zionism was superior to the Haredi stream, because though ultra-Orthodox Jews study the Torah and observe halakha scrupulously, they have made no attempt to improve the world (tikkun olam) outside their own yeshivas and neighborhoods. Religious Zionists have claimed that they have found the ideal middle path. They study Torah and observe Jewish law like the Haredim, while also being active in the world like secular Jews.

But in order to prove its superiority, religious Zionism needed to accomplish some big historical project. Secular Zionism proved itself through such a project – the establishment of the State of Israel. True, religious Zionism also played an important role in establishing Israel, but in that case it was only playing second fiddle. Where could religious Zionists find their big historical project, which they themselves could lead?

After 1967, religious Zionism chose the settlement project to be its flagship enterprise, which would fulfill its destiny and prove its moral superiority. Was this choice a historical accident, or an inevitable tragedy? It is hard to say. But it was this choice that put religious Zionism on the path that led to Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir; to the success of politicians like Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Simcha Rothman; to Hawara and to the antidemocratic power-grab of the Netanyahu coalition. It was this choice that brought religious Zionism to embrace an ideology of Jewish supremacy.