The Growing Weight of Religious Zionism in Israel and the War in Gaza

Zionism, a movement advocating for the return of Jews from the diaspora to their promised land, has been a diverse coalition since its inception. It encompasses various streams and ideologies: the liberal stream led by Chaim Weizmann and Theodor Herzl, the labor stream led by David Ben-Gurion, the “father of the nation”, and followed by numerous historical Israeli leaders like Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, and the religious movement led by Rabbi Reines. Religious Zionists, who were a very small minority at the beginning of the 20th century, organized into a movement called Mizrahi (“the spiritual center,” from the Hebrew acronym ha-Merkaz ruhani, not to be confused with the Hebrew adjective mizrahi, which means “eastern” and refers to Jews from Islamic countries). This was the only religious current that did not see a contradiction between faith in the Messiah and the acceleration of the redemption of the promised land that Zionists had imprinted on Jewish history through the founding of the State of Israel.

At that time, ha-Mizrahi sought a possible reconciliation with modernity, combining faith and nationalism in the context of Central and Eastern European countries. The movement was founded in 1902 in Vilnius (Lithuania), in the heart of Ashkenazi Europe, and became a party in 1921 under the Yishuv, the Jewish self-governing body in British Mandatory Palestine. Its uniqueness lay in the acceptance of political Zionism as a movement compatible with religion, despite contemporary secular Zionists openly rejecting all religious symbols (bearded Jews with sideburns), and negatively judging Orthodox Jews as helpless and useless both in work and war. This negative stereotype about ultra-Orthodox Jews would be amplified after World War II, when religious Ashkenazi Jews would be associated and charged with the destruction of the Jews of Europe, having allowed themselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter with the blessing of their rabbis, who had not taught them how to resist and fight back. As a result, entire generations of Israeli socialists and communists were openly contemptuous towards religious Jews associated with the diaspora, striving to build a model opposite to theirs: that of the “sabra,” the stoic Israeli who is not frightened by hardship, hostile environments, or other men, but who, on the contrary, is always ready to fight for his homeland.

When Israel became an independent state, ha-Mizrahi merged with the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Agudat Yisrael and Poalei Agudat Yisrael, to form the United Religious Front. This coalition secured 16 seats, making it the third largest force in the Knesset, following David Ben-Gurion’s socialist party Mapai and the communist Zionist party Mapam. Ben-Gurion, aiming to avoid sectarianism with a pan-Jewish approach, invited the United Religious Front to participate in the government and established the famous “status quo” agreement. This agreement, which still regulates the relationship between state and religion today, granted the Rabbinate exclusive authority over all legal matters concerning family law, including marriage and divorce, and ensured the autonomy of ultra-Orthodox communities within the state. It also allowed for their exemption from work and army service and mandated the public observance of Shabbat and kashrut (dietary laws). In 1955, the nationalist-religious faction began to develop its own independent identity, separate from the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel. It broke away from the United Religious Front to run on its own, winning 11 seats in the elections and changing its name to the National Religious Party (ha-Tzionut ha-datit).

The ideological origins of present-day religious Zionism can be primarily traced back to the charismatic figure of Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel during the British mandate. He embraced Zionism, merging it with Jewish theology and interpreting it as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah. Unlike all rabbis before him, he believed that the land of Israel was not just a material possession and did not only signify the renewal of the Jewish people as a nation but was the fulfilment of a divine plan (atchalta dege’ula, the beginning of redemption) that would culminate with the reclamation of the entire land. Once the entire territory was fully redeemed, the Jewish people would reunite with God, leading all of humanity towards the Final Judgment. In summary, the rebirth of Israel would represent the onset of an eschatological era, paving the way for the coming of the end of the world. Upon his death, the school he founded, the Yeshiva Merkaz ha-Rav, was inherited by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982), who placed his father’s ideas at the center of political debate in Israel. Rabbi Kook’s son lived during the Six-Day War, witnessing Israel’s significant military success, which saw the country conquering the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula within a few days in June 1967 (the Sinai being the only territory later returned to Egypt under the 1979 peace treaty). This historical moment revitalized religious Zionism and marked the beginning of a truly messianic era. Rabbi Kook viewed the Israeli military victory as an irrefutable sign of divine benevolence and interpreted the “liberation” of Jewish Holy Places – such as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, as well as the reunification of Jerusalem – as the inception of a new phase, that of the coming of a “Greater Israel” (Eretz Yisrael ha-shlema). “Greater Israel” is a biblical term found in the books of Genesis, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Although its geographical extent varies depending on the biblical verses (in some cases it spans from Egypt to the Euphrates), it consistently equates Israel with a territory larger than that resulting from the War of Independence (1948) and inclusive of both the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Gaza and the West Bank). Since then, aided by the collusion of state authorities – tied to the tactical choice of the Labor and Communist Zionist parties in power at the time, viewing the OPTs as a bargaining chip potentially to be returned following direct negotiations with Arab countries (i.e. the “Allon Plan”) – the notion of “Greater Israel” has steadily gained ground in Israeli society and assumed the role of a bipartisan guiding principle in the country’s politics.[1] This trend has amplified since 1977, when nationalist parties, forerunners of the Likud, took the reins of the country. Since then, the myth of “Greater Israel” has fascinated both secular and religious Jews, pulling a significant portion of Israeli society toward a political messianic ideal.

