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The Israeli Right: Nationalism, Militarism and Messianism

Roni Gechtman

New York University

Joint Programme in History and Hebrew Studies

The following paper was presented at Strategies of Critique X: The New Right, April 19, 1996, in the session entitled "Lord, You Won't Believe the State I'm in: Religion, Politics, and the Public Sphere ." The conference was organized by students of the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University.

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This paper is an attempt to explain the nature of the Israeli right and present its main characteristics within the context of Israeli political culture. I will frame my discussion chronologically in terms of the latest and most significant events in Israeli society at the time of writing: firstly, the Oslo Accords and the process of their implementation, and secondly, the assassination of prime minister Itzhak Rabin by an activist from the extreme right.

I will claim that the Israeli right constitutes an extreme version, or an exaggeration, of some ideological positions widely accepted by most Israelis and of some values strongly rooted in the Israeli political culture. I will concentrate upon three values (or principles) that most characterize the Israeli right: these are nationalism, militarism and messianism. These characteristics both result from and reflect a larger Israeli political culture as well as the tensions inherent to the principles on which the very definition of Israel as a state and as a society is grounded: the concepts of a Jewish and democratic country.

At this point, it is important to indicate what I mean by "the Israeli political culture." By this, I pre-suppose that societies have different values that are widely accepted and revealed in their approach to political questions. This is, of course, a "soft category," not one of the kind that it would be possible to measure. I use 'Isreali political culture' to refer to the values and attitudes that inform what in Israel is called the "consensus" —which is always understood to include only the Jewish population. These are values and attitudes that are widely accepted, even though obviously there are no values that are universally accepted. For example, I will suppose that all the Jewish Israelis accept Zionism as the leading ideology that provides the basis for Israel as a society and as a state, even while knowing that some of the ultra-orthodox groups on the right do not accept this axiom, nor does the non-Zionist left.

As I already suggested, I will limit my analysis to the Jewish population of Israel, representing eighty percent of all Israeli citizens. In this paper, I will neither refer to the Palestinian population of the conquered territories, nor to the Palestinian minority in Israel (also known as the Israeli Arabs), constituting the remaining twenty percent of the citizens of sovereign Israel — that is, the Israeli territory excluding the conquered territories. Nor will I discuss the ultra-orthodox "Haredim" parties, a complex subject in themselves.

This will not be a detailed and systematic presentation of all the right wing groups and parties, but an analysis of the their common denominators. I will focus on the "nationalistic" right, which in Israel is known as "the national camp," and which is clearly divided along the following lines: first, a secular trend, and second, the religious Zionists. The secular trend has as its centre the Likud party and also comprises other parties. Religious Zionism, characterized by relatively moderate religious positions and an extreme nationalism, has been a growing force in Israeli politics since 1967. Their most outstanding representatives are the Mafdal party — a traditional party in Israeli politics which used to be a moderate ally of the Labor party in the 1950s and the 1960s but became more radicalized toward the right since the 1970s — and the radical Gush Emunim, the movement of religious Zionists whose main goal is the settlement by Jews of the conquered territories. Religious Zionism controls its own educational stream within the system of public education, financed by the state but with a special curriculum. This educational stream, which includes kindergartens elementary and secondary schools everywhere in Israel, several rabbinical academies (yeshivas) and the Bar Ilan University, constitutes a stronghold of religious Zionism and a continuous source of supporters.

Although not all these parties and political groups share exactly the same goals, politics and level of pragmatism, because of the limited scope of this paper I will concentrate on their commonalties.


Israeli society, as a creation of the Zionist movement and a consequence of its politics, exists in a constant tension between two principles that define the political basis of the regime: on the one hand, the definition of Israel as a democratic country, and on the other, its definition as the Jewish state. These two principles lie at the very basis of what I earlier called the Israeli "consensus." They also institute a legal condition for every party that runs for the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament): the law requires an explicit recognition of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state in the political platform of every party that wants to participate in the elections. Through the application of this law, for instance, the extremist rightist and racist party of the Rabbi Kahane was banned from running in the 1988 elections to the Knesset, but the same law was appealed to in the 1960s to prevent the electoral participation of the El-Ard party, a party that tried to organize the Israeli Palestinians on a national basis.

