In May 1990, the Israeli journal Nekudah published an article about possible cooperation between different sectors of Israeli Orthodoxy. The journal was the mouthpiece of the ideological settler movement. The article’s author, Mati Erlichman (1990), called for an alliance between the major camps of religious Jewry in Israel—national-religious Judaism and ultra-Orthodoxy. Both sectors are distinct from one other and differ on a great variety of issues, not least in their relation to Zionism and the Jewish State. Erlichman asked the members of his own camp, national-religious Jews, to overcome their negative views of the ultra-Orthodox as a “group of separatists and parasites.” For years, he claimed, national-religious Jews had attempted to work together with the secular left. But all these efforts had been in vain. The secular left, after all, was bound to undermine religious lifestyles and promoted utterly “un-Jewish” values. “Our real and only allies,” Erlichman argued, “are our ultra-Orthodox brothers.” Over recent years, he said, both camps had undergone considerable transformations and, in the process, drawn nearer to each other. The ultra-Orthodox had softened their separatism, and started to get involved in the political life of Israel. And the national-religious, as well, had experienced a cultural revolution. They had become more religiously grounded and assertive in their attitudes and conduct towards secular society. Now the two camps had to combine forces. “We have to establish deep connections,” he concluded, “to merge what belongs together […] and with the help of God we will rise together.”

Erlichman is a resident of the Jewish settlement Bet-El in the West Bank. The settlement is one of the strongholds of a movement known as Hardal, ultra-Orthodox nationalists. This is a group of national-religious Jews who since the 1980s have adopted many aspects of ultra-Orthodox Jewry (Haredim). This fusion causes great concerns about a fundamentalist assault on the state (Martin 2009). The two big camps of Orthodox Jewry, in this view, could gradually reconcile and work together to transform the Jewish State into a full-blown theocracy. Scholars of Israeli Judaism, as well, have seen in the Hardal movement an indicator of the gradual convergence of the two major religious camps.Footnote 1 Jewish fundamentalism and its gradual “religionization” of Israeli society, some fear, are slowly undermining the country’s democratic foundations.Footnote 2

Underlying such narratives are deep tensions between religious and secular Israelis, who have been struggling to determine the direction of their state over several decades. The Hardalim are a critical development in this kulturkampf and illuminate important aspects of religion in the Jewish State. Yet how helpful is the “fundamentalist” label in understanding this phenomenon?

In public discussions generally, the term is often applied in a sweeping and superficial fashion, and is mostly used by opponents of groups and developments to point at their dangers. This is no different in the Israeli case. At the same time, the concept has generated a substantial scholarly discussion.Footnote 3 Though often criticized, no real alternative has emerged to describe and compare the religious groups under discussion. With this in mind, the following article investigates ultra-Orthodox nationalists in Israel. It begins by tracing the historical development of ultra-Orthodox nationalism in the Jewish State. In a next step, I ask if the concept of fundamentalism as per the definition by the editors of this volume (Pollack, Demmrich and Müller, 2022) can be applied to the group, and in how far the concept can help us to better understand the Israeli phenomenon.

As part of the religious Zionist settlement movement, Hardalim have had a significant impact on the Jewish State, both on its foreign policy and on conflict with the Palestinians, as well as on the development of Israeli society. Yet to date they have merited only limited scholarly attention. Most importantly, Yair Sheleg (2020) has analyzed the phenomenon in a short study for the Israel Democracy Institute.Footnote 4 Partly, this has to do with the fact that Hardalim are not an organized group and lack a clear institutional framework. The term is an acronym of Haredim-Leumim (ultra-Orthodox nationalists). National-religious activists, who feared ultra-Orthodox influences on their own camp, coined the term during the 1980s. Later on, some Hardalim appropriated it as a self-designation (Liebman 1993; Yisraeli 2020).Footnote 5 Hardalim are only loosely connected, and are mainly grouped around several religious academies (yeshivot) and their rabbinic authorities. Based on polls, Tamar Hermann et al. (2014) estimated their numbers in 2014 at approximately 90,000. This is a small minority. However, as many of them are educators and rabbis, ultra-Orthodox nationalists play an important role in the religious Zionist camp (Don-Yehiya 2014; Sheleg 2020). Against this backdrop, the following article aims at contributing to a deeper understanding of this phenomenon.

1 Orthodox milieus in Israel

Religious Jews in Israel today can be divided into two milieus: Ultra-Orthodox and national-religious.Footnote 6 These two camps developed over the first half of the 20th century out of different approaches towards Jewish nationalism, and towards modernity more generally. When Zionism emerged in fin-de-siècle Europe, the great majority of traditionalist Jews opposed this movement for theological reasons and due to its secular character. Out of fears about the influence of secularism, they labored to isolate their communities from other Jews. With the strengthening of Zionism, they organized themselves into the political movement Agudat Yisrael, founded in the Silesian town of Kattowitz (today’s Katowice) in 1912. When Jews in British Mandate Palestine started establishing political frameworks, Agudat Yisrael became active in this area as well. Under its umbrella, religious activists created structures and frameworks that helped to foster and shape a non-Zionist Orthodox milieu: ultra-Orthodoxy or Haredi Judaism (Bacon 1996; Friedman 1991; Mahla 2020; Mittleman 1996).

