The Land, the Lord, and Language: right-wing incitement in Israel

On 2nd June 2021, eight Israeli political parties announced that they were forming a coalition to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from the premiership of Israel after twelve consecutive years. The coalition brings together right-wing parties (both religious and secular), including Yamina (‘rightwards’), headed by Naftali Bennett, as well as centrist and left-wing secular parties, and the conservative Islamist United Arab List (Ra’am). The presence of Ra’am has been a lightning rod: Netanyahu and Bennett have spent the past week arguing over who offered more concessions to Ra’am. Even parties in the coalition have distanced themselves from Ra’am’s offers of parliamentary support to hasten the confirmation vote. Netanyahu, not intending to lose power and – as he is currently on trial in three separate corruption cases – potentially his liberty is (at time of writing) coming out fighting. One of his central arguments is that the ‘change’ coalition is ‘left-wing’ (ignoring the presence of Yamina and several other right-wing parties) and, capitalising on the wariness surrounding inclusion of Ra’am, collaborating with ‘terror-supporters’. Netanyahu, a secular right-wing politician who has often courted the religious right, has accused Bennett of engaging in ‘a liquidation sale of the country’ and claims that Bennett would freeze settlement building and ‘sell’ control of the Negev desert to Ra’am. This is an unlikely charge considering Bennett is a former chair of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organisation of settlement municipalities. Nonetheless, groups of right-wing activists have been spotted with placards calling Bennett and other right-wing coalition partners ‘traitors’. Notable rabbis have called on supporters to ‘do everything’ to thwart the ‘change’ coalition taking power, a coalition they claim, ‘will harm the most fundamental matters of religion and state […and] matters of security, which relate to our very existence’.

Why would framing Bennett and his coalition partners as ‘traitors’ who will ‘sell’ land to ‘the Arabs’ achieve resonance with, and cause alarm to, many in Israel, particularly on the right and religious right? The core of the answer lies at the intersection of Judaism and politics; politicians and parties rally around religious Zionism to drive support for their expansionist desires by framing them as a pre-ordained necessity. It is far harder for dissenters to argue against a theological argument than a pure political one. Bennett, who strongly opposes a two-state solution and who has spoken in favour of formal annexation of the West Bank, is designated as the coalition’s new Prime Minister. On territorial issues, in he is further right than Netanyahu. In the March 2021 elections his Yamina party won 6/120 Knesset (parliament) seats. Religious Zionist parties, even further to the religious right than Yamina, also won 6 seats.

Judaism is unique in the belief that specific land, Israel, is literally divinely-ordained to the Jewish people. Every inch of the Land of Israel is believed to be predestined and promised in the Torah (see, for example, Genesis 17:8, Exodus 6:4, Exodus 23, Numbers 33-4). The Torah is believed, especially by more Orthodox Jews, to be the literal revealed word of God. The biblical land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) includes the modern State of Israel, the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, and the West Bank (‘Judea and Samaria’), which is site of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish kingdoms ruled over by Saul, Solomon, and David.

The belief of a Jewish homeland in Israel is known as Zionism. There are two main strands of Zionism. Secular (Herzlian) Zionism, while recognising the spiritual importance of Israel to Judaism, has a predominantly secular nationalist focus on Jews as an ethnic group repopulating their ancestral homeland. This is encapsulated in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: ‘the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped’. Religious Zionism, developed by Rabbi Avram Kook (1865-1935) and his son Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), attaches a more spiritual significance to resettlement, arguing that Jewish repopulation of Israel, the ‘ingathering of the exiles’, would hasten the advent of the Messiah and the Redemption of Israel.

If one believes that land has been promised to one’s people by God himself since the beginning, should, or even can, one compromise on such a divine command? The Camp David and Oslo Accords gave ‘land for peace’. Yet both Accords deliberately retained existing Jewish settlements in the biblical heartlands of ‘Judea and Samaria’. Therefore, to accuse a politician of supporting territorial retrenchment is to implicitly accuse them of betraying Judaism as  a traitor both to the Land and to the Lord.

This de-legitimisation of a politician’s Jewishness for dealing with ‘the Arabs’ was most infamously seen after the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Following the signing of the Accords, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was portrayed in a Nazi SS uniform or in Palestinian keffiyeh headwear associated with Yasser Arafat. Rabbis openly discussed whether Rabin was endangering Jewish lives and whether this charge merited a death sentence. Netanyahu, then in opposition, attended a rally which included a noose and a coffin with the inscription, ‘Rabin is killing Zionism’. Months later, on 4th November 1995, Rabin was shot dead by a Jewish extremist, Yigal Amir.

In recent days several commentators, and the Director of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, have warned over the revival of  incendiary discourse of ‘treason’ by ‘selling’ out the Land. The Director warned that ‘this discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity and could even lead to harm to individuals’. The Shin Bet increased its security protection for Bennett and other senior Yamina politicians, one of whom received a message inviting him to his own funeral.

In recent weeks, there have been evictions of Palestinians from their homes, the Israeli Defence Forces’ entry into the al-Aqsa Mosque, and inter-communitarian clashes in the State of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These events have turned attention once again to the interface between religion, land, and violence. However, tensions among Jews over the meaning of Zionism have often been overlooked in Israeli media. This is surely an equally fundamental dilemma for a state defined in its Basic Law as both Jewish and democratic. This oversight also appears odd considering that the only time an Israeli head of government was assassinated, it was not by a Palestinian, but by a sabra or Israeli-born Jew.

Despite strong – albeit retrospective – disavowals of violence by the rabbis and Netanyahu, it is not inconceivable that, with the stakes presented as so existentially high, some may feel that they will need to ‘do everything’ to ‘save’ the Land. It is not inconceivable, because it has happened before.

Archie Philipps, 22 June 2021