In theory, the principles of a Jewish and a democratic state might coexist in harmony. In practice, in Israel these two conceptions — the Jewish state and the democratic regime — are in a state of constant contradiction. In concrete, everyday situations, political decisions must be taken on specific issues by privileging either one or the other of these two principles. The contradictions are especially intensified in the case of the Israeli Palestinians, who represent one out of every five citizens of Israel. The principle of Israeli democracy grants non-Jewish Israelis (Muslim, Christian and Druzes by religion) civil and political rights. However, the "official" symbols of the country (the flag, national anthem, etc.) have explicit Jewish contents. In this way, 20% of the Israeli citizens (who are not Jews) must undergo a state of constant alienation from the country in which they live. They receive a clear message that the country belongs more to the Jews than to them, and not only to the Jews who are actual citizens of Israel, but also to every other Jew in the world, even if the Palestinians have been living in what is now Israeli territory for generations.

Another example of an aspect of Israeli society where the principle of the Jewish state prevails over the democratic principle is the Israeli immigration policy. According to the Law of Return, Jews who are citizens of any other country —and only Jews who fit the definition given by the orthodox halakha (that is, the rabbinical law)— receive significant advantages should they decide to migrate to Israel. These include the payment of the cost of their trip, and a package of economic "rights." They also automatically receive Israeli citizenship, if they want it. The practical meaning of this policy is a discrimination in favour of Jewish immigrants, in relation not only to the Arab population, but also to Jewish Israelis born in Israel.

I am outlining these facts pertaining to the Israeli political culture with the purpose of suggesting a formulation of the first characteristic of the Israeli right: I maintain that the delineation between "right" and "left" in Israel is based upon the tension between a democratic and a Jewish state. Thus, I suggest that in the Israeli context, "right" will refer to those groups, individuals or parties who support and advocate the "Jewish" definition of the State, and "left" to those who privilege the "democratic" definition (without abandoning the "Jewish" definition).

The Israeli right wants Israel to become more Jewish, in the national (rather than the religious) meaning of the word. Thus, these positions influence the right's policies toward the neighbouring Arab countries and especially towards the Palestinians. They recognize Jewish nationalism as superior, and as the only legitimate nationalism within the historical boundaries of the "Land of Israel", as they were established in the Bible, and promised by God to Abraham. All of the territories comprised in this "Land of Israel" must be under Jewish rule, without any consideration whatsoever given to the political aspirations of what they see as "alien" populations. According to their point of view, the relation between Jews and the rest of the nations (especially the Arabs) cannot be other than one of hatred, because, as it is written in Genesis 27:40, "And Esau hated Jacob." For them, there is no possibility of achieving a true peace at all. These views are held by the "secular" as well as by the religious right. Even the "secular" right in Israel is strongly influenced by religious views.

On the more extreme right, these ideas will take the form of an outright denial of the "democratic" definition of the state of Israel. These positions are held explicitly by the most extremist of the religious Zionists, and were expressed recently, for example, by Itzhak Rabin's assassin in his final speech during his trial. This young law student at Bar Ilan university claimed that even though murder goes against the Israeli penal law, his action was justified by the commandment of the Torah. He protested that his judges did not address the contradiction between Judaism and democracy (or, more particularly, between democracy and his version of Judaism, which does not recognize any other). He rejected democracy as being in direct opposition to the "holy trinity" of religious Zionism: the people of Israel, the Bible of Israel and the land of Israel.

A remarkable fact of Israeli politics is the virtual non-existence of a socialist or social-democratic left - that is, of a party that would propose changes to the economic or social order. The few socialist groups the existed in Israeli politics are disappearing. Sometimes the press outside Israel (the New York Times, for example) wrongly characterize Likud as a conservative Party in opposition to Avoda as a Labor party. However, those labels do not reflect the economic and social policies of the two parties, which basically do not differ.

Thus, what is understood as "left" according to the definition outlined above, will be restricted to a more democratic vision of the nature of the Israeli regime. Most groups within the "Zionist left" are interested in maintaining the Jewish majority in Israel, and, for this purpose, they want a physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians. This is the main idea behind the Oslo Accords: the Palestinians in the conquered territories will receive some national and political rights, and the Jewish state will become more Jewish, i.e., contain a more clearly Jewish ethnic majority. In other words, separation is the way in which moderate Zionism attempts to solve the contradiction between Jewish and democratic principles.