A minority among traditionalist Jews, however, supported Zionism. Early on, these activists split from the main movement and established their own religious Zionist wing, Mizrahi, in the city of Vilna (Vilnius) in 1902. Mizrahi, too, was much more than a political party, but actively socially and religiously. Its adherents and leaders built up a great variety of institutions that would help form the national-religious milieu. Mizrahists actively embraced many aspects of modernity and aimed at integrating secular knowledge into their schools and academies. Politically, the movement was moderate, and from the 1930s onwards its leaders worked closely together with the dominant Labor Party, which would govern the Jewish State for the first three decades of its existence. Theologically, Mizrahists by and large abstained from overt messianic expressions. The creation of a Jewish State was largely seen as political solution or “safe haven” for European Jewry, rather than the fulfilment of eschatological aspirations (Luz, 1988; Mahla 2017; Schwartz 2009).

The ultra-Orthodox and national-religious milieus came to full fruition in 1950s Israel, where their adherents lived in different neighborhoods, went to different schools and academies, and differed widely in their garb, habitus and socio-economic standings. In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox, national-religious Jews actively participated in Israeli society and politics, for instance enlisting in the country’s army. Yet while their intention had been to create a new elite, religious Zionists in many ways felt inferior to both secular society and the ultra-Orthodox. In the words of Michael Feige (2009): “Between the secular pioneers, on the one hand, and the ultra-Orthodox, on the other, young religious Zionists felt second at best: they were neither the vanguard of the nation nor the paradigm of religious commitment.” Despite the achievement of their movement’s goal, the foundation of a Jewish State, after 1948 national-religious Jews struggled to find their place in the nascent Israeli society.

2 The ideological settler movement Gush Emunim

This reality changed radically after 1967. In June of that year, Israel entered a third war with its Arab neighbors. Israel’s overwhelming military victory and the conquest of large parts of its neighbors’ territories in the Six-Day War transformed state and society so radically that some historians speak of the war as “Israel’s second birth” (Segev 2007). One of the significant changes was the strengthening of religious stakeholders and outlooks. The conquering of the Jordanian-controlled West Bank triggered religious enthusiasm among Jews around the world. Israelis now controlled the historical heartlands of the ancient Israelite states. Under the authority of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, a group of activists started settling in the newly conquered territories. Over the following decades, the ideological settlement movement that was formally established under the name Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) in 1974 after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, would become the dominant voice among national-religious Jews. In contrast to the religious Zionism of earlier days, the movement displayed an aggressive nationalist agenda and engaged in assertive political activism. Gush Emunim activists came to see themselves as true heirs of Zionism in a period in which many Israelis had abandoned the pioneering spirit of the early days. Most importantly, religious Zionists now embraced a fierce messianism, which sacralized the modern Israeli state and ascribed a central eschatological significance to the settling of Judea and Samaria—that is, the West Bank (Aran 2013; Don-Yehiya 1987, 2014; Feige 2009; Lustick 1988; Newman 1985; Zertal and Eldar 2007). The modern Israeli state, Kook proclaimed in a characteristic statement, is “the fulfillment of the biblical vision of redemption.”Footnote 7

The ideology of Gush Emunim was based on the teachings of Kook’s father, Abraham Isaak, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Kook, the father, had been one of the few rabbinic authorities, who endorsed Zionism already during the first decades of the twentieth century. To justify cooperation with a predominantly secular movement, Kook had developed a theology, according to which Zionist activists fulfilled a divine plan, despite their secularism (Mirsky 2014; Schwartz 2009). Over time, he was convinced, they would see the light and return to religious lifestyles. His son popularized this philosophy, which not only became the driving force of the settler movement, but also turned into a central pillar of the national-religious weltanschauung more broadly. The sociologist Gideon Aran has coined the term Kookism for this ideology, in which modern nationalism is not seen as different from religion, but as an integral part of it. In the words of Aran (1986), “religious Zionism” turned into the “Zionist religion.”

Subsequently, Gush Emunim became a central force in Israeli politics and society. Its adherents managed not only to become the dominant voice in the national-religious milieu, but also to place lobbyists in key political positions and to legitimize the settlement project far beyond circles of religious Zionists. With today about 800,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line, (the Armistice border of 1949), the settlement efforts on the ground have been highly successful.Footnote 8

