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New book: ‘A Double-Edged Sword’

Dr. Elie Holzer’s new book examines the attitude toward national military activism as it is expressed in the writings of thinkers, rabbis and public figures within the religious Zionist community and describes its development since the beginning of nationalist Zionism until the Disengagement in 2005 and events in Amona in 2006. Holzer’s research explains how Religious Zionism changed from being a staunch opponent to the use of military force to being a fervent supporter of the military ethos and describes the new trends in interpretation in the Religious Zionist camp as a result of the tension between the ideology that sanctifies the military and the fact that the IDF is subject to policy decisions that involve the evacuation of settlements


Since the very beginning, Religious Zionism has invested considerable efforts in explaining and justifying the adoption of the Zionist revolution and the internalization of the nationalist and historic activism that it entails. The adoption of nationalist activism forced Religious Zionism also to formulate a position with respect to military activism that is part of nationalist activism and to relate to the question of the use of military force that conflicts with the ethical approach of the Jewish religion as it developed in the Diaspora.
Elie Holzer’s book, A Double-Edged Sword: Military Activism in the Thought of Religious Zionism, examines the attitude towards nationalist military activism as it is expressed in the writings of thinkers, rabbis and public figures in Religious Zionism. His study looks at this relationship both from the historic angle – from the beginnings of nationalist Zionism until the Disengagement in 2005 and the events at Amona in 2006 – and from the hermeneutic viewpoint that looks at the interpretations given to these questions by various figures in Religious Zionism. A Double-Edged Sword: Military Activism in the Thought of Religious Zionism, by Dr. Elie Holzer, published by Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel
In the first part of the book, Holzer describes the approach of several prominent thinkers during the early period of Religious Zionism to this issue and describes their clear opposition to military activism. The two other sections of the book examine the interpretations given by following generation to historical and political developments, in relation to the thought of the founders of Religious Zionism.
Holzer writes that Rabbi Yitzhak Ya’akov Reines (1839-1915), the founder of the Mizrahi movement, did not view Zionism and nationalist activism as something new but rather as the already existing obligation to work for the welfare of the Jewish People. For him, this did not involve any substantial change in the principles guiding the Jewish People and therefore in his view nationalistic activism should not extend to military activism. Reines did not feel that Zionism would require military activism; however, he did worry about the ethos of the sword which, according to his approach, conflicted with the ethos of the book, on which Judaism is based.
In contrast to him, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935) viewed Zionism and nationalist activism as a formative component in the process of redemption. Holzer explains that even Rav Kook opposed the creation of a military ethos and severely criticized European militarism which, in his opinion, supported the use of aggressive force. Holzer explains that according to the redemptive interpretation given by Rav Kook to historical events, Zionism was not subject to this danger. While during the Biblical period, the military ethos was part of the Jewish People’s nationalist endeavor, its moral advancement since then – in addition to the process of redemption that became possible due to this spiritual progress – puts it in a position whereby military activism is not necessary in order to fulfill its nationalist aspirations. In linking the concept of redemption to the idea of progress, Rav Kook felt that the resort to military activism was an ethical and spiritual retreat to the deficiencies of the nation in Biblical times.
IDF soldiers on patrol
Holzer writes that in contrast to them, Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamrat (1869-1931), and later Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1882-1946) viewed Herzl’s national awakening as a copy of the nationalist European ideologies that were seeped in the ethos of military force and warned of the destructive implication of this ethos for the fate of religious ethics.
Their religious approach – which identified the Torah of Israel with the liberal-humanistic culture that places the individual at the center – viewed the culture that places the state at the center – and its military force as a tool for achieving its centrality – as the modern reincarnation of idol worship. Although Tamrat and Amiel felt that political activism was necessary in order to allow the Jewish People to fulfill its spiritual ethos, they viewed the ethos of force as a substantive contradiction to the foundations of Judaism and its adoption as an undermining of the ethical ethos which, in their opinion, Zionism is meant to fulfill. They believed that the main function of religious Zionism is to ensure that the danger of the ethos of force implied by secular nationalism is not realized.
How did these approaches develop such that the vast majority of the religious-Zionist public now views the military as being sanctified? How did Rav Kook’s approach become the main ideology of Religious Zionism, and how was it channeled by his followers, and in particular Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, into a philosophy that views the military as an expression of the redemption promised to the Jewish People?
And which trends are emerging as a result of the tension created between the sanctity that this community attributes to the IDF and the fact that the army – as the sovereign power in the territories – is the entity that implements policy decisions that conflict with what is perceived by Religious Zionism as the commandment of conquering the Land?
Holzer’s research describes this process and how the basic approaches of the founders of Religious Zionism were interpreted by their successors in light of historical developments. In his book, Holzer shows that the approach of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook’s view of Jewish military activism as a part of the process of redemption began to take shape in the 1940s, many years before the Six Day War, and shows how the various factions in Religious Zionism were influenced by historical, political, and military developments, and how their leaders interpreted them.
Dr. Elie Holzer is a lecturer at the School for Education at Bar Ilan University and a Research Fellow at the Mandel Center for Jewish Education at Brandeis University in the US. His book, A Double-Edged Sword: Military Activism in the Thought of Religious Zionism, is part of the series “Israel and Judaism” published by the Shalom Harman Institute together with Keter Publishing and the Faculty of Law at Bar Ilan University.

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