The traditional polities of Zionism, since World War I, has been a strategic alliance with the imperialist powers, first with Great Britain and later with the United States. Because most Israeli Jews perceive themselves as "Europeans", this political strategy was accompanied by a marked isolation from, and attitudes of superiority towards, the Arab neighbours. Shimon Peres' vision of a new Middle East, in which Israel will be fully integrated, represents a retreat from this strategy, and a shift towards a policy of relatively more integration in the area. The Israeli right, however, continues to hold a hostile view of the Arabs, and bases its propaganda on hatred of them. Terrorist outrages like those carried out by the Hammas sharply raise the right's popularity. On the other hand, when the army bombs Lebanon the government's popularity rises.


It is sometimes believed that a popular army (an army formed by and closer to the people, rather than a merely "professional" one) is a more democratic army. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) is considered to be a popular army composed of the people because all Israelis (i.e. the Jewish population of Israel, both men and women) enrol in it and because the officers and commanders do not belong to a different social stratum or "caste." However, the formation of this kind of popular army in Israel led more to a militarization of the entire society than to a democratization of the army.

Israel is a militaristic society. This is expressed in the status of the army as the most prestigious institution in the country. The high prestige that the army has in society is reflected, for example, in the number of generals in each of the two major parties (Likud and Avoda), some of whom have no political experience outside the army. Military service is a central chapter in the life experience of most Jewish Israelis, but is closed to the non-Jewish citizens. In the Israeli political culture, people are judged in terms of their military past. The type and quality of military service is a very common question in most job interviews. Israeli militarism is also manifested in the generally accepted belief in the resolution of international problems by the use of force, or in a military fashion.

In a recently published work, Uri Ben Eliezer of Tel Aviv University argues that Israeli militarism begins with the first Israeli-born generation — the children of the first Zionist settlers — who grew up under the British Mandate. When they became young adults in the 1930s and 1940s, they arrived at the conclusion that the objectives of Zionism —which they reformulated as sovereignty above all— would only be achieved when the conflict between Arabs and Jews for the territory of Palestine was solved by force. They founded the clandestine Jewish armed groups, that fought in the so-called "War of Liberation" of the state of Israel, and subsequently became the basis of the Israeli army. They were also their first commanders.

Prior to his assassination, Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was the most prominent representative of this generation. He was a member of the Palmakh, the clandestine armed group related to the Zionist Labor movement and predecessor of the Israeli army. Later he became chief commander of the army, as well as the first Israeli born Prime Minister.

Since the 1930s, militarism has characterized the Israeli left no less than the Israeli right. The displacement of the Palestinians in 1948 was carried out by the Palmakh, and since then the army has, for the most part, been commanded by men identified with the Zionist left. However, since the early 1980s, an increasing number of people within the Zionist left has been searching for a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, one based on separation, and upon the premise that there can be no solution by force - that no solution will ever be possible without giving full civil, political and national rights (i.e., an independent state) to the Palestinians.

The signing of the Oslo Accords by Rabin, to that point the political figure most identified with Israeli militarism, represented the most significant political turn in Israeli society since the 1930s. This turn indicated, in fact, a (partial) renunciation by the left of the militaristic approach and its acceptance of the principle of peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the Israeli right did not accept this change, it is possible to delineate the second characteristic that serves as a boundary between right and left today in Israeli politics as a line separating those who believe in the possibility of a peaceful solution with the Palestinians, and those who do not. In the Israeli jargon, this dilemma is articulated as "peace against security."

Some of the rightist groups, in particular those aligned with Gush Emunim and the settlers of the conquered territories, are threatening to resist by force any future decision to remove certain settlements and offer them to a Palestinian rule. The assassination of Rabin has to be understood as part of this resistance by the most extreme groups, convinced that they must resist now in any way possible. Paradoxically, one of the architects of Israeli militarism, a militarism that sometimes included the execution (or murder) without trial of Palestinian terrorists, was himself murdered by one of those who still believed in an armed rather than a peaceful solution: Rabin, the man who was once most identified with the militaristic ideology, paid with his life for his move away from his own earlier position. Another paradox is that the process of radicalization in the extreme right may well eventually lead to a bloody conflict between them and the Israeli army.

The radicalization in the right beginning with the Oslo Accords has had an impact on the relatively more moderate Likud party, and for that reason many people identified them as accomplices in the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Their decrease in popularity and ideological embarrassment was only partly redressed by the bloody Hammas attacks. For the Likud, these terrorist actions not only confirmed that they were right in their opposition to the Oslo Accords, and in their agitation for a bigger and militarily stronger Is also served to save them from the prospects of total failure in the 1996 parliamentary elections.