Yet while the settlers have become an influential force in the state, Gush Emunim ceased to exist as organized movement. This development has several reasons: Due to its success, the settlement enterprise soon attracted a highly diverse population (Hirsch-Hoefler and Mudde 2020). In consequence, many different organizations emerged that advance the interests of the Jewish population in the West Bank. Large numbers of new settlers, indeed, did not necessarily subscribe to the Kookist ideology of the movement’s founders. Some were secular, others ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some supported the occupation of the West Bank out of political or security considerations, others moved to settlements for socio-economic reasons. What is more, despite their progress in creating facts on the ground, the adherents of Gush Emunim did not succeed to convince the wider Israeli public of the central eschatological significance of their project—they failed “to settle the hearts,” as one activist famously put it (Feige 2009; Newman 2005; Zertal and Eldar 2007). This failure engendered anxieties about Israeli ceding of territories, and the possible dismantling of settlements, in the context of peace negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbors. In this regard, the movement faced three major challenges over the next decades. In 1982, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of a peace agreement signed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar as-Sadat on March 26, 1979. During the 1990s, the government of Yitzhak Rabin entered negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The Oslo Accords of 1993, signed by Rabin and the chairperson of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, aimed at creating a Palestinian state on large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A third challenge came with the dismantling of all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005 under the aegis of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Finally, over the years many religious settlers toned down their ideological fervor. Rather than engaging in religio-political activism, great parts of the national-religious camp focused on their socio-economic situation and private lives. The emergence of a strong religious Zionist middle class, as Nissim Leon (2010) has shown, helped to mitigate revolutionary messianic radicalism. While most national-religious Jews still strongly support the political right and oppose the ceding of territories, they do not necessarily justify such stances with religious arguments (Hermann et al. 2014). This worldview allowed for the compartmentalization of different realms and hence the separation of religious and national elements of Judaism. Or as Tomer Persico (2017) put it: “The Zionist religion reverts to being religious Zionism—namely, an approach that identifies the state with national Judaism, and religion with halakhic Judaism.”

3 The emergence of ultra-Orthodox nationalism

The demise of Gush Emunim led to the emergence of different groups and approaches, and a fragmentation of the national religious milieu. While part of the camp worked on carrying their messages to the wider Israeli public, others focused their efforts on education and opted for a temporal withdrawal from political activism. In this context, it is important to point out that the transformation of religious Zionism in the aftermath of the Six-Day-War was not confined to settlement activities. Adherents also strove to implement stricter religious standards among religious Zionists. To do so, they founded schools during the 1970s that placed religious studies at the center of their curricula. These institutions also separated boys and girls from an early stage, and concomitantly stressed the difference between men and women in opposition to the gradual advancement in gender equality in Israeli society. After some time, the strict religious adherence and separation of the sexes, promoted by these institutions, spilled over to mainstream religious Zionist schools. Hardalim and their approaches came to dominate the state-religious education system over the next two decades. Sheleg (2020) sees in these developments the beginnings of the movement.

Politically, the settlement movement experienced a great trauma with the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. The awareness that the movement had not succeeded in “settling the hearts” led to a wide education campaign in the context of which the network of yeshivot and seminars was greatly extended. Rather than convincing the public through political activism, leaders like Rabbi Zvi Tau believed in the intensification of religious education. The institutions they founded focused on strict religious observance and standards. Accordingly, Hellinger et al. (2018) locate the beginning of Hardal in the aftermath of the return of the Sinai Peninsula.

In the 1990s, however, the religious Zionist camp underwent further changes. In the context of the Oslo Peace Process, two gruesome terror acts perpetrated by men influenced by the Kookist ideology, shocked Israeli society and challenged religious Zionists to reexamine their approaches. On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Jewish settlement Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Hebron entered the mosque located next to the Cave of Patriarchs and opened fire, killing 29 and wounding 125 worshippers. A year and a half later, Yigal Amir, a student of the national-religious Bar Ilan University, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin due to the Prime Minister’s leading role in the peace process, and his willingness to cede from large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the months before the murder, national religious authorities had openly incited the masses against the Prime Minister. The violence led to a critical re-evaluation of Kookism among parts of the camp (Inbari 2012; Sprinzak 2001).

What is more, during the late 1990s groups promoting liberal values—such as gender equality or the acceptance of the LGBT community—became active among modern Orthodox Jews in Israel, and soon turned into an important force. By way of example, organizations like the feminist Kolech (“Your Voice,” founded in 1988) worked to advance the status and rights of religious women. One the leading religious Zionist institutions of higher learning, Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in the West Bank settlement Alon Shvut, opened a seminary for women in 1997 (Ziegler 2010).

Politically, it was Naftali Bennett, who came to personate these processes most pointedly. In 2012, the former IT entrepreneur took on the leadership of The Jewish Home (Ha-Bayt Ha-Yehudi), a merger of the National Religious Party and other right-wing parties. Under Bennet’s leadership, The Jewish Home gathered right-wing activists, both religious and secular, who strongly opposed the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state (Cohen 2015; Roth 2015). As part of this process, national-religious activists toned down their messianic rhetoric regarding the occupied territories. Beyond such theological questions, Naftali Bennett epitomizes a wider opening up of religious Zionists towards secular society and its values. He himself does not live in a religiously homogenous settlement, but in the mixed city of Raanana in central Israel. He has worked closely together with the centrist Yesh Atid party in several instances, among other issues on ending the exemption of ultra-Orthodox students from being drafted into the Israeli army (Peters 2013). Furthermore, in stark contrast to religiously conservative parties, women figured prominently in The Jewish Home with the secular Ayelet Shaked as close ally of Bennett.Footnote 9 In addition, Bennett and other leaders of this camp have also exhibited some tolerance towards the country’s prominent LGBT community.Footnote 10 In June 2021, Bennett went even so far as to form a government not only in cooperation with his secular ally Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid, but also with left-wing secularists and the Islamic Ra’am party. This decision led to harsh attacks from many elements of Israel’s religious establishment (Sokol 2021).