After 1967, Israel rediscovered itself as a strong state, capable of imposing its will on Arab enemies and setting the rules of the game. In a country that had just a few days earlier feared for its existence in the face of a joint Arab attack, the stunning military victory achieved in the Six-Day War sparked huge relief and considerable national pride for the technical and military achievements attained in less than twenty years of national history. Since then, the project of creating new settlements in the OPTs has faced opposition only from the more radical anti-Zionist and leftist factions at the fringes. According to Peace Now, a well-known Israeli NGO, there are currently 337 settlements in the West Bank, including both authorized and spontaneous ones, housing over 700,000 settlers. This figure is not surprising and is expected to grow, especially considering that under the current government – the most right-wing in the country’s history – a June 2023 law transferred the approval of new settlements from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet solely to the Minister of Defense, currently Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party.[2]  This decision implies that the settlement advancement plan is now “protected” from the influence of external policies, such as diplomatic pressures from the United States, the European Union, or Arab countries, possibly within the framework of a renewed regional peace process. Settlements can therefore continue undisturbed by the order of the defense minister alone.

Additionally, in 2023, the “Disengagement Law” (from the Gaza Strip), initiated in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was repealed. This law mandated the withdrawal of IDF troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip (Gush Katif bloc), their dismantlement, and a ban on settlers returning there. Today, with religious Zionism being a central cultural and political element in Israeli society, it is poised to assert itself.

According to recent polls, approximately 22 percent of the Jewish population identifies with this movement in a broad sense. However, this identification is diversified across a thousand sometimes competing rabbinical schools, and multiple political parties vying for representation. The movement can be divided into three main groups: the “hardalim” (nationalist Orthodox), the “datiim” (observant), and the liberals, sometimes referred to as “datiim light.” Their common denominator is that they all wear a kippah (or yarmulke), although in vastly different sizes, colors, and styles, and all identify with the project of Greater Israel. The internal religious and political differences, however, are significant. The hardalim, considered as the most extreme, believe that secular Zionism has been mistaken and that it is now time to enforce Torah laws in Israel. As Manuela Dviri points out in her article for Joimag,[3] the previous “Government of Change” – led by a “light” religious nationalist, Naftali Bennett – fell precisely due to the so-called “chametz law” (the prohibition of bringing bread into hospitals during the Passover week): a seemingly marginal issue compared to the country’s pressing problems. However, no religious issue is ever marginal for messianic Zionists.

The spiritual heir of Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Zvi Tau (1936–), considers the State of Israel itself as sacred and interprets every contemporary historical event as a cosmic sign sent by God towards redemption. Believing that God speaks only to a chosen few, Tau interprets His messages through the Scriptures. In a well-known pamphlet from 2001 titled “Nichalta be-Ozcha” (from Exodus 15, meaning “You led [the Jews] with your strength“), he argues that the time has come to defeat the Palestinians, whom he identifies with metaphysical evil, and to permanently drive them out of their land. Using biblical quotations from Exodus and Genesis, Tau reaches the paradoxical conclusion that Palestinians are a historical nation but tainted by an ancestral sin that bans them from the community of nations. He also predicts that, at some unspecified time in the future, they will disintegrate as a nation.[4]

However, the real issue for contemporary religious Zionism is not merely the eschatological interpretation of ongoing events, but rather the legitimization of war. In a dialectical reinterpretation of history reminiscent of Hegelian philosophy, the rabbis of this movement believe that Israel needs to triumph over its enemies to achieve redemption. War is seen as a natural element that God has infused into the world, and divine laws prescribe that the divine power of the chosen nation must be tested through the defeat of all enemies. Just as individual resilience is tested through life’s various trials, Israel’s divine election must necessarily pass through the testing of multiple wars.

This reasoning could be dismissed as a dangerous mental delusion if it were not for the fact that many of these messianic rabbis have permeated Israeli society in various roles, including as spiritual assistants in the military. They organize pre-military training courses, such as the Bnei David (Sons of David) Academy, where Talmud students from religious schools receive military education and training, fostering an atmosphere that glorifies self-sacrifice, combat spirit, and military service. The program’s own website boasts of its successes: in 25 years since its opening in the settlement of Eli in the West Bank, the school has provided over 2,500 soldiers, 35 percent of whom now serve in elite army units.

In addition to the more traditional Bnei David, there are even more controversial groups like the 97th Battalion Netzach Yehuda (“Victory of Judah”), which combines military service with strict observance of halacha (Jewish law). This battalion primarily recruits from the so-called “hilltop youth,” the most extreme fringes of nationalist religious settlers responsible for establishing all illegal outposts and perpetrating numerous attacks on Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. This group is so extreme that, in April last year, the Biden administration targeted it for sanctions under the Leahy Law, which prohibits the US government from providing military aid to groups violating human rights. Nevertheless, these sanctions were later revoked. The Netzach Yehuda Battalion, along with other units primarily composed of Religious Zionists, has been deployed in the ongoing war in Gaza at the group’s request. Their intention is to contribute to the defeat of Hamas and the complete destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure to facilitate the reconstruction of Gush Katif, as publicly declared by the current Minister of Defense, Smotrich, on June 8, 2024. Gush Katif refers to the bloc of settlements evacuated by then Prime Minister Sharon in 2005, predominantly inhabited by religious Zionists. Sharon’s disengagement policy was perceived by the Religious Zionist community as a betrayal, causing a significant internal fracture within Israeli society.