The messianic belief has been a central element in Jewish religion for thousands of years, and has become even stronger in the last few centuries. At the centre of this ideology lies the idea that in the near future —it could actually happen at any moment— God will redeem the Jewish people from their present situation, and a new era of peace and prosperity will begin: the era of redemption, called in Hebrew geula. The Jews will return to their land, the dead will be resurrected, and everybody will live in happiness, as was proclaimed in the Bible:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb

The leopard lie down with the kid ...

The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,

With a little boy to herd them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

Their young shall lie down together;

And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw.

A babe shall play

Over a viper's hole,

And an infant pass his hand

Over an adder's den. (Isaiah 11:6-8).

Of course, at that time all human beings will accept the truthfulness of God's word, which means that everybody will recognize the truthfulness of Jewish religion. Since the end of the Middle Ages, various messianic movements have emerged, characterized by "active messianism" that is, by the attempt to bring about the geula through the actions of the believers.

Jewish nationalism, and Zionism in particular, are often understood to be a secular version of traditional messianism, especially in its more active forms. Jewish nationalists, at the beginning of the twentieth century, replaced messianic dreams with national dreams, and proposed the idea of the establishment of an independent state instead of the messianic geula. Several messianic concepts entered the common language of the first Zionist settlers in Palestine, for example, the process of their settlement in Palestine translates as "to redeem the Land" (lig'ol et ha-aretz).

The religious Zionists produced an original synthesis between traditional and secular messianism. According to their views, the "redemption of the Land" of Israel will bring the geula, the era of total redemption of the Jews and perhaps of the rest of the humanity as well. According to this messianic idea, the historical phase in which we live in the present is the "beginning of the redemption" ("atkhalta di geula", in Aramaic). There are various signs taken to confirm that the total redemption is near. The present phase —which has lasted almost two thousand years and is characterized by Jewish dispersion among other peoples— is soon coming to an end. This "Diaspora-age" in Jewish history is allegorically compared to a very long night, and the darkest moment in this night was supposed to occur right before the sunrise. The moral lesson is that the Holocaust represents the last event in this dark phase and also the beginning of the geula. According to this view, the main characteristic of Jews in the Diaspora was their (political) passivity. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, three years after the end of the Holocaust, and the Israeli military triumphs — achieved of course with God's aid — are read as the second sign of the impending arrival of the redemption, and as the turn from passivity to activity. From this moment onwards, the Jews began to rule over part of the ancient land of Israel. The military victory of 1967 extended their dominion and rule over the land of Israel, and brought the geula even closer. At this stage total redemption appeared to be closer than ever, the only remaining condition for its fulfillment being the complete settlement of the land of Israel by Jews (and, in the view of the most extreme groups, exclusively by Jews). These messianic notions are not only widely accepted by most of the religious Zionists - some elements of them are also part of the ideology of the secular right.

For the messianic Zionists, the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians represent not only an erroneous policy, not only a dangerous political step, not only a treason, but, critically, an obstacle to the fulfillment of the conditions for the full redemption. It is not, therefore, surprising that some people in the Israeli right thought that the man considered to be responsible for this policy had to be stopped at all costs. Only the removal of this impediment, that is, of Rabin and his policies, would allow the advance towards the geula. The young assassin of Rabin had a close affinity to the settlers in the conquered territories and, as I said earlier, he was a student at Bar Ilan University, a centre of religious Zionism. His whole spiritual world was imbued with messianic views.

Indeed, Rabin's assassination was preceded by great effervescence in the Israeli right, by violent demonstrations and bitter protestation against the leaders of the government. Before the assassination of Rabin, thousand of cars in Israel carried stickers with inscriptions like "Hebron from ever forever" and "Thou shalt not betray", against the background of the tablets of the law, in this way associating the Labor Party policies and the violation of the ten commandments. In this campaign, the more moderate right was influenced by the more extreme groups, further contributing to the creation of an atmosphere of agitation.

The victim of the assassination was one of the public figures most related to the messianic conception, which as we have seen is closely linked to the militaristic conceptions. It was under Rabin's command that the territories were conquered by the Israeli army, and it was during his rule in 1974 that the Jewish settlement of the territories began. His turn toward the relatively more democratic attitudes represented by the Oslo accords was made possible in large part because of the personal prestige Rabin had achieved as a military commander and a tough politician. It also initiated the most crucial turn in Zionist politics since the 1930s, without breaking the traditional Israeli alliance with the imperialist power. Rabin paid with his life for his ideological turn, and his executioner was, paradoxically, the very monster Rabin himself had created.


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