The adherents of the Kookist ideology saw themselves forced to grapple with these societal developments. These leaders kept to their ideological positions, and confronted with the liberal tendencies in their camp, further honed their approaches. They strengthened the focus on religious studies up to the point that they rejected the teaching of “foreign knowledge,” that is some form of core, secular subjects. In this regard, these yeshivot more and more resembled ultra-Orthodox institutions. The religious, cultural and social changes promoted by such institutions, fostered a greater distance not only towards Israeli society as a whole, but also towards the more moderate religious parts of the national-religious camp. Against this backdrop, Anshel Pfeffer (2007) sees in the late 1990s an important period for the crystallization of the Hardalim as distinct group.

Finally, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was an important watershed moment for the movement as it made abundantly clear that religious Zionists had still not succeeded in “settling the hearts” of the wider Israeli public. While some of the settlers from Gaza moved to the West Bank and worked to strengthen their movement there, others within the camp changed the focus of their activism, and invested their energy to strengthen their religious values within Israeli society (Ferziger 2008).

The center of the Hardal approach became the settlement movement’s flagship institution Merkaz Harav. During this period, Rabbi Avraham Shapira was the dean of Merkaz Harav. He had succeeded Zvi Yehuda Kook after the latter’s death in 1982. Shapira, who served as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1983–1993, was an influential figure. Yet due to rivalries and harsh discussions about plans to integrate a teaching institute (and hence to include academic “non-Jewish” pedagogical education in the curriculum), Rabbi Zvi Thau left the yeshiva. Thau had been the leading disciple of Zvi Yehuda Kook. Together with six other senior lecturers and many students, who also left Merkaz Harav, he founded Har Hamor (an acronym for “Successor to Mercaz HaRav”) (Dombrowsky 2012; Fuchs 2016; Rosen-Zvi 2003).

Today these two institutions and some affiliated yeshivot can be considered the core of the Hardal approach. As pointed out in the beginning, their numbers are small. 90,000 Israelis identified as Hardalim in 2009. These were only about 12% of the Israelis, who counted themselves to the national-religious camp. In contrast, 24% described themselves as liberal or modern Orthodox, thus stressing a greater religious openness. The great majority preferred simply the label national-religious (63%), and in questions such as the subject of women’s status fell somewhere between Hardalim and the liberal or modern Orthodox (Hermann et al. 2014). However, while their students and adherents are a minority in the religious Zionist camp, Hardalim take up important positions in Israel’s national-religious establishment. As rabbis and educators they exert influence much greater than their actual numbers would suggest (Don-Yehiya 2014; Sheleg 2020).

4 Fundamentalist features

Taking the history and characteristic of Hardal into account, the question arises as to whether or not they can be adequately described as fundamentalists. Pollack, Demmrich and Müller (2022) define fundamentalism “as an attitude characterized by four components: the claim to exclusive truth (1), the claim to superiority over all other positions (2), the claim to the universal validity of exclusive truth (3), and the demand to restore the unadulterated, submerged past by radically changing the present (4).”

Hardalim certainly believe to hold the only valid, exclusive truth (1), which they take to be superior to any other position (2). On the educational plane, such tendencies are expressed in the resistance to the study of secular topics. Hardalim strongly focus on the study of Jewish knowledge as interpreted by their own authorities. The dispute over the inclusion of a teaching seminary at Merkaz Harav highlights the rigidity of such creeds. After all, the inclusion of pedagogic studies into the curriculum did not aim to advance the study of “foreign” knowledge in its own right, but merely to help the students earning a degree that would allow them to teach at Israeli schools.

On the political plane, by sanctifying the State of Israel and declaring the settling of the whole Land of Israel a halakhic commandment, Hardal authorities do not leave any leeway for the validity of other approaches. If the ceding of land becomes a transgression of religious law, none of their followers can agree to such a term. This attitude distinguishes them from other parts of the religious Zionist camp, which do not justify their rejection of territorial concessions based on religious law, but in terms of political or security considerations (Pfeffer 2007; Sheleg 2020). The latter’s’ opposition to compromise with the Palestinians might be harsh and decisive, but in contrast to divine decrees can be mitigated under certain circumstances. In this vein, Hermann et al. (2014) found that when forced to choose between Israeli sovereignty over all parts of the Land of Israel and the preservation of a Jewish majority in the State of Israel, most national-religious Jews opted for the latter. Accordingly, in 1998 the National-Religious Party continued to back the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in spite of his decision to sign the Wye River Memorandum, in which Israel agreed to further withdrawals from the West Bank as part of the Oslo Peace Process. Concurrently, Hardal politicians Hanan Porat and Zvi Hendel left the National-Religious Party. The politicians founded Tkuma (“Revival”), which in the coming years cooperated with various far right and religious parties. Since 2019, Bezalel Smotrich heads the party that after a merger with two other parties now is named “Religious Zionism” (Ha-Tsiyonut ha-Datit). Smotrich calls himself a “proud homophobe” and is known for his hard-liner and racist positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians (Pilegi 2015). The controversial politician caused a stir in January 2019, when he told the Israeli radio that he was seeking to become Minister of Justice “in order to restore our judges of old, to restore Torah law to the Jewish State” (Sharon 2019).