Today, however, the Religious Zionists believe they have the numbers and the opportunity to make their voices heard in the government to rectify past mistakes. This agenda is evident in the support for the “scorched earth” IDF policy in the Gaza Strip by Rabbi Eli Sadan, head of the previously mentioned Bnei David Yeshiva, who revealed the goal to reduce Gaza to rubble for years until most Palestinians would be compelled to emigrate.[5] The hidden autonomous agenda of religious Zionists is also evident from the conference convened in January in Jerusalem on the reconstruction of settlements in Gaza, attended by 11 ministers and 15 deputies, including members of Likud, Netanyahu’s majority party, which relies on the votes of religious Zionists to keep the coalition government in power. Some secular intellectuals in Israel have raised concerns about the growing influence of religious Zionists in key institutions, but the most pressing issue is their deployment in the military.

Yagil Levy, a professor of political sociology at the Open University, recently interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, argues that the increasing weight of religious Zionists in the military has already led to disruptions in the chain of command in Gaza, with ground units not obeying orders from their superiors but acting autonomously. The growing presence of this movement within the army seems to have undermined its internal cohesion and could pose a threat to the IDF efficiency and the execution of orders in the future.[6] This is supported by statistics on soldiers killed in war, which show an increasing proportion of religious Zionists and settlers among the fallen. For example, settlers, despite representing only 5 percent of the general population, account for 16 percent of the fallen. Yair Nehorai, an expert on Jewish fundamentalism interviewed by Dviri, explains well: “For the messianics, their worldview is religious, not rational. For them, war itself – which must absolutely be fought and won even at the cost of hostages’ lives – is part of the Geulah (redemption). (…) Even the massacre of October 7… this would be the punishment for withdrawing from Gaza and dismantling the settlements of Gush Katif. That’s why they want to rebuild them.”

The battle for the soul of Israel, as prophesied by essayist Yuval Noah Harari, dates back to 1967 but has intensified over the past twenty-four years and will surely undergo further dramatic acceleration following the Hamas-Israel conflict. Many religious Zionists argue for a political and social model different from the Western standards upon which Israel’s institutional framework is based. They believe that the era of secularism is over and that it is now their turn to govern the country and steer it in a direction that is as authentically Jewish as possible, parting from the liberal and secular democracy of European origin. An attempt in this direction has already been made with the judicial reform in 2023. This reform aimed to overhaul the liberal structure of Israeli democracy, which is based on the separation of powers and their respective independence, by limiting the powers of the Supreme Court, viewed as a bulwark of liberal values and minority rights. The reform caused a nine-month paralysis in the country, deeply dividing society into two opposing camps, and it has been paused for now, but there plans to bring it back up after the war. With Europe increasingly leaning rightward after the June 2024 elections and the potential for a future Trump presidency in November 2024, the drift towards identity politics in Israel becomes even more likely. This trend is unfolding in a global scenario marked by growing disorder, where many countries seem guided by a narrow interpretation of national interest and are less inclined to adhere to international rules and constraints.

Confronted with Israel’s foreseeable departure from Western values, it is noteworthy to observe that significant fractures exist within the Jewish religious camp itself. For instance, there are wide gaps between the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism), which supported the ceasefire compromise outlined by US President Biden in the interest of saving human lives, and the Religious Zionists of Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who staunchly oppose any compromise with Palestinians. This division is also reflected in the diversity of parties that identify with Religious Zionism as a broad cultural camp, without necessarily adopting its ideology fully, such as Gideon Sa’ar’s Tikva hadasha and even factions within Likud itself. These fractures indicate the possibility of political fragmentation within the conservative front in Israel. Despite leaning overall towards the right compared to the Oslo years and advocating more hawkish, ethnocentric positions opposed to the two-state solution, the Israeli conservative bloc appears at least internally diverse rather than monolithic. This diversity is at least an unequivocal sign that Israel won’t soon evolve into a one-party regime.



[1] See Gershom Gorenberg, Occupied Territories: The Untold Story of Israel’s Settlements, 2008; see also “The Government for Change agenda, June 7, 2021, and

[2] See the current government coalition agreement: January 2023, 2023.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwiLmNydqtiG.

[3] March 16, 2024,

[4] Shalom Hartman Institute, 2008,

[5] The Jerusalem Post, March 15, 2024

[6] See the case of Brig. Gen. Barak Hiram currently under investigation (Ha’aretz, May 31, 2024,


Cover photo: An Israeli wrap himself in the Israeli flag at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate on June 5, 2024, during the so-called Jerusalem Day flag march, which marks the Israeli army’s capture of East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This eastern sector is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, also known to Jews as the Temple Mount. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP.)



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