Smotrich’s call for the restoration of religious law draws attention to a further characteristic of the Hardal movement. Tkuma distinguishes itself from other religious Zionist parties through a rabbinic council that advises its politicians. While in the past, attempts had been made to have rabbinic oversight of religious Zionist parties, these were not successful. To the contrary, national-religious politicians actively challenged rabbinical involvement in Israeli politics (Mahla 2020). Tkuma’s rabbinic council not only blurs the lines between national-religious and ultra-Orthodox approaches, but also highlights the influence of religious leaders. Such rabbinic councils are based on notions of heightened rabbinic authority that developed in the first half of the 20th century. In this period, ultra-Orthodox Jews credited charismatic rabbinic leaders with extensive jurisdiction, reaching far beyond the ritual sphere of the synagogue or religious academy. They did not only start to consult rabbinic leaders on personal questions and life decisions, but also followed their directives in political matters. Correspondingly, ultra-Orthodox politicians themselves do not perceive of themselves as independent leaders, but only as worldly representatives of the rabbinic elite. In stark contrast to traditional Judaism, these authorities do not have to reveal the textual sources on which they base their decisions—according to the underlying doctrine of Daat Torah (“Torah wisdom”)—thus rendering any objection impossible (Bacon 1996; Brown 2005; Kaplan 1992). In this sense, these authorities maintain “a special relationship with the deity,” and enjoy “universally valid access to all things in the world” (3) (Pollack, Demmrich and Müller, 2022). While not subscribing to such doctrines to the same extent as their ultra-Orthodox brethren, Hardalim to a large degree adhere to Daat Torah, especially on political and national questions.Footnote 11

The doctrine of Daat Torah is a radical break with past modes of Jewish tradition. This holds true also for Zionist settlement activism, as well. Kookism, indeed, turned classic Jewish messianic beliefs on their head. In traditional views, only the messiah could (re-)establish a Jewish state. For this to happen, Jews had to repent and live pious lives. Kookism, in contrast, proclaims the the modern secular state to be holy, and argues that human activism plays a central role in the eschatological process (Ravitzky 1996). At the same time, Hardalim do not perceive of such transformations as radical break with Jewish tradition, but to the contrary see themselves as pursuing age-old divine plans. In this context, Smotrich’s phrasing in the aforementioned quote is instructive. The demand “to restore our judges of old” is taken from Jewish scripture and closely resembles the wording of eschatological hopes in one of the central prayers in the traditional daily liturgy. The second part of his statement, “to restore Torah law to the Jewish State,” reifies such lofty messianic hopes, and connects them to the modern polity. Smotrich continued: “The State of Israel, the country of the Jewish people, with God willing, will go back to operating as it did in the days of King David and King Solomon” (Haaretz 2019). Under public pressure, Smotrich later slightly modified his statement, claiming that his hope was a state governed by Jewish law, but that this was to “happen only when the Jewish people want it—not when I want it or you want it, but when the Jewish people want it” (Sharon 2019). While exclaiming that he did not intend to force a theocracy on Israelis against their will, he did not backtrack on his overall vision of restoring a mythical ancient Israelite state.

Hardalim, hence, “demand to restore the unadulterated, submerged past,” as per the editors’ definition of fundamentalism. Not only do they intend to follow the practice of the past themselves, but work to implement such a reality in the Jewish state, “by radically changing the present.” (4) (Pollack, Demmrich and Müller, 2022). The settling of the core areas of the ancient Israelite states in Judea and Samaria is certainly the most glaring expression of such intentions. While Hardalim strongly emphasize religious studies and at times display a tendency to abstain from political activism, such withdrawal from engagement with Israeli society is not an end in itself, but intended only as temporary step.Footnote 12 The aim is to build up a new elite that will eventually be strong enough to influence all sectors of Israel’s Jewish society.

In the last years, indeed, Hardalim have become active in additional areas of Israeli life (Sheleg 2020). Many serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), and over the years have become increasingly assertive in their demands regarding the observance of religious rights. These demands do not only pertain to individuals, but change the face of the IDF, for example through the formation of special units for religious male soldiers, or protests against the performance of female singers at army celebrations. While rabbinic figures like Zvi Thau encourage religious men to serve in the army, they also attack the IDF harshly and attempt to influence its outlook. In January 2017, for example, Thau made headlines, when he claimed that the army had “lost its humanity” and led a culture war against religious soldiers. “The army has a goal,” he claimed “—to make you secular, so you’ll be swallowed up by the culture. The army doesn’t want you to grow beards. Soon they’ll tell you, “you can’t come in with a knitted kipa. Be religious, but what do you need that rag on your head for?”” (Ettinger 2017). Thau’s fierce outcry also makes clear that rather than acting out of a position of strength, Hardalim see their values and life-styles under attack (Sheleg 2020).

During the late 1990s, activists started a new form of settlement activism, under the name “Torah Nucleus Movement” (Garin Torani). Instead of settling in the West Bank, they came to neighborhoods with low religious population, or mixed Jewish-Arab cities within the Green Line. “The Torah Nucleus movement,” journalist Isabel Kershner summarized their mission, “set out with an ideological mission to alter the balance of Israeli cities and promote its brand of Judaism inside the country” (Kershner 2021).Footnote 13 The Torah Nucleus movement gained traction after 2005, and illustrates the change in focus from settlement efforts to activism that aims to influence Israeli society.

An additional example of Hardal activism is their struggle against the secular and liberal outlook of Israeli courts and attempts to diminish the influence of the Supreme Court. In this context, as well, Smotrich is an important figure. Among other things, he has proposed legislation, which aimed to strengthen the position of the Israeli parliament vis-à-vis the Supreme Court (Harkov 2019).Footnote 14 In these and other ways, Hardalim actively “strive for the transformation of the world, for radical and comprehensive social change.” (Pollack, Demmrich and Müller, 2022)Footnote 15

Finally, the definition helps distinguishing Hardalim from their ultra-Orthodox brethren. The latter fulfil the first three criteria of fundamentalism, as they believe to hold on to an exclusive truth, which is superior to all other positions. The notion of Daat Torah, developed by ultra-Orthodox authorities and widely prevalent in this world, highlights such tendencies. Yet they do not actively work to change the basic character of the state, and to make their own standards the yardstick for others. To be sure, since the 1970s, ultra-Orthodox leaders have become much more active in Israeli politics, assertively pursuing their demands. This also affects the outlook of the state in many ways and spurs the aforementioned anxieties about the “religionizatiation” of Israeli society. By way of example, secular and national-religious Israelis fear the “Haredization” of cities like Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, by which they mean the gradual change of individual neighbourhoods through the increasing demographic dominance of ultra-Orthodox Jews in these areas. Subsequently, other populations leave, as they see their personal freedom circumscribed by new societal standards (Wagner 2007). Yet while growing in numbers and becoming more powerful, the ultra-Orthodox mostly do not aim at changing the outlook of Israeli society at large. What is more, as Lustick (1988) has argued, whom the editors invoke in this context, “they tend to not regard macropolitical issues, including territorial questions, as matters of great consequence”. The great majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews accepted the establishment of Israel, but did so by developing a theology that decoupled the state from any eschatological significance (Caplan 2017; Ravitzky 1996). While increasingly backing right wing parties, and uncompromising attitudes towards the Palestinians, there is little indication that ultra-Orthodox authorities or the milieu as a whole have embraced the political messianism of their national-religious counterparts.

In sum, ultra-Orthodox nationalists in Israel meet all the criteria of the editors’ definition of fundamentalism. Applying the concept to the movement helps to highlight some of its core characteristics, and to thus to differentiate it from other groups within the religious Zionist milieu as well as from traditionalist Judaism. Furthermore, the notion establishes useful parameters to compare Hardalim with fundamentalist groupings in other religions and cultures, and thus to integrate them into global contexts and developments.

5 Dynamic fundamentalism

At the same time, when focusing merely on the fundamentalist character of the Hardal phenomenon, we risk losing sight of important aspects and dynamics. Fundamentalist movements in many ways constitute radically new forms of religious organization. Yet they often bring tensions to the fore, with which already their predecessors grappled. Scholars mostly do not classify early religious Zionists as fundamentalists, and contrast Mizrahi with its successors from the ideological settlement movement. Without question, religious Zionism radically changed its outlook during the 1960s and 1970s. Against this backdrop, Lustick (1988) in his pioneering study on Gush Emunim dedicated a single page to religious Zionism before the 1960s, while claiming much stronger connections to ancient Jewish fundamentalism. During this period, he argues, religious Zionists overall displayed pragmatic attitudes towards modern nationalism. Mizrahists indeed proofed flexibility in various regards, for example when they gradually accepted the fact that the modern State of Israel would not be established on the whole territory of the Land of Israel (Galnoor 1995). Religious Zionism, however, was never “tolerant” in the sense that its adherents fully accepted secularism as valid alternative to their own belief system. Mizrahists perceived their movement as the perfect synthesis of Orthodox traditionalism and modern nationalist activism, and one of their aims was to bring their secular partners closer to religion. Mizrahi, one activist opined in 1909, incorporates “the spiritual-religious foundation of extremist Orthodoxy—which is passive from a national standpoint—with the national-political principles of secular Zionism—which is passive from a Jewish standpoint—into a single bloc of active Judaism.”Footnote 16 From the beginning, Mizrahists saw important religious aspects in settling the Land of Israel and building a Jewish State. The fact that this project was advanced mainly by secular activists posed a great challenge to religious thinkers. Even before Avraham Kooks mystic teachings became the overarching ideology of the camp, religious Zionists tended to believe that secularist Jews would eventually repent. Such convictions allowed Mizrahi supporters to deflect criticism from Orthodox circles of their cooperation with non-observant Jews and to overlook their own ambivalent attitudes toward participation in the building of a secular state. Against this backdrop, Moshe Hellinger (2003) attested religious Zionism in the first half of the twentieth century a remarkable “tendency to disregard, or underestimate, the autonomous existence of secular Jews.” Among other things, it was the resilience of this secularism that caused the crisis among religious Zionists in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as that of Gush Emunim in the 1980s. Political pragmatism, in this regard, only masked beliefs already dormant in the movement. In a similar vein, Alexander Kaye (2020) has called attention to debates about a halakhic state in early religious Zionism and highlighted the ways in which thinkers of the first half of the 20th century helped lay the ground for the debates of the late 20th early 21st centuries.

These historical contexts and continuities shaped the movement in important ways. As did crisis and political changes. Hardal emerged out of the demise of Gush Emunim, and honed its approaches against the background of gravely changing political and societal environments. At times, crisis and challenges can force fundamentalist movements to adapt and alter even some of their basic beliefs. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 is an instructive example. The decision to dismantle all settlements in the area caused bitter debates among Hardalim, as it confronted them with a difficult dilemma: Could a state that was willing to cede parts of the Land of Israel still be sacred? (Inbari 2012; Sheleg 2020). Faced with this dilemma, the two leading centers of the movement drew divergent conclusions. Zvi Thau at Har Homa kept stressing the mystic redemptive process, in which even secular Jews become instruments of the divine. Therefore, while he allowed his students to protest the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip, he prohibited illegal or forceful means of resistance against the army. “There is no mandate for five thousand people,” he had uttered a similar position on active resistance against the withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, “to coerce the Jewish people, to revolt against the spirit of the nation and to erase which was done publicly—this is a revolt against the Kingship of God.”Footnote 17 Avraham Shapira at Merkaz Harav, on the other hand, focused on the land and its religious significance. A government that withdrew from territories, in his view transgressed religious law and had to be strictly opposed. Consequently, Shapira called on his students to actively resist the evacuations executed by a secular government. While not supporting violence, he prompted soldiers to disobey orders and warned them not to assist in “any manner the expulsion of Jews from their homes.” “An order to take part in the evacuation of Jews from their homes in order to give over the land to non-Jews,” he stressed, “is an order that is against the religion of our holy Torah and forbidden to fulfil” (Shapira and Lichtenstein 2007). Thau’s and Shapira’s diverging decisions had to do with differences in their emphasis of individual tenets (Don-Yehiya 2014; Sheleg 2020). While Thau opted to attenuate the prohibition to withdraw from any part of the Land of Israel, Shapira diminished his insistence of the sacredness of the state and its institutions. Faced with adverse realities, these leaders had to privilege one of their values, and in consequence to compromise the other.

The diverging stances of Rabbis Thau and Shapira highlight the fact that even seemingly immutable beliefs can be altered under certain circumstances. In our analysis of such groups, hence, we have to pay close attention not only to their fundamentalist features, but also to their dynamics with other actors and groups. Pollack, Demmrich and Müller (2022) point to this when they demand to “identify the specific way in which fundamentalist religiosity operates.” The beliefs in absolute truths, they argue, “can be used to determine who belongs to a particular group, and who does not.” Hardalim in many ways foster boundaries between themselves and other parts of their milieu. This is also one of the functions of their instance on absolute and unquestionable truths. In this vein, when calling himself a “proud homophobe” (Pilegi 2015), Smotrich does not express his opposition to concrete policies, but uses a polarizing label that serves to mark clear boundaries between him and his adherents on the one hand, and liberal society on the other. In this sense, such statements not only express an absolute and unquestionable religious credo, but also function as identity markers as pointed out in the introduction of the editors.

Of equal importance for our understanding of Hardalim are their dynamics with ultra-Orthodox Jews. In many ways they resemble the latter. Yet despite the aforementioned predictions of a convergence of the two Orthodox camps, actual cooperation between Hardalim and their ultra-Orthodox brethren has stayed limited. While at times cooperating in specific issues pertaining to religious life, serious political alliances have not emerged. The parliamentary elections of 1999 saw a short-lived cooperation with Agudat Yisrael, and in some of the movement’s centers, ultra-Orthodox parties can enjoy high election results (Pfeffer 2007). In the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, several rabbinic leaders called on their adherents to “disengage from the state” and to enter an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox. When Naftali Bennett headed The Jewish Home, Zvi Thau asked his followers to vote for the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party (Sheleg 2020). Yet such initiatives were short-lived and highly controversial. They did not lead to lasting partnerships.

In addition to continuing ideological differences, this failure to cooperate also has to do with long-standing dynamics between the groups. As mentioned before, after the foundation of the state, many religious Zionists felt inferior to their ultra-Orthodox brethren due to the compromises they had made with secular society. Ultra-Orthodox authorities stoked up such perceptions by berating national-religious as “mediocre Jews,” who did not take religion seriously.Footnote 18 Hardalim can be read as reaction so such accusations, proving that the national-religious camp took religious precepts as seriously as the ultra-Orthodox, and at the same time establishing its own rabbinic authorities. In this vein, Rabbi Zalman Melamed, head of a yeshiva in the settlement of Bet-El, during the 1980s entreated the national-religious camp to educate its own Torah sages in order “not to leave Torah study in the hands of those who are indifferent to or deny God’s salvation.”Footnote 19 This indifference to or denial of God’s salvation is, of course, an allusion to the ultra-Orthodox refusal to grant the modern State of Israel any role in the redemptive process. While Melamed imagined nationalist rabbis adopting roles similar to those they play in the ultra-Orthodox world, his goal was not rapprochement, but rather reducing the influence of ultra-Orthodox authorities. Hardalim, hence, have adopted certain elements of ultra-Orthodox culture, as well as some of their techniques, but—ironically—use these precisely to counter the influence of the latter over its own milieu.

Even calls for unity, such as the appeal by Mati Erlichman (1990) cited at the beginning of this article, point in a similar direction. Erlichman demanded that national-religious and ultra-Orthodox leaders meet and consider modes of cooperation. Yet he was not advocating an open-ended process with the possibility of compromise on core elements of the national-religious ideology. On the contrary, Erlichman intended to actively influence ultra-Orthodox Jews by way of such cooperation. That is, he hoped that the ultra-Orthodox would drop their resistance to Zionism and be converted to a national-religious worldview. “There is no religious Jew,” Erlichman stressed in support of such hopes, “who does not acknowledge the sanctity of the Land of Israel.” He saw a positive sign in the fact that the ultra-Orthodox had begun to actively engage in Israeli politics. “And [an action] not done for its own sake will eventually become [an action] done for its own sake—even if the road is long.” With these lines, Erlichman cited a well-known passage from the Talmud (Pesachim 50b), which argues that Jews should be commended for carrying out religious commandments, even if they have ulterior motives for doing so. Eventually, the Talmud states, these actions lead to a greater understanding and to the performance of such duties for their own sake. While the ultra-Orthodox were not yet on the right path, Erlichman implied, their political activism would eventually lead them to change their attitudes toward the Jewish State.

Finally, national-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel also compete politically, and such relations have to be taken into account. In this vein, two years later a further article about Orthodox cooperation appeared in Nekudah. Its author, Hagai Ben-Artzi (1992), expressed a similar hope to Erlichman, that cooperation between the two camps would gradually draw the ultra-Orthodox nearer to Zionist tenets. Yet Ben-Artzi raised an additional issue. He asserted that the most critical goal of an alliance between the two camps was to prevent cooperation between the ultra-Orthodox and “the left and the labor party.” In Israel, “the left” stands for territorial compromise with the Palestinians in the context of a two-state solution. In the early 1990s, high-ranking Israeli diplomats were indeed in negotiations with various Arab states and leaders with the aim of agreeing peace accords. Ben-Artzi was apparently afraid that the more flexible ultra-Orthodox stance on territorial compromise would lead them to cooperate with liberal Zionists in the latter’s quest for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which would result in a large-scale dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He therefore proposed entering an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox for strongly political reasons, that is, to prevent the latter’s political alliance with liberal Zionism and its disastrous consequences from the settlers’ point of view. Ben-Artzi’s call for unity thus did not point to ideological convergence between the Orthodox camps, but rather to the lasting importance of their ideological division and political competition.

5.1 Conclusion

In November 2020, an opinion piece appeared in the American-Jewish Forward commemorating the 25th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a national-religious extremist. Its author, Eran Baruch (2020), is a social-political activist, who works to defend Israel against religious extremism by fostering an education that combines Jewish religious tradition with liberal and democratic values. In the piece, Baruch alerted his readers to the ongoing threat of the Israeli state. “Twenty-five years have passed,” he wrote, “and Israeli democracy is in an existential crisis and its biggest problem is religious fundamentalism.” Since Rabin’s assassination, Baruch argued, the threat had only intensified. The Jewish democratic state, he claimed alarmingly, was under a severe attack by the joined forces of ultra-Orthodox and national-religious extremists.

Over recent decades, Israel has witnessed a harsh kulturkampf between secular and religious forces. As more and more national-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews reject democracy as a concept foreign to their tradition, secular and moderate religious Israelis are concerned about the outlook and future of their state. Seen from this perspective, the fusion of ultra-Orthodox stringencies and approaches with national-religious messianism by Hardalim is a worrying phenomenon.

And yet, as I have argued throughout this article, the movement is not an indicator for an increasing convergence of the national-religious milieus. Hardalim are deeply seated within the religious Zionist milieu and in close conversation with their camp. This distinguishes them from fringe ultra-Orthodox groups, who have started to participate in settlement activism, such as Chabad-Lubavitch or Breslov Hasidism. While the movement has adopted important ultra-Orthodox values, such as the centrality of Jewish law and the study of religious texts, as well as heightened notions of rabbinic authority, significant operational and ideological differences between the groups remain. The concept of fundamentalism as defined by the editors to this volume helps to carve out both similarities and differences to ultra-Orthodoxy, as well as to distinguish Hardalim from other groups within their own milieu. At the same time, the focus on such fundamentalist characteristics should not lead us to disregard continuities and similarities with other “non-fundamentalist” groups, as well as the dynamics that shape and change such fundamentalist groups, at times even affecting and transforming some of the truths and values held to be absolute and unchangeable.

To be sure, this does not mean that liberal Israelis like Baruch should not take seriously the threat of fundamentalist forces to their democracy. Such challenges, however, might not only emanate from the strengthening of anti-liberal attitudes among religious groups. Sheleg (2020), indeed, sees a greater danger in the fields, in which Hardal interests converge with those of the secular Israeli right and in the strengthening of anti-democratic tendencies through attacks on Israeli courts or active resistance against the dismantlement of settlements. In order to gain a deeper grasp of this danger, hence, we have to carefully trace the interrelations and interactions of Hardalim with other groups in Israeli society, and take into account that fundamentalist groups are highly dynamic phenomena that adapt and transform according to changing social and political realities.